10 Ways to Practice Self-Care in Eating Disorder Recovery
What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word self-care.
For a long time, the first thing I thought of, when I heard the word self-care, was “I need to get better at that” or “I don’t do it well.” Those are both very encouraging, compassionate and non-judgmental statements, right? Not quite.
Now, the first thing I think of when I hear the word self-care is self-compassion — being kind and understanding towards one’s self during times of distress. I now consider self-care to be an act of self-compassion, with no room for judgement.
Self-care and eating disorders
For many people with eating disorders, self-care can feel awkward, uncomfortable, and somewhat foreign. Eating disorders are often associated with perfectionistic, orderly and inflexible personalities that don’t often leave room for self-kindness or understanding — particularly when we feel like we are failing, suffering or feeling inadequate. However, there is room for kindness and self-love in recovery — if we take the time to practice it.
Part of recovery is learning to practice self-care as a form of self-compassion. If you are unsure of how to start, or are interested in expanding your self-care practice, I have a few tips for you:
1. Reflect on what has worked for you in the past
Common symptoms seen with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health disorders are social isolation and loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable. One of the best things we can do on this journey of practicing self-care in recovery is to explore and possibly reintroduce recovery-focused activities we used to enjoy that we may have forgotten about or withdrawn from. For some people, this may be spending time with supportive friends, going to a movie, watching live theater, volunteering with animals, journaling or reading.
2. Practice saying the word “no.”
Sometimes self-care is learning how to exercise boundaries. This is a HARD one. Trust me, I know that this is not something we can accomplish overnight. However, when we get the practice of boundaries down, it can really enhance our ability to practice mindfulness and self-care. It is hard to be mindful if our days are so full that we can’t even remember to step back and take a breath. If you’ve ever gone through an entire day and realized you forgot to drink water or go to the bathroom, you know this feeling.
3. Know what kind of self-care works for you
Self-care for me may not look like self-care for you. We are all unique and the important part of our self-care practices is that we make them relevant and useful to our health and wellbeing. Your self-care may be watching T.V. or allowing yourself the time it takes to wash your car or buy new fuzzy socks. Self-care can come in many forms, and there is really no right or wrong way to do it—for those of us that struggle with black and white or perfectionistic thinking, this is an awesome area to practice flexibility.
4. Let go of perfectionism
Your self-care does not have to be perfect. In fact, letting your self-care not be perfect is self-care. We may feel like we need to have the perfect amount of time, perfect mindset, perfect candle, and perfect product to really make our self-care bubble bath worth our time. Has anyone ever done this and then never actually gotten around to taking the self-care bubble bath? My hand is raised.
Learn more about recovering from perfectionism.
5. Be flexible.
Your self-care can be any length you need it to be. Reading small portions of positive books, blogs, or articles can provide a new perspective or needed reassurance. For our overachievers and perfectionists, this does not have to be a dedicated hour or even 30 minutes of reading. You can take five minutes in the morning to reflect on a daily meditation reading or encouraging quote. If you’ve got a busy schedule, listening to audiobooks or eating disorder recovery podcasts can be a great on-the-go method.
6. Believe in the power of music.
Another on-the-go method for self-care is to create an uplifting or relaxing music playlist for eating disorder recovery. Kathryn Bruno, MT-BC (Eating Recovery Center Music Therapist) and Jenni Schaefer (National Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center’s Family Institute) share how music can shift our mood, decrease anxiety and link us to hope and healing in this ERC blog post on music and eating disorder recovery.
7 Make a list of what helps
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves about what self-care resources we have and what works best. If reading or listening to books/speakers is beneficial for you, consider making a list of what books, podcasts, lyrics, or quotes encourage or inspire you. When you are needing a source of encouragement, you can reference your list and revisit what might be most helpful or relevant at the time.
8. Post your list where you’ll see it.
If there is a particular self-care resource or message that really helps get you through the hard days, consider posting a reminder of that resource somewhere that you’ll see it every day. You can do this with sticky notes, posters, bulletin boards, chalkboards, or even the background on your phone or laptop! Allowing yourself the time to create these reminders is an act of self-care and self-compassion.
9. Be self-compassionate!
Learning how to take notice of our needs and make an action towards meeting those needs can be uncomfortable. Our brains can fill up with messages that tell us we are selfish or don’t deserve to take care of ourselves. Our bodies can have trouble sitting still and calming down. Just know this: practicing mindfulness and self-care can take time. Do not beat yourself up if you struggle to embrace this journey.
10. Accept your own path of recovery.
We are all on a path moving forward, even if it doesn’t feel that way. We all have our own pace, and that is okay. Self-care may require us to let go of old expectations or rules we place on ourselves.
“Even things that seem as if they always have been or will be are indeed temporary…. Still, every experience, every interaction becomes part of our DNA, our past, and our path forward”
- Kara Richardson Whitely, ERC National Binge Eating Recovery Advocate).
I once heard Jenni Shaefer, National Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center’s Family Institute, talk about learning to “let go” in order to embrace having fun—a form of self-care. When she was in a relationship with ED, Jenni struggled with perfectionism and the need to be constantly productive — fun was not allowed. She will tell you her journey towards letting go of that inherent pressure to constantly be productive was not easy — it took many small steps and a lot of practice. However, she’ll also tell you that she eventually did it, and that letting go was well worth the life she found.
Katie Bendel, LMSW, is an Alumni/Family Liaison for Eating Recovery Center. Katie is passionate about helping individuals in recovery and their support persons connect to their internal strengths, external tools/resources, and recovery community.