“He ignored me. He must think I’m fat!”: Eating Disorders & Cognitive Distortions
Editor’s Note: This post was contributed by EWN psychotherapist Nicole Newcomb.
Eating disorders are plagued by twisted thinking. In my business we call this twisted thinking cognitive distortions. You know, those thoughts that all sound right in your head but you would never say them to someone else. These distortions can tear down self-esteem, chip away at our identities and lead us to believe we are failures.
How many times have you told yourself you “should not” eat anything above 100 calories or you “should be” exercising multiple hours daily? How many times has someone given you a compliment and you say something to deny it like “Oh thanks but I’m really not skinny, I’m fat.” Thinking errors like these can lead down a dangerous road to anxiety, depression and possibly an eating disorder.
Many factors play a role in whether or not someone will develop an eating disorder. But one thing is for sure; those who ridicule, talk down and consistently criticize themselves are at a much higher risk.
So what do you do if you think this way? If you are troubled with this, there are ways to combat distorted thinking! The one I will focus on here is using coping thoughts. If you have distorted thoughts and want to sweep them away, I am going to provide you the broom!
Below, you will find examples of a few distortions so that you can begin to recognize them for yourself. I will provide a coping thought to help you begin. Initially it can be hard to develop our own coping thoughts, so I suggest using mine until you find your own way of saying what makes sense to you. You may not believe the coping thought right now, but after a lot of repetition you will begin to. The key here is to fake it until you make it! Just as you learned the negative thought, you can learn a coping thought. You can do this!
Example 1: You might think “I must weigh a certain number to be liked.”
This thought is distorted by Absolutes. Absolutes are words like ‘Should, Must, Can’t,’ etc. These words set up expectations in our heads for ourselves and others. When these expectations are not met, we feel failure or disappointment.
New Coping Thought: “The number on the scale does not make me who I am!”
Example 2: You might think something like “My father ignored me so he must think I am fat.”
This thought get twisted by Personalization. Personalization is is when you take things personally that were not meant to be personal at all.
New Coping Thought: “My father might not have heard what I said. It has nothing to do with my weight.”
Example 3: At school you might have the thought “My friend thinks I am crazy”
This thought is messed up due to Mind Reading. Mind Reading is when you think you know what someone is thinking, but you don’t really have that super power.
New Coping Thought: “My friend likes me because I am funny”
Example 4: You may start feeling down and think “I feel guilty so I must be a bad person”
This thought is distorted because of Emotional Reasoning. Emotional Reasoning is when you think because you feel a certain way that you must be that feeling, not true! You are not your feelings!
New Coping Thought: “Guilt is just a feeling it will pass, I am a good person.”
Example 5: When given a compliment about your hair you say “Thanks, but it doesn’t look as good as it could.”
This thought is not healthy for you because you are Disqualifying the Positives. Disqualifying the Positives happens when you cannot accept a compliment or see the good in you or your situation, but believe me… there are good things about you!
New Coping thought: “Thank you, my hair did turn out nice today.”
Example 6: When on the path to recovery, you may think this after experiencing a symptom. “I am either free of symptoms or I have not recovered from my eating disorder.”
This thought is very extreme and not healthy due to Black and White Thinking. Black and White Thinking happens when you do not allow room for anything in between, you can be in recovery and experience a slip up with your symptoms.
New Coping thought: “I used a symptom and I am going to talk about it with my therapist.”
Trying to catch these pesky thoughts and work towards sweeping them away with coping thoughts is not an easy task! I would know because I used to fall into some of these traps myself! I used to always disqualify the positives because I thought it motivated me to do better. Then, I realized that I was not able to enjoy the good things and appreciate the hard work I did. I thought to myself “If I am not enjoying what I do by experiencing the positives, why do it at all?” At that point I made the effort to start sweeping my own mind’s front door.
Because this is not an easy task, just remember that you are doing something very brave. You can do this even if it takes weeks or months. Sometimes I still catch these pesky thoughts after working on them for years. You might fall back into these thoughts, but that’s ok! You can seek support from others, including myself! I encourage you to write or call me if you get stuck.