When you hear the word, “recovery”, what do you see? I see strength, feisty determination; a persona rather than a specific person. My image is amazing. It’s by no means perfect. My image of recovery is messy and sort of gray. My picture of recovery is energetic, authentic and abundantly alive.
The Trap of “Black and White”
Back in the day, recovery was often described as total abstinence from eating disorder behaviors or thoughts. One was expected to no longer experience any anxiety or irrational fears around food, body, or weight, and never veer off the meal plan.
Recovery was very rigid and clearly defined.
Thankfully, in the past two decades there has been a change. I’ve seen the talk about recovery shift away from the term “abstinence” and rigid definitions. It has moved toward a few terms we commonly hear now: self-acceptance, self-compassion and self-care. Recovery can be described as a fluid and ongoing process, striving for progress rather than perfection.
I am so encouraged and relieved by this shift to a new image of recovery.
Two core struggles of those with eating disorders arerigidity and inflexibility.
Often, this shows up as “all or nothing” thinking. Black and white thoughts then reinforce behavior rituals. Eating disorders reside, and thrive, in self-imposed, unhelpful rules. Most clients can identify their eating disorder rituals. Here are some examples from clients:
Run 5 miles
Eat a package of Oreos
and the list goes on…
Clients recognize that these rituals are often not what they want and not what is in their best interest. However, the thought of doing anything differently produces significant fear and anxiety. With these rigid behaviors, clients also have rigid and inflexible thoughts. They tend to view themselves (and food) in black and white terms: If I’m not perfect then I’m a failure, if I don’t do everything just right then everything I do is wrong, food is either good or bad.
The Importance of the “Gray Area”
This type of thinking leads to unrealistic expectations of ourselves and harsh self-criticism. As a therapist, it’s my job to help clients reduce this rigidity as they recover. I do this by helping them create more flexibility in both thoughts and actions and shift away from black and white thinking. My job is to help them enter into a gray area.
It can be scary to step into the gray. To do this you have to move away from the clearly defined boundaries of right or wrong, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. How do clients respond when I ask them for what might be in the middle, or what would the gray look like? Often with, “I have no idea…” or “I can’t even imagine.” This is where recovery starts. Recovery begins with stepping into the gray and shifting away from extremes.
Eating disorders reside in rigidity, inflexibility and perfectionism. Recovery does not.
Clients often start the journey of recovery viewing it as another challenge to master with perfection. They want an “A” in recovery. Not just any “A”, though. They don’t want the “A” that comes from scoring between 91% and 96%. No, they only want the A+ earned from scoring a perfect 100%.
How do you get the gray area?
Helping clients grant themselves the same grace and acceptance they extend to others is one way to practice “being in the gray”.
The path to recovery is paved with being perfectly imperfect and accepting that we’re already enough.
Therefore, it is important to not set your destination as a place of perfection. Recovery looks different for everyone, but I don’t believe it ever looks like perfection. I believe perfection, rigidity and inflexibility are part of the eating disorder process-not part of the recovery process.
Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Head toward healing. Keep using the resources available to continue to act in your own best interest. Sometimes recovery is beautifully amazing, sometimes it’s uncomfortably messy, and often it is everywhere in between. And that’s okay.