Challenging Eating Disorder Rules

Everyone faces different challenges with their eating disorder recovery. There are always certain eating disorder rules that people feel they have to follow. Examples of rules include those around exercise obsession, trying new food, not counting calories or weighing out food, meal times, eating out. The list really is endless. In recovery, it is really important to challenge your eating disorder rules. Challenging your eating disorder rules in anorexia recovery can be very difficult. But the more you do it, the less rigid the rules become and overtime, they can be overcome.

It feels empowering when you have challenged an eating disorder rule so much that it no longer exists. The freedom that comes with not having to live your life but that stupid eating disorder rule makes the struggle of challenging it so worth it. However, what I have discovered recently is that an eating disorder rule that you had once worked so hard in breaking, can easily become a fixed and rigid rule again.

It happens when you think that the eating disorder rule no longer exists because you have challenged it so much that it now doesn’t bother you. And that probably is true. But because it doesn’t feel like an eating disorder rule that you have to follow anymore, you stop regularly challenging that rule. The eating disorder rule has gone so you don’t need to challenge it anymore, right? Wrong. You might only stop challenging the eating disorder rule for a few days or weeks and you don’t give it much thought. But it doesn’t take an eating disorder long to make it’s rules again. And before you know it, your new found freedom surrounding the rule has gone and it has become an eating disorder rule again.

I have fallen into this trap recently. And the problem is, is that you don’t realise until it’s too late. You don’t realise until it has become a rule again. That your freedom is no longer there.  For me, one of my biggest eating disorder rules has been around walking. My eating disorder rule dictated to me that I had to walk for a certain amount of time every day. And I have had to do this for the best part of a decade. So about a year or so ago I decided that I wanted to challenge this. I wanted the freedom for it to be my choice if I wanted to walk or not, and not have it controlled by anorexia.

My therapist and I worked together to challenge this eating disorder rule. Over the year, I made a lot of progress. I was able to reduce my walking to 15 minutes per day and, if I was busy and didn’t have time, I was able to accept that I would have a day without walking. It felt so incredibly liberating. I no longer had to plan my walk around seeing friends or going to work. I could just say “I’m not going to walk today”. A rule which I never imagined would be possible to break finally felt as if I was nearly there.

But then lockdown happened. I decided that with the government’s allocated one hour of exercise per day, I would walk for that whole hour. I didn’t think much of it at the time – it was nice to get out the house and get some fresh air. Plus, other than going to work, there wasn’t a lot else to do. Fast forward a few months and I am well and truly stuck with an eating disorder rule that says I have to walk for an hour a day. That freedom of walking only for 15 minutes or not at all had well and truly gone. I hadn’t realised that I had to keep practising that in order for the eating disorder rule to stay away.

A similar thing happened with some foods which I had previously found challenging. For example, I used to struggle to have sandwiches at lunch time. So I challenged this on a regular basis. It was very hard at first but overtime it became normal. Eating sandwiches at lunch time no longer felt like a challenge. I no longer had the eating disorder rule that I was not allowed sandwiches at lunch time. Again, it felt great to have the freedom to have a sandwich if I wanted it. I started trying other lunches as I had cured the sandwich problem. A few weeks passed without me having a sandwich for lunch and I realise I am terrified of it again. I had stopped challenging the eating disorder rule and it had become a rule again.

But the good thing is that you know that you have challenged the rules once before, so you should be able to do it again. That doesn’t make it any easier I know. But if you have survived it before, you can survive it again. You can get back to that point where it no longer feels challenging. That freedom can come back. But you have to keep it up. I am pleased to say that I have challenged my sandwich rule. It is still a rule, but I am practising breaking it so that hopefully I will once again be free to eat a sandwich if I want to.

Similarly, I have also challenged my walking rule. It was partly enforced due to injury and being unable to walk but, with just a few days of breaking the one hour a day walking rule, I already feel like I’m making progress. I may not be back yet to being fully comfortable with 15 minutes or no minutes, but the rule of having to walk for one hour a day has been broken. I no longer feel I have to do that. And I am continuing to challenge that eating disorder rule on a daily basis and I’m heading in the right direction. I know that over time, I will get back to where I was. I just have to go through this difficult, anxiety inducing stage to get there. Once I am there, I am sure as hell going to keep practising it. I want to keep that freedom.

Hopefully this blog will help you to keep challenging your eating disorder rules and not fall into the trap that I did in stopping practising them. There is only one eating disorder rule that you have to follow. And that is that eating disorder rules were made to be broken. It’s not just relevant to eating disorders either – it applies to all walks of life. Anything you might be scared of, any rule that your head tells you that you have to follow, the only way to overcome these is to expose yourself to those difficult situations. And gradually, the scariness and the rules will weaken. And you can be free.

Challenging eating disorder rules
Challenging Eating Disorder Rules by Bex Quinlan

You can read my previous blog from a few years ago where I talk about my walking obsession: Let it Snow!

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