This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Gaining a Healthy Relationship with Food” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 2: ACKNOWLEDGE the breadth and impact of my sin.”
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Disordered eating patterns begin about three inches Northwest of our mouths; in our brains. Behavior patterns are thought patterns before they are activities. In this section we will not focus on thought content (e.g., “I’m worthless” or “I’m fat”) as much as thought patterns (i.e., ways of filtering, processing, or reacting to information). Often we are ineffective at changing the content of our thoughts because we fail to see the patterns in which they are established.
Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb describe ten patterns of thinking that contribute to disordered eating (p. 98-100 in 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder; bold text only). These patterns are very characteristic of most anxiety disorders. This reveals the role that disordered eating often plays in our misguided attempts at emotional regulation.
1. All-Or-Nothing Thinking:
If I’m not perfect, I’m trash. If I don’t obey my eating plan, I’m a worthless human being. If life doesn’t go according to plan, then life is falling apart and completely out of control. If this is how you process disappointments, then it will be difficult to have a healthy relationship with food; or other people. It becomes hard to have a “good day” because in an all-or-nothing mindset, days are either great or awful. The emotional exhaustion results in retreating to food for comfort or punishing yourself by not eating.
In this style of thinking every negative event is perceived as part of an emerging pattern. The response to the negative event is, therefore, as intense as if it were a longstanding issue. “My friend hasn’t called me back. They must think I’m annoying. No one will ever want to be my friend.” Or, “I had a second helping of dessert. I’m a failure who deserves to be punished and rejected.” When no moment can be an island, every moment feels like a tidal wave.
3. Discounting the Positive:
This is the flipside of over-generalization. Every positive event is an exception and every compliment is a pity-based courtesy. “I think I had a good day, but there is no way I can keep it up. They said I look nice, but it’s just because I was such a mess last time they saw me.” When we discount the positive, our life-narrative remains unremittingly negative. We “know” our life story is bad, so we brace against allowing having hope so we can’t experience the pain of disappointment. But a life without the possibility of disappointment is either a fantasy (unreal) or depressing (barricaded from hope).
4. Emotional Reasoning:
Emotional reasoning confuses the “realness” of our emotions for the “truthfulness” of our emotions. Emotions are real experiences. There is no question we feel fat or that we feel hopeless. Our emotions are not always truthful. We may not be fat, and we are never without hope. A vital skill in battling the thought processes that undergird disordered eating is the ability to doubt our own emotions; we don’t have to deny our emotions (because our emotions are real, this would be a form of lying) but we should doubt them (require that they live up to a standard of truthfulness before we act on what those emotions call us to do).
We all tend to project our fears and self-assessments into the minds of others. If we are insecure, we think others think poorly of us. If we are prideful, we assume people will be honored to be our friend. If we value thinness, we believe losing weight will solve our social woes and we explain interpersonal conflict or slights because of our weight. We “know” that the things that are most important to us must explain the responses of people around us. People quit being real people and become personifications of our fears.
6. Personalizing and Blaming:
We are incredibly creative at coming up with ways to explain our behavior in ways that have nothing to do with our choices. Blaming is when we say another person’s bad choice caused our bad choice. “I binged because my friend forgot my birthday.” Personalizing is when we inflate the significance of another person’s actions by making ourselves the center of their world so it can excuse our bad choice, “My friend hasn’t call me back because she hates me, so I need to take comfort in food.” There will always be enough sub-optimal events around us for personalization and blame-shifting to leave us stuck in our disordered eating habits. We must develop the ability to grieve misfortune without allowing it to become fuel for dysfunction.
7. Magnification and Minimization:
Our mind operates like amusement park mirrors. It makes some things seem way too large and other things way too small. If we had a strong sense for what was true, we would be amused by this distortion (like we are when we see the appearance of ourselves as if we were 20 feet tall in a distorted mirror). But, unfortunately, often we lack the ability – or willingness – to identify this distortion, and we begin to view life as if the distortion were true.
8. Mental Filter:
If the last pattern was about the magnitude of an experience, mental filters are about the relevance of an experience. Consider this scenario: if you have three good days and one bad day in your relationship with food, do you feel like you’re winning or losing? If our answer is “It depends on what the scale says,” then our focus is still more on body figure than body stewardship. Either way this question reveals a mental filter. Either the number three will be deemed more important than the number one, or the weight of being “bad” will be considered heavier than the weight of being “good.” Know your filter and be able to account for it in your emotional reasoning.
9. Should Statements:
Should statements usually are based on enough truth to be powerful but exist in a hypothetical reality that makes them useless. “I should have eaten better yesterday.” This is TBU, true but useless. It creates guilt, but gives little direction for change. Rarely does it lead to a positive resolve like, “I want to be a good steward of my body today.” Similarly, “I should be in better shape,” is also TBU. All it does is create shame and discontent. Rarely does it lead to the commitment, “I will follow my doctor’s exercise and eating recommendations today.” Christians are often prone to should statements because we feel like we’re holding to high ideals. Instead, let’s focus on walking faithfully with God as we seek to be a good steward of the life and body he’s blessed us with today.
Labeling is when we turn verbs and adjectives into nouns and identities. “I failed,” becomes, “I am a failure.” “I’m lonely,” becomes, “I am unlovable.” Verbs and adjectives are temporal. Nouns and identities are permanent. That is why this exchange is so dangerous. You may have failed to follow your body stewardship plan today, but thanks to God’s grace, that does not have to be a permanent reality. Turning verbs into nouns makes us passive. Turning adjectives into identities robs us of hope. This is more than English grammar; it is a huge key to human motivation.
Read I Corinthians 10:4-6. We often restrict the idea of “taking every thought captive” to countering the content of theologically inaccurate thoughts. After reading this section, hopefully you can see the benefit of allowing this practice to extend to taking captive patterns of thought that dishonor God and are personally destructive. In the same way that we would want to battle lust at the level of imagination, not just behavior; we want to recognize thinking patterns that allow us to begin taking destructive thoughts captive earlier in the process. In the next chapter we will examine an even more basic level at which to take thoughts captive – motives. Until then, begin paying attention to when these patterns lead you in destructive directions.
Exercise: Write your initials beside each of these patterns of thought to which you frequently succumb. Write the inner dialogue by which you enact these patterns. Ask a friend to read this dialogue to you. See if the logic is as convincing when it is heard in another person’s voice and outside your own mind. Allow this to further awaken you to the way that sin so easily entangles us when we attempt to battle it on our own.
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Disordered Eating” post which address other facets of this subject.