What to Do When Your Eating Disorder Throws a Tantrum?

 Photo Credit:  J  ulian Santa Ana

Photo Credit: Julian Santa Ana

Does the eating disorder ever kick and scream inside your head, demanding that you obey and making you feel like crap if you don’t?  

It’s like living with a toddler in your head.

This rings even truer for me now that I have an actual toddler who is throwing tantrums.  During a recent tantrum, I was sitting there thinking about what to do and it went something like this:

-What is he upset about?
-Can something be done to help?
-Should I give him what he wants, or should I set a boundary and say no?
-This is really hard.  
-I notice that my body is really activated right now - my heart is beating faster, my stomach hurts, and I just want to spring into action.
-I am feeling angry, frustrated, helpless and sad.  
-This is totally like when the ED throws a tantrum!

The short vs. long-term dilemma

When the eating disorder throws a tantrum, you basically have 2 options: 

a) You could give in to the eating disorder's demands and quiet the voice now.  

b) You could say no to the eating disorder and suffer the wrath of those loud thoughts, and probably feel crummy about yourself for a while.  

The problem with choice “a” is that by giving in you have reinforced the behavior. It’s like buying the tantruming kid the toy he’s pleading for. The message conveyed is that throwing a tantrum gets him what he wants. Same thing with the eating disorder. By giving in you have reinforced that neural pathway, which becomes more and more automatic over time.  

The challenge with choice “b” is that it’s going to be difficult right now. And that’s really hard.  Just like when my son tantrums, it’s painful as a mother to watch your child cry and feel upset.  But I know that in the long-run he’s better off with the boundaries. It teaches him to work through the discomfort, rather than expecting to always get his way.  

An important point

What you are doing when you choose to tell the eating disorder no – in the face of a tantrum – is very important.  

You are showing yourself that you CAN work through the discomfort.  

You are also showing yourself that you CAN stay the course in recovery, even (especially) when the eating disorder doesn’t want you to.  

Ultimately this is what it takes to recover. Those boundaries are there to keep you safe. The eating disorder behaviors are self-destructive and at times dangerous. So even though the boundary doesn’t feel good in the moment, it is ultimately protective.  

How to take care of yourself while the eating disorder tantrums

It is important to give yourself lovingkindness while the eating disorder is throwing its tantrum.  

Start by noticing that the tantrum is happening and that you are actively making the choice to disobey the eating disorder.  

Give yourself compassion for how hard it is. You might tell yourself, This is really hard right now.  It sucks that I am going through this. I trust that it will eventually pass. In the meantime, I am going to be kind to myself, and firm against the eating disorder.

Be intentional about your next move. Make an empowered decision about what you are going to do in the face of the tantrum. For example, if the eating disorder is telling you to skip lunch, you could make a plan to eat lunch with a friend for accountability.  

Ride the wave. The tantrum will be like a wave that comes and goes. It might crest multiple times before it completely passes. You can’t prevent the waves from happening, but you can learn how to ride them. It may help to distract yourself with something kind or productive.  However, don’t forget to check back in with yourself later to make sure that the eating disorder isn’t being sneaky and working in other ways.  

You will find that with practice, your tantrum-resisting muscle will grow stronger. You will become more and more aware of when the tantrum is happening, and you’ll feel confident in your ability to respond in a way that is both firm and compassionate.  

Katy Harvey, RD is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) from Kansas City.  She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.

Katy Harvey, RD, CEDRD

Katy Harvey is a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) from Kansas City.  She has an outpatient private practice where she helps individuals heal their relationship with food, exercise and their body. She also blogs at Katy’s Blog.