I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to change something. When I was a teenager, the focal point of the thing I wanted to change was myself. This dissatisfaction with myself, or parts of myself, spiraled into an exhaustive effort and cycle of “if only I looked like…if only I could do…THEN, I’d be happy”. Let me tell you how that ended up: in an eating disorder. Only when I was able to accept myself, ALL of myself, and the range of emotions I experienced on a daily basis, was I able to stop destructive behaviors and lead a value-driven life. I know that I am not unique in the way I was thinking; I believed that my emotions were the problem and that my thoughts were “bad” and that I needed to change all of it. When I stopped struggling with all of those beliefs, I was free. That didn’t mean accepting the negative beliefs and talk I was saying to myself, but stopping the struggle with my emotions, as I learned that it is not the emotions themselves that create dis-stress or dis-orders, it is the struggle, or attempted control, over the emotions that is the problem.
Eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, compulsive over-exercising and other types of disordered eating behaviors as well as body image struggles can be borne out of a desire to find happiness and peace — but somewhere that mission gets diverted into destructive behaviors that lead to suffering. It seems that there is a call to find a way to “be with” our emotions in non-destructive ways.
I am currently getting trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an empirically-based therapy that “makes no attempt to reduce symptoms, but gets symptom reduction as a by-product”, writes one of its founders, Russell Harris. This approach is rooted in values, forgiveness, mindfulness, acceptance, compassion, living in the present moment, and accessing a transcendent sense of self, a therapy that encourages us to accept what is without judgment, and to be find some peace in our struggle (while acknowledging that some type of suffering is part of the human experience). ACT has been clinically proven to effectively treat eating disorders and other types of conditions such as OCD, anxiety, chronic pain, and stress, amongst many others.
ACT uses six core principles to help people develop more psychological flexibility and to get out of some of the rigid patterns that keep us stuck in self-destructive pattens:
- Cognitive defusion: when we are able to ‘step back’ and observe language without being caught up in it. We can notice our thoughts at a distance, release some ownership of them, and tell our minds “thanks, mind, for that thought” instead of automatically believing it to be true or a real part of ourselves. As we defuse our thoughts, they have much less influence. This can be very effective with negative self-talk or eating disordered thoughts that could lead to destructive behaviors.
- Acceptance: making space for unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings, emotions, sensations, urges, and allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or letting them “drive the bus” (a metaphor in ACT where emotions may feel overwhelming but you can still take charge of driving the bus of your life). I find this to be quite powerful in eating disorder recovery because it allows us to be with our emotions and to find a way of accepting them (even if we don’t necessarily like them) so that they don’t feel like big scary monsters that we need to flee from.
- Contact with the present moment: the practice of bringing full awareness to your here-and-now experiences with openness, interest and receptiveness. This is akin to mindfulness, where we are able to engage fully in our present moment and be open to all that it has to offer without trying to change any of it or judge it. The key here is: not trying to change anything. Yes, we have painful experiences that we would perhaps like to change or erase. The goal of mindfulness, which in this way is helpful to recovery, is to be in the present with openness so that we can feel our emotions and hear our thoughts but have some space from them so that we can make a choice about what type of behavior is associated with this experience. This can lead to choosing less-destructive behaviors as a way of relating to the emotional experience we have.
- The Observing Self: a way of experiencing directly that you are not your thoughts, feelings, memories, roles, sensations, etc. In eating disorder recovery, this means disconnecting from the eating disorder and seeing who you are separate from the ED and empowering that self to heal, soothe, and find balance in accepting ways.
- Values: clarifying what is most important to you, deep in your heart what gives you energy, joy, purpose. What sort of person you want to be, what is meaningful and significant to you, and what you stand for. Finding and focusing on your personal values can facilitate the process of accepting your emotions and can be a motivation for sitting with uncomfortable feelings in pursuit of a value-driven life. Values are what come after an eating disorder; our values are the parts of us that were suffocated by the ED and are powerful and eager to be free.
- Committed Action: This is the “action” piece; setting goals, guided by your values and taking effective action to achieve them. This makes it all worth it! This is the behavioral part of recovery where destructive behaviors become extinct and value-driven choices and actions replace them.
I’m eager to utilize this approach with clients and am excited about the way that it encourages us to be ourselves, knowing that we are okay just as we are. To me, this is a big sigh of relief!
Are you interested in applying some of these principles in a hands-on experiential way? Are you ready to cultivate a more peaceful, accepting relationship with food and yourself? Join me and colleague (and ACT expert) Christine Allison, MA, LPC on March 2nd, 2013 for a workshop where we will practice all of this!
Early bird special ends on 2/15 so ACT now!!!
Held at my office, 709 Clarkson St, Denver, on 2/3 from 10am-2:30pm, the early bird rate is $65, and after 2/15 it will go up to $85.
Contact me to sign up TODAY — seats are filling up!
See the flyer here:
Read more about ACT: Embrace Your Demons by Russ Harris