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The relationship between Eating Disorders and Self-Esteem 20th March 2017

Expert advice by Sany Andrijic, Registered Psychologist, Centre for Corporate Health and Resilia. Are Eating Disorders as simple as just choosing not to eat? The short answer is no. Eating Disorders involve disturbed eating habits or weight control behaviour that disrupts an individual’s physical and psychosocial functioning. There is no one underlying cause and they are more complex than you can probably imagine. One important thing to consider is how our self-esteem relates to the development and course of experiencing an eating disorder. Self-esteem is how we measure our worth based on perceived achievements1 . The relationship between one’s selfesteem and the presence of an eating disorder appears to be a negative one 2 . Research has suggested that disordered body image can only be corrected with the improvement of one’s self esteem3 . Undoubtedly, we need to be conscious of the possible negative impact our relationship with food, dieting and body image can have. It is so important that we don’t allow these features to become inherent to our self-identity. So what can you do? The good news is that there are things we can do to improve our self-esteem, and thus reduce the focus on these food, dieting and body image matters. A few suggestions are summarised below. 1. The first thing we can do is to apply Affirmations4 . A good example of an affirmation is one that is believable, and immune to automatic refutes. This will vary from person to person, but an example could be “Recovery from an eating disorder is achievable for me”, or “I Have the right to be understood, believed and supported by others" 2. Focus on Achievable Self-Care Activities5 , such as getting enough rest, eating a balanced diet containing lots of nutritious and balanced meals, and exercise for enjoyment and vitality. 3. Challenge Negative Automatic Thoughts that fuel the ‘eating disorder voice’ 6 . Do the following statements sound familiar: “You’re a waste of space…Nothing you do will ever be good enough!” Bring awareness to your inner critic, and be willing to let go of the need for control by using these unhelpful Negative Self-Statements. Perhaps at one stage of your life, it served an important function in getting you motivated, or in managing a stressful life event, but dichotomous thoughts rarely produce successful results – rather it creates two extreme alternatives that are usually not realistic, thus disappointing us even further. Have the will to be brave and stand up to your inner bully. 4. Spend time with positive people who empower you to focus less on external traits, and rather on your inner qualities. 5. Be willing to solve problems without food or eating disorder behaviours by actively problem solving around stressors, and becoming empowered by developing competency in more helpful based coping 7 . An example could be taking a walk instead of bingeing, or writing down your feelings instead of purging. 6. Practice self-compassion by acknowledging your positive traits and treating yourself kindly8 . A good way to do this is by asking yourself “How would I treat a friend or colleague here? What helpful encouragement might I say to them if they were faced with a similar situation?” – and remember, fake it until you make it! 7. Align goals and actions with your core values9 . Think about what you stand for in life, and align your activities with this. It is unlikely your eating disorder behaviours are aligned with positive or helpful values, hence why they cause you so much distress – this is called ‘cognitive dissonance’. Start by bringing awareness to the things that matter to you, and write a list of ways that you may get closer to these values in your day to day life. 8. Focus less on perfection 10 . Empower yourself by challenging your need to be perfect. 9. Adjust the goal posts11 . The reality is that your eating disorder developed over many years, and the fact that you’re reading this article is only the start of your journey. We refer to this as being ‘contemplative’. It means you are starting to think about your unhelpful coping behaviours, i.e. the eating disorder, but you’re not entirely sure what to do next. This is normal, and will take time for you to figure out the next steps. Don’t be too hard on yourself for slip ups, as these are normal in the contemplative phase. Focus more on what you can do, and how far you’ve come thus far. 10. And finally, celebrate your successes12 . A little positive reinforcement can really have such an impact on promoting helpful behaviours. Reward yourself by catching up with friends or taking up a painting course. Hopefully, you can work on some of these tips provided to boost your self-esteem. And hopefully, in time they will help to combat your disordered eating patterns. It should be noted that this blog was not intended to try and solve every problem, and it should not be taken as a ‘best practice’ treatment option for any Eating Disorder. But rather, it offers insightful tips that can help one aspect that could be related to an Eating Disorder that you or someone you know has. If you continue to feel anxious, distressed or concerned, or you feel as if things aren’t getting easier, reach out and ask for help. Speak to your GP about a referral to a Psychologist or counsellor. References: [1, 3, 5, 8] 10 Strategies for Building Self-Esteem (2017). Accessed from BodyMatters Australasia, http://bodymatters.com.au/resources/. Retrieved on 2 March 2017. [2, 4, 6, 7, 9-12] Self Esteem (2014). Accessed from Eating Disorders Victoria, http://www.eatingdisorders.org.au/eating-disorders/what-is-an-eating-disorder/risk-factors/self-esteem. Retrieved on 2 March 2017.

Content © Centre for Corporate Health 2012

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