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What is a “life list” and how can it ease my eating disorder symptoms?

For months, or in many cases years, you have been using your eating disorder to soothe you in times of emotional distress.  It may have become automatic and feel like it would be impossible to do something different. 

The truth is, we all need multiple ways of comforting and soothing ourselves when under stress, and many of us never learned how.  If you’re working with a therapist, they can help you to figure out why you never learned. 

In order for you to feel relief from your eating disorder quickly, you can skip right to the part where you develop and practice other, more healthy ways of handling trigger situations. 

I have found it very helpful for my clients to separate comfort into five different categories. 

Why? 

Because getting a hug or taking a warm bath is not going to cut it for soothing every stressful situation, just as your eating disorder doesn’t cut it. 

You need a plentiful and varied list of comforting behaviors that you have at the ready to use when you feel like purging, bingeing or starving. 

Then, once you have that list, you need to practice, practice, practice using them so they become almost second nature to you.  The goal is for your comfort list to become your LIFE list – the list you will pull out every time you experience stressful feelings in your life.

Here is a more thorough description of the five different types of comforts:

  1. Emotional Comforts: 

These are the ways you express emotions, including happiness.  The most natural ways to receive emotional comfort from the time you were born are:

crying when sad

and

expressing anger appropriately

 

Unfortunately, many people were told or shown while growing up that it was not safe to cry when sad, either because they would be shamed out of it, or would be physically harmed if they showed sadness.  Boys and men in particular are often shamed out of crying because our culture and sometimes our families saw crying as a sign of being too weak or feminine.

 

Do you know that it is possible to express anger without raising ones voice and also while showing love and affection?  Many of my clients learned either that anger was never to be shown (i.e. let’s sweep all of this under the rug and never discuss it), or that anger was violent and out of control. 

 

Other examples of emotional comfort are:

  • getting hugs
  • talking to a friend
  • seeing a funny movie
  • having a celebration party
  • writing in a journal

 

2.   Physical Comforts:

These are the activities you use to release stress physically and also to pamper your body.  People with eating disorders have to be careful that using physical comforts does not turn into exercise purging. 

How to know the difference? 

Every time you feel the urge to exercise, ask yourself honestly: “Am I exercising because I want to relax and reduce stress and have a sense of well-being, or am I doing it because I feel fat today and want to lose weight and burn calories?” 

You can guess that the former is the goal to strive for, not the latter.

If you are finding that you have an overwhelming desire to exercise for calorie burning and weight loss ask yourself, what happened or what was I thinking about that triggered my “fat feelings” and desire to exercise purge? 

Find your trigger, and then try to use other non-physical categories on the comfort list to soothe your stress.

Body pampering can also be a difficult task for people with eating disorders because they have often learned to please others rather than focus on their own needs and pleasure.  Remember, in order to truly be able to help and support others, we need to come from a place of strength and life balance. 

Physically nurturing our bodies is an essential part of self-care. 

Some examples of physical comforts are:

  • taking walks
  • getting a massage
  • getting a manicure and pedicure
  • doing yoga
  • swimming​​​​​​

3.   Social Comforts:

Eating disorders are life thieves – they steal friends and family away from you.  As your eating disorder symptoms get worse, you will tend to isolate from the people who care about and love you the most. 

There is often fear bordering on paranoia when having to eat in front of others, so meals are skipped or eaten alone.  Your energy is sapped from lack of nutrition and thinking constantly about food, so there isn’t much left for social interaction.  

But human beings are not meant to live alone. 

We need help and support from others in order to be happy and thrive.  That’s why one of the assignments I give my clients is called “Telling.”  When you are ready, you are to tell about your eating disorder to others in a way that helps you let go of the secrecy and shame you have held for so long.  For some people it is having the courage to finally tell their significant other that they have an eating disorder, for others it is speaking at an Eating Disorders Awareness Week rally, and for others it can be writing a letter to a magazine opposing their portrayal of women in their advertisements.

You also need social comforts in your life.

Some examples of social comforts are:

  • going out with a friend
  • taking a risk to make new friends
  • getting involved in an organization you care about
  • volunteering
  • recontacting friends you may have shut out of your life
  •  

4.    Intellectual Comforts:

We are not earthworms that spend their lives burrowing through the dirt never becoming bored.

Human beings need to learn in order to be happy and grow.  You don’t have to learn physics (unless that thrills you!), but you need to bring new knowledge and skills into your life to remember that the world is a magnificent and never ending source of wonder. 

Too often, when eating disorders hit, they entrap an individual into an isolated, static world.  This means that not only emotionally and socially, but mentally they are deprived of healthy opportunities to learn and grow.

Engaging our minds in learning new, fun information and skills is healthy exercise for our brains.  Learning has a way of opening up new avenues for thought, growth, and happiness, and ultimately, hope. 

It even becomes physically, emotionally, and socially beneficial when our minds have a secure, healthy activity to focus on.  When your mind is comforted by more intellectually engaging material, your entire life will be energized, and your eating disorder will fade into the background. 

Have you stopped learning new things?

Some examples of intellectual comforts are:

  • taking a class
  • learning a new hobby
  • reading a book
  • joining a discussion group

 

5.    Spiritual Comforts

By spiritual comforts I don’t necessarily mean going to a house of worship, although many people would include that here.  What is it in life that makes you feel there is some meaning in the world, something beautiful holding us all together despite all of the hardship and sadness one can encounter in life? 

Many of the clients I work with who have suffered severe loss or abuse have trouble answering this question.  Either they feel their spirituality and hope in life was stolen from them by their difficult experiences, or they never were able to explore in a safe way what their spirituality meant to them. 

If you can’t fill in this part right now, do not despair.  Take your best guess and TRY.

Some examples of spiritual comfort are:

  • being with children
  • prayer
  • meditating
  • being in nature
  • painting and other artistic activities
  • healing your abuse experiences with the help of therapy

 

Keep in mind that some comforts can overlap into two or more categories.  For example, what you place in the spiritual comfort zone could also fall into the emotional, and vice versa.  It is not as important where you list the comforts, but that you have a wide variety and use them often.

 

What should be on every person’s comfort list?

Although the comfort list needs to be highly personalized and different for every user, there are several items that need to be included on everyone’s life list in order to create a self-care plan that makes your eating disorder a thing of the past.

  • Learning to express your feelings in a healthy way to healthy people;
  • Learning to say no and set appropriate boundaries;
  • Stop over-committing and over-functioning;

 

Then just once that week, if you feel like binging, purging or restricting, try to substitute an idea from the comfort list instead. If you still end up engaging in the eating disordered behavior, try to figure out the trigger afterwards, and STILL try something off the comfort list. 

These are new behaviors to you, and no one can master them right away. Practicing is important, even if you do it after you use your eating disorder behaviors.

Eventually, over time, the life list should become natural to you. And your eating disorder will no longer be necessary for comfort.  And, as always, don’t be afraid to ask for coaching and help if you are getting stuck in your symptoms – you don’t have to go it alone!

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