Forgiving Ourselves Is Not an Excuse to Engage ED

Christi Nielsen
Christi Nielsen

By Clare Milliken

I am all too familiar with the persuasive voice of an eating disorder. In the depths of my anorexia, that voice tried to find every reason I should engage in behaviors and every excuse why I should avoid recovery. Years later, and after a great deal of therapy, self-reflection, support, and hard work, I am beginning to appreciate the value of being good to myself.

What do I mean by that? I mean allowing myself to screw up. I mean allowing myself to be sad, without criticizing my own feelings. I mean forgiving myself for things I’ve done, and not beating myself up with a list of “shoulds.” Showing myself kindness and forgiving myself for mistakes are two of the many ways that I continue to pursue health and wellness.

Now, as we recognize National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, the posts about forgiving ourselves and allowing for missteps have me thinking: Do self-forgiveness and acceptance of our flaws give us an excuse? Can ED use these ideas as a way of keeping us locked in the grip of our eating disorder?

When I reflect on how this might play out, I picture ED speaking like this:

“You didn’t follow the meal plan today, or yesterday, but that’s OK. You’re imperfect.”

“You can engage in compensatory behaviors. Everyone has off days.”

“No one is honest all the time. Go ahead, lie to your therapist. Just this once.”

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that self-forgiveness and self-compassion are inherently bad. Quite the contrary. These things have been central to my recovery and have allowed me to make tremendous gains beyond recovery — in terms of my relationships, my career pursuits, and my overall sense of contentment. But I think it is useful to look at the ways that an eating disorder can use seemingly beneficial messages to rationalize and even promote destructive thoughts and behaviors.

So what can be done about this? How can we promote forgiveness, compassion, and acceptance toward ourselves, while minimizing the risk of ED taking the reins and using these ideas to harm us?

I would be remiss to speak for anyone else here, but for me, it is helpful to think about why I continue on the path of recovery. What have I (re)gained in my life since I decided that anorexia would no longer be a part of it? My sense of humor, spontaneity, ambition, curiosity, intimacy. What have I given up? Rigidity, hopelessness, loneliness.

It is also helpful to reflect on who, ultimately, determines my recovery — ME! I cannot offload my meal plan on my boyfriend. I cannot let my therapist work through my tough days or my distorted thoughts. I am the only one who can continue on the path of my own recovery. With the invaluable support of so many others, recovery is a choice I make every day.

It is this internal locus of control, paired with the joys of a life without ED, that prevent me from letting self-forgiveness become an excuse to take a day off recovery. I am not choosing recovery for someone else. I am not replacing self-sabotaging behaviors with healthful behaviors for the approval of a therapist, my friends, or my Twitter followers. Recovery is for me.

Recovery is also messy and unpredictable. It is not as if we decide to recover, and from then on never face challenges. We’re human. We screw up.

It is the nature of an eating disorder to take otherwise positive experiences — social events, exercise, family meals, spontaneous trips with friends — and make us feel we cannot take part, because we are either undeserving, too much of something, or too little of another thing. Eating disorders blind us to our own feelings and desires, and the great part about recovery is that we begin to peel off ED’s layers and get in touch with our emotions and needs. Once we discover kindness and forgiveness toward ourselves, our eating disorder might feel challenged, and it might chime in with reinvigorated calls for self-sabotage.

“You don’t deserve to go easy on yourself.”

“You haven’t achieved enough at work today.”

We must be hyper-vigilant and protect our right to care for and forgive ourselves without ED taking over. Off days are one thing. Excuses are ED’s thing.

Kindness and forgiveness toward myself are an essential part of my recovery, two of many tools I’ve added to my roster over the years. Kindness gives me the strength to choose recovery, and forgiveness gives me the push I need to keep learning and growing.

Forgiveness and kindness are not an invitation for ED to creep in. They are an invitation to be human.

Clare Milliken is a Chicago-based editor and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism School. An avid news consumer, Clare is particularly interested in issues of racial and gender inequality. She seeks to promote health and wellness, decoupled from weight loss and body dissatisfaction. Clare is a firm believer in the power of laughing her ass off and dancing alone to Beyonce in her living room. She has written for HelloGiggles and Greatist.com, and she blogs at Be good to you. Email her at claresmilliken@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter @claresmilliken.