Recovery from Eating Disorder Fueled by Compassion

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Compassion is the ability to show empathy, love, and concern for other people with a desire to help reduce their suffering. It is often confused with empathy, and although the two share similar qualities, empathy refers to our ability to feel the emotions another person is feeling and to see their perspective, while compassion has an added desire to help. A person showing empathy simply sees the perspective of another person, while a compassionate person must become an active participant in the suffering of another. Many people are able to feel compassion for others, but have trouble feeling compassion for themselves because they think it is selfish or self-indulgent.

Self-compassion is showing caring and kindness towards oneself, especially when faced with failure, rather than being harshly self-critical. It is acknowledging one’s setbacks and learning and improving from one’s mistakes. It also involves mindfulness, the recognition of emotions, without suppressing or exaggerating these feelings, allowing one to see themselves and the situation more clearly. It is important to differentiate self-compassion from narcissism. Narcissistic people feel superior to others and constantly seek approval and appreciation from others. Their feelings about themselves is entirely based on what other people think of them. In contrast, self-compassion is not based on positive judgments or evaluation, it is a way of relating to ourselves. With self-compassion, one does not have to feel better than others to feel good about themselves. Self-compassion is extremely important because accepting oneself relieves insecurities and prevents self-harm, such as eating disorders. (Neff)

Eating disorders, stemmed from a distorted body image, are a serious and fatal disease with mental and physical consequences that can affect people of all ages, gender, race, and body weight. Eating disorders are a self-soothing mechanism people use to cope with overwhelming feelings and painful emotions by controlling the intake of food. There is genetic predisposition, however other elements such as sociocultural ideals, family life, and environment are other contributing factors that can lead to the development of an eating disorder. The idea of an ideal body, cultivated through media puts so much pressure on appearance and perpetuates unrealistic body standards. Pressure from the media makes people, specifically girls feel like they have to be as skinny as the photoshopped models they see on instagram and magazines and creates unrealistic expectations.

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The environment a person is in greatly impacts a person’s self-esteem and their relationship with their body as well. For example, in ballet there is so much pressure to be thin. Dancers in the company of a recent production of The Four Temperaments were anonymously interviewed. One ballerina admitted that “weight gain could get them fired, while thinness can help them advance” (Kelly). Dancers spend hours in a leotard and tights staring at themselves in a mirror comparing themselves to others. It is no surprise that fifty percent of dancers have eating disorders, and despite demands for change from dancers who have experienced problems and psychologists specializing in eating disorders, the stereotype that a dancer must be elegant and lean persists. “In shape for us is being hungry,” she said later on. “Eat nothing and see how far you can go” (Kelly). The ballet culture is competitive and demanding and companies only casting thin girls promotes eating disorders from very early ages.

Family life is also a factor that can lead to the development of an eating disorder. If someone has an extremely controlling or over involved parent they may feel like they have no independence or control over their life, so they turn to restricting food to have control over at least one aspect of their life, as a mechanism for feeling better. All these factors can lead to low self-esteem and negative thoughts about oneself, which is what fuels an eating disorder. The opposite of low self-esteem is self-compassion. Self-compassion is crucial for maintaining good mental health and exemplified during eating disorder recovery.

While recovery is extremely difficult, it is achievable through the development of self-compassion. Self-compassion is a foreign concept to people with an eating disorder or to people in the early stages of recovery because their self-concept is filled with self-loathing, critical and judgmental thoughts, and self-harming behavior. Sarah, opened up about her eating disorder when she said, “I consider myself a very loving, caring person and would never inflict harm on anyone. But I was certainly capable of inflicting harm on myself” (Rzemieniak). People who struggle with an eating disorder constantly have negative thoughts about their looks, behavior, thoughts, and feelings, which depletes the body of positive encouragement and causes their self-esteem to diminish. She said that self-compassion was crucial in her recovery because, “once I started relating to myself with more compassion rather than ridicule and disgust, the part of me holding onto old behaviours felt safer in exploring the idea of why, and how, to begin giving them up and looking for new alternatives to feel safe” (Rzemieniak). Self-compassion suppresses these feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness and allows individuals to recognize that they are suffering and change their self-loathing to self-love. Self-compassion has been associated with intuitive eating, fewer body image concerns, less guilt about eating, and a lower drive for thinness. Self-compassion is essential during eating disorder recovery, however it can be extremely frightening and challenging for many patients who feel that they are unworthy of receiving compassion. In order for one to recover they must be open to receiving compassion not just from themselves, but from others as well.

Compassion is the ability to show empathy towards someone who is suffering and the desire to help another or oneself. Eating disorder recovery is extremely difficult, but achievable through the development of self-compassion. As a dancer, I have seen friends suffer with eating disorders. Seeing people, I care about starve themselves to the point where their body is struggling to function is hard for me to watch, knowing there isn’t much I can do, but be a supportive and compassionate friend. Initially, I was frustrated because I didn’t understand why someone would engage in self-harming behavior, but understanding that their eating disorder overrides their self-control, allowed me to feel compassion towards them. I know that they are not choosing to have an eating disorder and that being compassionate is extremely helpful in fueling their recover. When we see someone refusing to eat it’s easy to criticize and judge them, but criticism is the last thing a person with an eating disorder needs. Someone with an eating disorder needs all the love and support they can get because they feel so much self-loathing and if other people are able to show compassion towards them it will help them to show compassion towards themselves. It provides the person with love and support, when they can’t find love and support for themselves. Having had friends who have struggled with eating disorders, I am well aware of the physical and mental consequences eating disorders promote and this knowledge has fueled me to make sure I don’t develop one. It has also made me more aware of eating disorders and what fuels them, so if I notice a friend restricting food, hopefully I can help prevent their development of an eating disorder.

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