Recovery from a long and enduring restrictive eating disorder is about change on every level. It is about changing every moment of every day so that your brain is unable to fall back into those old “safe” neural ruts of behaviour. Many people in recovery try and go about change in a way that feels … manageable, organized … safe.
Most of the time, that doesn’t work.
Here’s why. Your brain is made up of neural pathways, learned behavioral and thought patterns. These neural pathways are what make humans so very efficient at day-to-day things. You run on autopilot most of the time. Autopilot is great, until you don’t want go that way anymore.
Speaking of autopilot, have you ever got in the car and driven to work on a Saturday? That’s a wonderful example of how neural pathways work in your brain. Your brain associates “car” and “driving in a certain direction” with a learned and established behavioral route. This is what happens when we get stuck in a daily routine or a certain way of doing things. Very often people with eating disorders exist in groundhog day. We can get very ritualized and habitual in our behaviours.
In order to break the autopilot, you have to go the opposite direction in this case. As soon as you start something the same way as usual, good luck with trying to change something else.
Change is all or nothing
You can have all the best intentions of eating more one day, but if you get out of bed and have the same old breakfast as usual, you’ll really struggle to change anything at lunchtime, because your brain is already in that neural rut.
But, if you get out of bed and change breakfast, you’ll likely find it is easier to also change lunch. That’s because by changing breakfast you started the day outside of your usual neural pathways. You went a different direction.
Even better, if you get out of bed and change something about your normal morning routine (many of you will have in place all these rituals you have to do before you allow yourself to sit down and eat breakfast) then you will find it easier to change your breakfast. So, for most of us, this means get up and go straight to the kitchen and eat rather than faff around like you usually do trying to waste time so you can push back eating.
That faffing around before breakfast, by the way, is restriction. It is a means of delaying eating. Hence, even if it feels like a simple morning ritual, if it is grounded in restrictive intent, then by starting your day that way, you already started on the wrong foot. Getting out of bed and eating straight away will likely feel “unsafe” and “wrong” and your brain will want to resist doing it. That resistance is even more evidence that this is something important to challenge.
With that example, I am sure that you can think of a number of things that you do that you feel resistant to changing. Some common examples are: anything to do with movement, cutlery and kitchenware you eat with, place at the dinner-table or the spot where you prefer to eat, pre-eating routines, cleaning, work-related things like having to clear your inbox before you allow yourself to eat, weird eating habits designed to make food last longer, shopping and food storage habits … you get the idea.
You have to change everything or you’ll change nothing.
It is so much easier to go fully committed and change all this stuff at once then it is to try and change tiny parts of it. Trying to change one thing is like trying to stop a ball that’s already rolling down the hill. You need to pick the ball up and kick it hard in the opposite direction if you want it to go somewhere different.
Change. Change. Change. Change what you’re eating. Change when you eat. Change what you eat with. Change how you eat. Change where you sit to eat. Change the room you eat in. If you’re used to eating alone, eat with people. If you’re used to eating in, eat out. If you’re used to checking your emails before you eat, don’t. If you usually eat breakfast at 9am, eat it at 7am. If you usually eat cold food, eat hot food. If you usually walk to the store, drive. If you usually clean the kitchen before dinner, don’t. If you usually stand, sit. If you usually work out, rest. If you usually eat brown bread, eat white bread. If you usually eat bread, eat donuts.
Change everything. Because if you want to have freedom, you have to start acting as if you already have it.