Play Therapy and Eating Disorders: Healing our inner child

When we develop an eating disorder, suddenly our inner artist, our inner dancer, our inner child is suffocated by food, control, and obsession.  That young child can be locked inside of ourselves until we begin to embrace recovery, release our behaviors, and allow ourselves to feel our authentic feelings once more.  Many of us might fear what will come if we let our locked-up feelings out to play.  While there may be a flood of emotion, many of those feelings are ones that a child — a trapped child — would naturally express without the tarnished pain of an eating disorder.  You may feel joy, release, spontaneity, laughter, curiosity, and energy.  If you are suffering from bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder, you may be ready to play once again with your youthful, innocent inner child.

How can play therapy be effective in treating eating disorders?  When eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia force us to live in a controlled, un-changing world, we can lose sense of the creativity that burst from us as a child and as ourselves before eating disorders took over.  Art therapy, music therapy and dance therapy can in this way be very powerful in helping us to reconnect.  Play therapy, such as using puppets to re-create or renew different parts of ourselves can encourage us to look at our lives in a new and different way — “outside of the box”.  When eating disorders are in control, we may feel as if we have no choice in what we think, feel, or do — we “must” schedule our days according to when and what the eating disorder wants us to eat and how associated behaviors will be planned out.  It’s very constrictive and confining.

Do you remember when you were a child and you loved to play?  What were your favorite games?  One of mine was dressing up in costumes and putting on plays for my family and friends.  I would inhabit different characters and create a life that I wanted to inhabit.  Did you like to draw?  Play in the sand?  Play with dolls, stuffed animals, or toy cars?  How did you express your feelings on a given day though what you played with and how?

Using play therapy as a child, adolescent or adult with an eating disorder can inspire us to “play out our feelings”, instead of having them locked up inside of us.  We may have wounds from our past that are still affecting us today (being called “fat” on the playground in third grade), but we do have the choice of how much we want these wounds to have a place in our current lives.  By using play, we can externalize these feelings, give them names, give them identities, and physically throw them, hug them, or do whatever else with them that will help us soothe our inner child.

Here are a few ideas for how you can play your way to recovery from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder and give your inner child the freedom to dance:

  • Invite a child in your life (a niece, brother, friend, sister) to show you his/her favorite way to play.  Try to see their play world through their eyes and not your own.
  • Jump on a trampoline as you did when you were a child.  Embrace the reckless feeling of it and the fun of never knowing where you will land next.
  • Look through old albums of your childhood.  Try to put yourself back in those places where you felt happiest and most free.  Who were you with?  What did you love to play with?  What characters did you inhabit?
  • Go through a child’s book and pick out the images that most soothe your inner child’s soul.  Draw those images on a big sheet of drawing paper and organize them in the way that most touches the needs of the little girl or boy inside of you.
  • Find some of your old toys, or ask your parents about what you most liked to play with.  Try to bring yourself back to that place of imagination, mystery and wonder.  What stories would you play out now?
  • Go to a dog park and play with the dogs.  Animals are the most natural beings at play, and they never lose their sense of wonder or excitement.  They are children forever!
Eating disorders can make your world feel like it is very dark and small.  They can offer you the choice of black or gray, and give you a hard sheet of metal with which to work.  Where do you play?  Who is the child within you that begs for freedom from restrictive behaviors, from self-destructive eating patterns, from guilt and shame?  You can find that child simply by inviting him or her out to play.

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