Disordered Eating: Reframing The Discussion, Part 2: The Power of Self-Talk

College girl smiling into the camera

Tips for Eating Disorder Recovery

After recognizing the broad spectrum of disordered eating, we’re now going to explore some of the tips that are most often mentioned by our community members and professionals as effective tools for managing an eating disorder. The first tip is a concept called Self-Talk.

Self-Talk: Thoughts Become Things

Self Talk plays a pivotal role in our relationship with ourselves. It can either be a valuable tool for recovery, or it can feed into disordered eating behaviors. The good news is that you are totally in control of the thoughts you choose to hold and focus on. I’ve often heard this helpful phrase, ‘Thoughts become things, so make sure you choose good ones’.

So, along those lines, one of the most crucial skills necessary to recover from an eating disorder is to develop a relentlessly nurturing, comforting, supportive and loving inner dialogue with yourself. This dialogue needs to replace the often constant barrage of eating disorder thoughts that are critical, self-deprecating and dishonoring of your individuality, beauty, and substance.

Many individuals may not even be aware of their own inner dialogue and the chronic nature of negative eating disorder thoughts, as this becomes a “normalcy” in everyday life that one might become accustomed to. However, the first step toward changing and challenging this is to become aware of negative thoughts as they arise and discern what may have triggered these thoughts or where negative self-talk may be stemmed from.

The Negative Inner Dialogue We Suffer From

Girl thinking about self-talkAs a therapist and as the founder of Eating Disorder Hope, I have yet to meet a single person struggling with disordered eating who did not regularly carry on a negative inner dialogue with themselves. Unfortunately, this leads to depression, hopelessness, despair, and inevitably feeds into the eating disordered patterns of the sufferer.

So how do we address this? I find it helpful to write down negative thoughts, evaluate where they may be illogical or irrational, and then rewrite the thought in a more positive, optimistic and rational light. Here is an example:

Negative Inner Dialogue

“I will never get over my eating disorder. I have tried and failed a million times before. I am hopeless.” (a negative thought that ran through my head for years before recovery)

In this thought, I am assuming that I am a fortune teller and that I can predict and know the future. I am also assuming that because I have failed before, I will always fail. To say I am hopeless would be to deny that each new day is a fresh start and that there is an all-powerful and loving God who wants to help me.

Further, I can think of past successes that further negate this thought. (evaluation of the thinking errors in my prior negative thought)

Positive Self Talk

“Yes, I have struggled with my eating disorder for years, but much living remains ahead of me. I have learned things about what works and doesn’t work for me through my past failures in recovery.  A baby will fall thousands of times before learning to walk, and no one calls that baby a failure.”

“As a matter of fact, like that baby most folks “fail their way to success” by never giving up. I can employ many skills and support techniques to recover from my eating disorder and not give up. My future is bright.” (my revised rational thought that keeps me more stable emotionally and restores realistic hope)

Eating Disorder Recovery and Overcoming Negative Thoughts

background-city-blurEating disorder treatment and recovery requires a paradigm shift in thinking. If you choose recovery, then you must begin to examine your own internal dialogue and irrational conclusions about yourself, others and life, in general.

Again, while it may be difficult to undo years of negative thinking and chronic self-talk that is detrimental in nature, be aware that this process is gradual and something that can slowly change over time.

Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and compulsive overeating are signs of a troubled internal relationship with yourself. The first, and most critical, step (Tool One) to restore a more balanced and accepting self-image is to use these thinking skills (cognitive behavior therapy) to refine your self-talk into more supportive and encouraging messages.

While eating disorders are the result of many complex factors, working toward effectively changing your thinking and inner dialogue can be a powerful step toward overcoming your eating disorder and beginning your healing process.

You can begin employing Tool One right now and use your logical thinking capacity to improve your life.

It is also important to note that for many eating disorder sufferers, learning how to re-frame your thinking is not something that can be done alone or without the guidance and support of a professional.

If you have struggled to re-frame negative self-talk and/or thinking, you might consider working with an eating disorder specialist who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy. Having a professional on your team who can effectively guide you through applied cognitive behavioral therapy can be an invaluable and powerful asset to your eating disorder recovery journey.

Using cognitive behavior therapy can inspire hope, self-esteem, and empowerment within you. Here are the common thinking errors identified by this theory, developed by Dr. Aaron Beck, who earned his MD from Yale University in 1946:

    • Arbitrary Inference ~ Jump to Conclusions and Expect the Worst

This means to jump to conclusions without a factual basis for your determination. It means to expect the worst when that is generally not the way things turn out. Things more often than not turn out somewhere in the middle of our highest and lowest expectations. For example:

“I’m late to class, so the teacher must hate me. I will fail this class and have to drop out of school. I have no future.”

Examining this thought will draw attention to this highly unlikely outcome.

    • Selective Abstraction ~ Narrow-Minded Thinking

This means only focusing on one piece of information and not taking the whole story into account. This means to select only parts of the whole picture to focus on. When we actually process things more logically, it makes sense to take in the whole picture and not just an isolated incident.

    • Overgeneralization

To apply a negative paradigm about ourselves, or our lives, in every aspect of our perception. For example, to say “I always lose” is an overgeneralization. No one always loses, just as no one always wins. Heck, out of millions of little sperm competing for an egg, you are the you that made it! So, this is one success that already contradicts the “I always lose” theory. I bet you can come up with more winning scenarios in your life that refute irrational generalizations like this.

