Compassion is Key to My Recovery
This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.
Lisa Whalen, a former Emily Program client, has a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education, and an M.A. in creative and critical writing. She teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Her essays have been featured in An Introvert in an Extrovert World, WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, and MotherShould? Whalen is working on publishing her memoir, Taking the Reins. In the meantime, she is a regular contributor to The Feisty Writer.
“Who’s your best friend?” my Emily Program therapist asked.
I paused mid-story, blinked, and stared at her with what I’m sure was a baffled expression.
The answer was a no-brainer, but I couldn’t imagine why she’d interrupted me (something she never did) to ask a question that had nothing to do with our current topic: a mistake I’d made at work.
“My sister, Julie.” I replied. “Why?”
Her response sparked an insight crucial to my eating disorder recovery: “What would you say to Julie if she’d made your mistake?”
Whoa, I thought, because everything changed.
I knew instantly that I’d tell Julie, “You meant well. You couldn’t have known . . . Your boss will get over it. It’s not as bad as you think. It’ll probably turn out that everything is fine. If not, you can look for a different job—a better one—because your employer won’t deserve you!”
I realized in that moment rather than explaining to my therapist what had happened, I was ruminating on every possible consequence of my mistake and detailing what I should have done instead. In other words, I was beating myself up for something I had done with good intentions and couldn’t change. What a waste of energy!
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I judged myself more harshly than I judged others. Coworkers, teachers, coaches, band directors, parents, and even childhood friends had all told me at some point, “You’re too hard on yourself.” I never believed them. If anything, I’m not hard enough, I thought, recalling the seemingly infinite number of things I did imperfectly every day.
With my therapist’s help, however, I recognized how often I held myself to an impossible standard—one I’d never apply to someone else—and then punished myself for failing to meet it.
“I’d like you to focus on treating yourself like you’d treat Julie,” she suggested. “Pay attention to your self-talk. When it’s critical, question whether you would apply it to your sister. If not, counter it with compassion.”
Once I began paying attention, I was stunned by the frequency and severity of negative thoughts I had about myself. Then I noticed how little benefit they offered. In fact, they did far more harm than good. Instead of helping me become perfect, they made me anxious, socially awkward, withdrawn, and deeply unhappy.
Replacing critical self-talk with compassion became easier with practice. In addition to helping me recover from an eating disorder, it set me up for a fulfilling career teaching college courses. It introduced me to hobbies I became passionate about, like horseback riding. It improved my relationships with family and friends. It led to my marriage. And, perhaps most importantly, it continues allowing me to find humor, and therefore joy, in life’s littlest moments.