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eating disorder recovery singapore

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“I Want To Recover From My Eating Disorder and Look Hot While Doing It”

Of the coaching enquiries I’ve received over the past year, some of the most common ones read something like this:

“I’ve recovered from anorexia through an in-patient program, but now I’m overexercising. I’d like to raise my self-esteem, make peace with my body, and look really fit and lean. Can you help?”

or this…

“I’ve been binge eating for years and am finally ready to stop this bad habit, but I also want to reduce my body fat and weight.”

or this…

“I’ve been in and out of treatment for an eating disorder for many years, and nothing seems to work. Every time I start to get better, I gain weight. Can you help me overcome it while being able to maintain my current weight?”

Most months, I’ll receive a few requests along these lines, all from smart and determined women in their teens, twenties, and thirties. Their accounts are often similar, mirroring the traits and experiences of those who deal with eating disorders in other parts of the world, which include numerous failed treatment attempts, low self-esteem, pervasive perfectionism, and few social supports. Some of these women were raised in enmeshed or narcissistic families, where self-worth is gained through external achievement and little autonomy or emotional expression is allowed.  A majority deal with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosomatic illness or other kinds of addictions in addition to an eating disorder. Some are in tumultuous relationships or are otherwise experiencing instability in their lives, and others have a history of trauma.

I know this story all too well because the narrative is also part of my own, one that I’ve gently held onto in order to alchemize it. I know the shame of having a nurse hover over you as you sit on the toilet because she’s got to make sure that you don’t throw up. I know what 800 calories a day does to mood and metabolism, what it’s like to try on a hundred outfits and still hate what you see in the mirror, and how empty if feels to live for the approval of others. 


It’s been many years since I’ve contended with an active eating disorder or addiction and since that time I’ve realized that we’re having the wrong conversation. Eating disorders are not about vomiting or starving or compulsive calorie-burning gym sessions. They’re not about reaching an ideal weight.

Eating disorders are about refusing to actually be IN our bodies. They’re about rejecting our true selves. They’re about seeking worth externally, and then battling with that external illusion in an attempt to regain control. They’re about swallowing big lies- that we don’t matter unless someone else recognizes our significance, and that a woman’s value is hinged on the way she looks. And, they’re about attempting to cope with emotional pain stored in the body- pain that is all too often “unspeakable.”

In Asia, we’re in the midst of a process addiction and eating disorders crisis, exhibited by the rapid rise in the number of people seeking treatment for gambling, sex and video game addiction, binge eating disorder, and anorexia. Due to the shame-based cultural underpinnings and the pervasive sociological concept of having “face” (mianzi) and protecting a family’s reputation at all costs, eating disorders and addictions are woefully underreported in this neck of the woods. To complicate things, careers serving this population aren’t generally desired due to the nature of the work, the low pay in comparison to glitzy financial service jobs, and a high rate of burnout. This ensures that many, many people who need treatment aren’t getting any because they’re too afraid to ask for it and even if they did, options are severely lacking. It’s estimated that 80 percent of people receiving treatment for eating disorders will relapse, and 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders will die from their condition. That’s what I’d call a serious public health crisis. ED recovery is hard work, and women on the path are true warriors. A quote I recently came across summarizes things quite accurately:

“Alcohol and other drug recovery is like dealing with a tiger in a cage. Recovery from eating disorders is like taking that tiger out of the cage three times a day and then taking it for a walk.”

When you couple this global health emergency with the fact that the societal perception of a person’s value has become increasingly commodified, it’s no wonder more women are saying, “I want to recover from my eating disorder and look hot while doing it!” Since today’s version of “hot” apparently equates to being impossibly lean and thin, the goal of solid recovery is in direct opposition with the wish to chisel a Fitspo body.

I should know- while competing as a bodybuilder in 2014, I noticed that as soon as I hit a low body fat percentage during my third competition prep, several eating disorder-related thoughts and obsessions began to resurface. Because I’d been on the recovery path for many years and had a great coach, I was able to view these thoughts objectively and avoid a relapse, but I now recognize the fine line I was walking in pushing body, mind and soul to complete exhaustion. In some ways, sports are an incredible option to overcome an eating disorder or other addiction; I’ve met a lot of other bodybuilders, powerlifters, and distance runners who became athletes on their journey of recovery.