    • Magnification and Minimization

To view a situation as all good or all bad, rather than appreciating that both good and bad exist in most human experiences. For example, I may focus on the poor economy and feel depressed and anxious about finances. However, if I do not solely focus on the economy, but also appreciate my stable employment, savings account, and retirement plans, then I may find I feel more peaceful and less panicked.

    • Labeling and Mislabeling

Calling yourself or others names that imply value or lack of value. Don’t kid yourself words and names matter – they can either uplift or tear down yourself and others.  This aspect is especially prominent in those who struggle with eating disorders and chronically label themselves negatively. Be aware of the negative labeling and/or mislabeling that you may be doing with yourself and others, as this can be part of your eating disorder.

    • Personalization

Taking things personally. Quite often, the behavior and attitudes of others solely is about them and doesn’t even involve us. However, the words and actions of others can easily be internalized.

    • Polarized Thinking

Seeing life and ourselves in black and white is a common thinking error. Very little in life is that simple! Try to recognize it when you are viewing a situation in extremes and choose to moderate your view.

Conclusions

The wonderful thing about recognizing and correcting irrational thinking errors is that it empowers us to immediately begin taking care of ourselves emotionally. We can choose to evaluate our thoughts at any time, and this is a key self-help tool.

I don’t have to blindly follow whatever random thought that crosses my mind. When I feel upset or stressed, I can review my recent thoughts and see if anything is out of whack! If so, I can correct the thought and reframe my life, circumstances, the number on the scale, whatever, to a much more rational perspective. And, Voila, I find my mood improves.

You and I can employ these self-soothing skills by simply thinking things through in a more balanced way, thus lessening our need to practice disordered eating to cope.

Self Examination and Recovery from Eating Disorders

walking-into-lightIn my case, I seem to have a natural default position in my brain toward thinking negatively, expecting perfection and personalizing everything! This has not served me well, to say the least! Prior to treatment, I had many perceptions that led me to devalue myself in my own eyes.

All of this created a perfect storm for developing and maintaining an eating disorder. While each individual has their own journey, many people who have suffered from an eating disorder may have similar experiences.

The Disfigured Leg

For example, I had numerous surgeries on my left leg as a child. While the leg was ultimately very functional, it was quite disfigured and scarred up. I always felt less than others because of this.

If I wore a dress, I would see people staring at my leg and I would conclude that I must be weird and ugly. If we had team choices in PE I would often be one of the very last to be chosen and I would conclude I am defective and rejected by others because of this.

These experiences led me to conclude that I was indeed weird, defective, unacceptable, and not able to compete with others. Devastating conclusions to draw that led to depression and very low self-esteem.

Developing the Artificial Self, the “Face”

To offset that conviction of my basic unworthiness, I developed an artificial self, which I presented to the world. It comforted my wounded soul to create this barrier between the world and my true self. This, however, led to further detachment from my real self and trouble identifying or coping with my feelings and a deep, basic rejection of myself.

For me, it was only through inpatient eating disorder treatment, therapy with my team and a renewed faith in God that I was able to restructure this view of myself. Miraculous really. I now think I am pretty neat!

The Resilient Leg

I admire that strong and resilient leg that endured so many surgeries and so much pain. I am even sort of proud to have these battle wounds. I actually believe that these experiences made me the confident and strong woman that I am today. Now, just to be straight up with you, I still would prefer that I had been born with two good legs and not endured all the surgeries and deformity to my leg.

Of course, that would have been wonderful! But, I can choose to accept myself, roll with it and now fully appreciate the strength and courage of myself growing up with this challenge. It is part of what makes me, me. Further, as a result, I can extend love and acceptance to that inner child part of myself that still exists within me.

The Takeaways of a Personal Experience

time-to-improve-clockSo, what is the takeaway? It is exciting and empowering to realize we have some power over our thoughts and what we focus on. We are not mere victims of an inner destructive tirade with ourselves. We can choose to intervene and recognize thoughts that are irrational and hurtful to us. Wow! We don’t have to be miserable. That is the upside.

The downside, possibly, is that it takes diligent, consistent effort to recognize and correct destructive thoughts that are part of our inner dialogue. But, it is worth it!

Every step we take toward honoring who we are as individuals, who we are as precious, loved human beings created by an omniscient and omnipotent God, the closer we progress toward a healthier internal dialogue and self-esteem.

This is part 2 of 7 of Disordered Eating: Reframing The Discussion.  See Part 3


Jacquelyn EkernAbout the author: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. As president, Jacquelyn manages Ekern Enterprises, Inc. and the Eating Disorder Hope website. In addition, she is a fully licensed therapist with a closed private counseling practice specializing in the treatment of eating disorders.

Jacquelyn has a Bachelor of Science in Human Services degree from The University of Phoenix and a Masters degree in Counseling/Psychology, from Capella University. She has extensive experience in the eating disorder field including advanced education in psychology, participation and contributions to additional eating disorder groups, symposiums, and professional associations. She is a member of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), Academy of Eating Disorders (AED), the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC) and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (iaedp).

Jacquelyn enjoys art, working out, walking her golden retriever “Cowgirl”, reading, painting and time with family.
Although Eating Disorder Hope was founded by Jacquelyn Ekern, this organization would not be possible without support from our generous sponsors.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Updated and Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 31, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.