The Cast of Characters in Your Head
Know Who Is Talking
Without awareness, we find ourselves in the dark. The first step to recovering is often recognizing that there is a problem. I remember these moments in my own life. With eating disorders, we often identify the disorder when we feel out of control. This is why so many seek treatment when they find themselves bingeing or purging. I have far fewer clients who, in a controlled phase of restriction walk voluntarily into my office.
It isn’t enough to recognize one side of the coin. For many of us, the eating disorder (ED) takes on both a restrictive side as well as bingeing or overeating side. This seems to be true for many types of Eating Disorders, not just Bulimia Nervosa. We always prefer to be in control and get help to return to that elusive place. This may be why some people erroneously believe that they are recovered from their eating disorder simply because they have stopped bingeing or purging by continuing to engage in some rigid, compulsive behaviors to keep it all together. I used to be one of them.
When I first stopped starving, purging, and bingeing I felt I was done with my disorder, and even had “things to teach” those still struggling. After all, I was a personal trainer, inhabited a lean body that frequently received compliments, and ate a clean, rigid diet of healthy food. I weighed myself regularly to ensure that all remained within the range my mind found acceptable and counted everything. My calories, the number of minutes exercised, the number of repetitions, sets, days of activity. I was literally clueless to the fact that I remained in any type of disorder. I now see this same blindness in many of my clients and worse yet, people who do not even identify having a problem.
Recovery does not require a tight lid on your behaviors and weight. It is easy, fluid, full of trust and surrender. Despite describing recovery many times over, it remains difficult for many clients to recognize ED in all its continuing, morphing, and active forms. It might be helpful to think of our internal cast of characters to increase our awareness of who is speaking when. Without awareness, we cannot fully recover. I believe in the concept of the “Real Self” that we are capable of actualizing. In developing wholeness and individuation, we must be aware of the parts of our psyche that may or may not serve us positively but developed as ways to cope. These can be thought of as sub-personalities. For simplicity’s sake, here we will only focus on ED’s usual suspects, the binger, restrictor, and the critic. Though not “sub-personalities” we also have to consider the Body and the Real Self.
The Binger Speaks:
“You’ve had a rough day and deserve a break. You are so far from your goals anyway, what difference is this going to make? F@#k it. You have already messed up, might as well keep going. You have already gained weight anyway. We can start over another day. Now that I ate that I just want to keep going. ”.
The binger can come in the form of the rebel, even saving you from the restrictor and can feel liberating and powerful. It fights against rules and authority and just wants you to feel better. It can also feel out of control, full of shame and guilt. It can mask itself as Intuitive Eating, with claims such as “you have a right to eat everything and as much of it as you want, so just go for it”. Although it is true that you do have permission to eat anything and as much as you want, it does not mean that we ignore the body’s needs or make it sick in the process. We do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The Restrictor Speaks:
“You are doing so well today. This is definitely a weight loss day. If you do this, you will lose weight. You should probably exercise one more time this week. That walk doesn’t count as real exercise. It has to be at least at this intensity and at least for that long. You would look better if you just lost ten more pounds. You would feel so much more comfortable wearing a bathing suit if you just changed that part of your body. I can’t believe you ate that food yesterday. You need to make up for that. Let’s count those calories. Let’s be extra healthy during the week to make up for that BBQ you are dreading on Saturday. Maybe I’ll just bring a salad and people won’t notice how much I am eating. You skipped snack yesterday you should skip it from now on. You don’t need that much food anyway. That is way too much food. You are so gross for even thinking about eating so much food. Everyone watches what you eat and judges you for eating.”
The restrictor feels right. It likes to follow rules and feels safe in doing so. It is typically more organized, it pleases the ego and often feels somewhat superior, even elitist. It can also beat you to a pulp, attack you, especially when it comes to your body and food choices. A fat attack for example likely comes from this part and probably the critic below. It used to take me days to overcome one of these attacks. Like the binger above which can misuse concepts such as Intuitive Eating, the Restrictor can mask itself behind “Health” and “Self-Care”.
The Critic Speaks:
“You’ll never be good enough. You’ll never get it right. People don’t like you. Your body is all wrong. You messed up again. You need your ED to make up for your other faults. At least that’s one thing you can be good at.”
We all have an inner critic. It can be directed inward and outward. With an eating disorder, the critic is happy to jump right into the conversation and become buddies with ED. When ED and the critic get together it literally feels like you are being ganged up on. At some point, we have to decide that enough is enough. And we fight back.
The Body Speaks:
“I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m full. I want to move. I want to sit. I want to sleep. I am cold. I want to be embraced and feel pleasure. Something cold and refreshing and crunchy sounds good. Something savory and filling is what I need now. I like that flavor and how it feels in my body. I am in pain.”
We owe it to our bodies to take them into account. For many of us, they have been dismissed for far too long. Our bodies are not wrong. They are constantly communicating with us through feelings and emotions. Somewhere along the way, we learn how to cut ourselves off , probably to cope and avoid uncomfortable feelings. In doing so, we miss so much. We miss what a great informant our body can actually be. For example, when we are conflicted between the restrictor and the binger, we can drop down from the mind into the body and receive guidance there.
YOU/The Real Self:
As the observer, you are responsible for making sense of all of this. You are the quiet, wise voice that speaks with peace and knowledge. It might sound something like this:
“Ah, there you are again my restrictor. You don’t want me to eat enough today. You promise me some reward at the end that supposedly comes with weight loss. But I know better. And no, by not exercising today, binger, you do not have to convince me that my body is suddenly hungrier. I know that this is you wanting to sabotage my self-care and the restrictor with its relentless rules. Body, I feel you. You need a sedentary day and enough food, and I will listen”.
These are just examples of the many, many dialogues that I know some of you deal with day in and day out. Yours may sound different and your cast may be composed of different actors. In recovery, we become aware of our cast of characters, and in doing so, we get our power back. Suddenly we have the option to make decisions, where before, we only had orders thrown at us that sounded like law. What we accepted as truth now becomes questionable. We begin to imagine that perhaps we are more than these voices in our heads. We discover that there is a separate, larger, stronger, brighter Self that encompasses these parts. One that understands their purpose and can keep them in line. One that has the ability to make decisions from a higher, more honest place.