One of the best ways to beat a bad habit, compulsion or addiction is to replace it with a healthier behavior. However, if the addiction or disorder is still active and the person’s secondary goal is focused on the external (to look a certain way) rather than the internal (to self-partner and generate positive inner energy), I can nearly guarantee that the person will not reach a higher level of self-esteem, make peace with her body, or find reprieve from her disorder- quite the opposite.

So, what can you do if you want to develop a better relationship with yourself, with food… and still look a certain way?

First, a focus on the true roots of the eating disorder and a method for releasing some of the internal pain is paramount and best done with a licensed counsellor or psychologist, as this is beyond the realm of coaching. Somatic psychotherapy and EMDR can both be helpful on this journey.

Second, reprogramming your inner messaging system to raise self-esteem, transforming your emotional hooks or vulnerabilities into strengths, and replacing negative behaviors with positive ones are all vital and require long-term commitment. A qualified coach can be highly beneficial here.

Third, relearning all you can about nutrition, food and exercise will provide knowledge, newfound self-respect and a sense of control. I personally find that intuitive eating approaches don’t work all that well for a lot of women with eating disorders due to an impaired interoception response (missed cues for hunger and satiation) and difficulty accessing their emotional barometer, particularly around something triggering like a food buffet. Add to that, ripping away control can actually backfire. Acquiring knowledge about how to eat in a healthy manner reinstills some of that control.

Fourth, cultivating an environment that supports your journey is important, which usually means severely limiting or deleting social media applications like Instagram and refusing to flip through fashion magazines, at least until you feel a comfortable level of confidence within yourself.

Fifth, returning to your body is essential- practices like yoga, mindfulness or prayer, journaling, and an exercise program can be incorporated as a part of your week to turn your focus away from the impossible ideal and toward learning how to love and appreciate yourself as you are.

By coaxing your body toward alignment and honoring your emotions, you’ll begin to feel deeply that you’d rather be friends with yourself than fight against the true you in your quest for the “perfect” body.

Over time, you might just find that you already have the body you’ve always dreamed of, because it supports and houses the authentic spirit of you.

Recovery is a lifelong journey and an unparalleled gift.

If you’re on the path to overcome an eating disorder or an addiction, that means you’re also on a path of self-realization and heightened awareness, which will give you the tools and vitality to build a life you can appreciate in the body you’ve been given while maintaining your integrity and cultivating peace of mind. Recovery lights up the BEING inside the BODY. Now, that’s hot.

I'd love to hear from you- is holding onto the ideal of the "perfect body" keeping you sad and sick? If you're in recovery from an eating disorder, what's helped you stay on track? Leave your comments below. And, if this helps you or may help someone you know, share it! 

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To Move Out of Self-Sabotage, Get SELFish. Here’s How

Whether it’s an addiction, a bad habit, a harmful relationship, a self-sabotaging behavior or an inauthentic life- we’re often surprised to discover that letting go of the thing which has been dragging us down for so long doesn’t automatically coax out the rainbows and trumpets. In other words, a shiny new life won’t magically appear just because we’ve made space for it.  

The self-destructive mentality that we’ve been operating from for so long dramatically compromises our coping mechanisms and life skills. After we finally stop ingesting poison, we may realize that we don’t know how to engage in nourishing activities like cultivating healthy relationships, setting boundaries, practicing self-care, or supporting ourselves. Our sense of self is shaky, at best, and the shame that has underpinned our negative circumstances and poor decisions may still be running the show. When shame’s the director of our lives, it’s hard to know who we are and nearly impossible to assert ourselves or speak our truth.

No matter what our age, we’re bound to fall back into our intricately designed traps until we make a conscious decision to completely change how we think and relate with the world, and then seek support from mentors who can assist us in uncovering our life-affirming and creative gems from the dung pile of shame. Quitting a harmful behavior, substance or relationship provides us with clarity, but it doesn’t give us the tools we need to move forward in a healthy and wholehearted way.

Recovery teaches us to be of service and to release the habit of indulgent, destructive self-pity. Self-involved thinking is part of what got us into a mess in the first place! However, recovery also requires that we embrace SELFishness and reclaim our power by learning how to respect our own needs and health.

