Being unproductive is productive in eating disorder recovery
“I have achieved nothing this weekend”
This would have been completely unacceptable to me a few months ago. But learning being unproductive is actually productive to our mental health and recovery. This nuance has been a huge step forwards for me.
I still found it uncomfortable i’m not going to lie, the idea of sitting and literally doing nothing but listening to a podcast or watching a video is not something that has ever come easy to me.
In the depths of my anorexia I had to be “constantly productive”, driving my perfectionism to extremes. Often it led me to my becoming more unproductive because I couldn’t focus on a single task and the thoughts were constant and in conflict. Which led to exhaustion and frustration.
But, this weekend, I felt a bit off. I tried to do some work, I attempted to write a blog, but I just couldn’t. I felt so tired and I ended up doing, nothing. The ‘HH’ thoughts were there in the background, “this is so lazy, such a waste of time” However, I ignored them and did what my body was telling me to do and that was, nap and eat! I realized after I stopped fighting myself, that this is actually another recovery lesson. This is productive for recovery. And the most productive thing I can do for my future is to recover fully.
Being “unproductive or lazy and doing things without an end result, is near impossible and like torture for some of us with eating disorders, especially with a strong perfectionism component.
What do I mean by this?
When I was in my eating disorder, everything I did had to have a purpose, an end result, a target. If it didn’t it wasn’t worth expenditure of time or energy (even if it was something I wanted to do) I just couldn’t give myself permission. Things like reading a non work related book, or watching a movie etc
Now, sure the voice was there muttering away that I’m lazy bla bla but I don’t have to engage. I don’t ignore it, but I choose to not participate and try to reframe my thoughts.
This is where self compassion comes in.
Self compassion is integral to our mental health.
I like to think of it as, treating ourselves how we would treat a friend if they were suffering.
Why is it relevant in eating disorder recovery?
People with a history of eating disorders or living in it, tend to be very self critical and self compassion is not something that comes easily. I have always been hyper-critical of myself. Often we are very compassionate people, but when it comes to ourselves the thought of treating ourselves with a kindness is just simply alien and something that has to be practiced or learned. This is certainly the case for myself, when my therapist introduced the idea of trying to be more self compassionate I scoffed initially. Many times in fact before I became curious and open to exploring.
So what is self compassion really?
It’s a practice, with a ton of research behind showing that treating ourselves and others with kindness allows us to make positive changes in our lives. Pretty important for someone with lots of negative thoughts, distortions and behaviours associated with an ED. Also important in general.
I like to know things are evidence based, that’s my science brain. Kristen Neff is one of the frontline researchers of this movement and she has essentially outlined 3 major components of self compassion. I’ve linked her YouTube video summarizing below.
1. Self kindness. ( this one is probably the most obvious but also the most difficult for those of us who are very self critical) This is where the friend analogy comes in to play. On a difficult day, it’s listening to ourselves and soothing oneself, recognising difficult feelings or emotions and allowing ourselves what we need in that moment. Whether it’s just acknowledging the feeling, or doing something that we enjoy or is comforting. (This does not include using eating disorder behaviours for comfort because this is not self care).
We can become our own best friend, number one supporter.
2. I am only human. Recognizing common humanity is the second component. Accepting our faults, shortcomings and knowing it is not unique to just ourselves, rather we all suffer, we all have imperfections and that’s what makes us human.
3. Mindfulness: not suppressing or numbing unwanted thoughts or emotions. Listening to thoughts without judgement. In the depths of ED I tended to focus on the negative thoughts, rather than meeting them without judgment and often it led to escalating or destructive thoughts. I’m still working on this, for instance- I find it very difficult to call in sick from work even if I’m really unwell because I criticize myself, judge myself rather than experiencing the discomfort of the thoughts. But this is not how I would treat a friend if they were in the same situation. We all have areas we can work on.
Self compassion is not, judgmental, self indulgent or selfish. It is an important aspect of our well being. Sometimes doing something for the hell of it or enjoyment is good for us. Recovering is the most productive thing we can do and that involves learning to be “unproductive” at times.
Kristen Neff: self compassion YouTube video: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=11U0h0DPu7k&feature=youtu.be