This can be an incredibly foreign concept to many women, who were taught from a young age to be selfless, accommodating and long-suffering- a character lesson passed down unconsciously through generations. Here are five SELFish practices that I recommend cultivating:

1. SELF-PROTECTION

Author Julia Cameron writes, “it is enlightened self-interest to be selfish enough to be self-protective. Being self-protective may not seem nice. We may say no to invitations that do not serve us.” A majority of women who engage in self-sabotage can easily be categorized as “too nice.” They are people pleasers to the extreme, and have little experience in standing up for themselves. No wonder- statistics show that women battling addictions, eating disorders, and abusive relationships overwhelmingly contend with early childhood trauma, which programs them for victimhood and low self-worth down the road. It’s these very same women who become easy targets for violence in their adult lives if they haven’t learned to protect themselves, as they consistently allow politeness and the need to be liked to override intuition and self-preservation. When we learn how to adequately protect ourselves, we gain the confidence necessary to show our true selves to the world while asserting our values and beliefs through our actions.

2. SELF-SUSTENANCE

Making a successful major life change usually requires the support of a trusted circle of people, as well as the humility to accept our shortcomings and ask for help. Being able to financially and emotionally support ourselves in some way acts as a counterweight in this process while preventing learned helplessness in what should be an empowering, freeing journey. Excuses and “I can’t” mantras are detrimental to recovery and, if uttered often enough, will undermine our efforts to improve our well-being. One of the most effective ways to legitimize our power is to make our own money through a pursuit that nourishes us, even if the paychecks are initially barely enough to cover a morning tea at Starbucks. It is the act of reaching toward self-sustenance that matters in those beginning stages. Through working, you are proclaiming, “I am committed to taking care of myself.” Similarly, by learning how to emotionally nourish ourselves rather than relying on external validation, we find our voice, our courage, and our self-respect.

3. SELF-CARE

In any major transformation, regular self-care is the contract we must make with ourselves in order to redirect attention to the parts of us that were once neglected and step into a more awakened way of living.

Initially, something as simple as taking time to meet with a coach or therapist, or read an uplifting book with a cup of soothing tea in hand will open up the space you need to trust yourself again. Self-care faciliates a romance between the body and the mind, integrating our practical needs with our higher desires and providing us with the energy we need to venture out into the world with our heads held high. Often, self-care is a sacred secret, a ritual that unleashes our childlike spirit. By doing something each day that is loving to ourselves, we generate a grounded and joyful energy which attracts supportive people and opportunities into our lives. Through self-care, we radiate the message, “I’m worth respect and love.”

4. SELF-CONTROL

Self-control is central to human evolution as a developmental perk of our prefrontal cortex. It’s also what allows us to move forward as individuals through conscious decision-making and behavioral regulation. No surprise- those of us who have struggled with an addiction or bad habit tend to be low on self-control, and once we’re able to admit this shortcoming, we’re likelier to develop more of it. Just like our physical muscles, self-control must be exercised each day in order to grow and flourish. This can feel painful and tedious at first! Because excessive self-control is tied to perfectionism, this SELFish skill may be the trickiest to master, particularly if you’re overcoming an eating disorder, exercise addiction or any other type of compulsive pattern. Often, controlling ourselves actually means riding the wave and letting go of insisting on a particular outcome. Instead, we focus on the moment in front of us and take actions aligned to our integrity and purpose. Self-control is considered one of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity, and mindfulness and prayer are two great ways to cultivate it.

5. SELF-DISCOVERY

At the heart of addiction is the belief that we should not be “feeling” creatures, that the emotions we label as negative are to be snuffed out and rejected. In our pursuit of non-feeling, we lose the essence of what it means to be human, to connect, and to love. Without a full range of emotions, we’re unable to understand who we are and what our purpose is. Self-discovery is a process of allowing once-forbidden emotions to resurface, and of tuning in to the wisdom of the body rather than processing everything through logic.

Being willing to rediscover the self means rejecting the dictates of our current society, which demands that we plaster on a happy face at all times and become masters at emotional perfectionism.

When we commit to self-discovery, our emotions flow without censorship, and we learn how to befriend them in order to uncover what we’re really about.

Although the world may tell us otherwise, every single one of us is worth self-respect. That self-respect must be generated from the inside first; once we treat ourselves well, we’ll begin to notice that other people show more kindness and consideration to us. When we put these five SELFish skills to work, we begin to refill the once empty well that drove us to self-destructive behaviors in the first place, and we eventually come to a place where we appreciate our lives enough to stop the cycle of self-sabotage for good.

How are you integrating a life of service, purpose and SELF-ishness? What's the most important thing you're doing to take care of yourself? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you! 

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© Tangram Fitness 2013