When you study psychology, you keep monitoring yourself. At first, it’s scary because every single disorder you learn about seems to apply. Then it’s fascinating.
Then it becomes automatic.
I can geek out about psychology for days, but I’ll try to funnel it down to the bare essentials here for those who aren’t like me and actually enjoy things other than digging around in the recesses of other people’s minds.
So CBT (cognitive behavior therapy), which is sort of the leading kind of therapy right now in the world of psychology, is based on the idea that people have distortions in three aspects of their lives: affect, behavior and cognition (ABC for short, because we psych majors love mnemonic devices). The idea is that a distorted thought can cause distorted emotion and thus lead to maladaptive behavior (of course, the connection between the three is fluid and interchangeable). Therefore, the focus of CBT is to change these distorted cognitions (automatic thoughts or overarching cognitions about the world called schemas) and learn adaptive coping strategies. It’s very straightforward, very clinical, and there are no vague terms flying around like Gestalt or penis envy (unless your cognitive distortion is related to the size of your pecker).
Where am I going with this?
Well, wrongful cognitions. And how they apply to recovering anorexics.
A lot of current anorexics find themselves thinking and believing things like:
- I’m fat.
- Fat people are unhappy.
- I’m unhappy because I’m fat.
- Nobody loves me because I’m fat etc.
The list goes on and on. When you’re recovering, though, there’s another thought that slips in almost effortlessly (as is not the case with your ass and those pre-treatment jeans).
But wasn’t it better before? Wasn’t it better to be skinny?
I have to admit, it’s tempting. So, so tempting to just give in to this thought and submit to its ease and practicality. When you think about it, starving yourself has a lot of upsides. Well, if you think about it from the point of view of someone who has a chemical imbalance in their brain, anyway.
- You save money on groceries.
- You can wear anything from an actual fashion catalog because let’s face it, clothes are made for stick figures.
- You have attention (who cares if it’s negative?)
- You feel in control (most of the time, intermittent bouts of random groundless crying aside).
- People who don’t know you well enough compliment you on your looks.
The good thing about CBT (at least for someone who is obsessed with getting shit done like I am) is that CBT loves lists. CBT loves lists. A lot of the mental exercises that are used in treatment emphasize structure and listing and all those deliciously cringe-worthy things.
A lot of the times lists are made to challenge those skewed world views. So let’s get back to what we had above:
- You save money on groceries. But you feel like your stomach is about to glue itself to your spine.
- You can wear anything from an actual fashion catalog because let’s face it, clothes are made for stick figures. But all your old clothes keep calling out to you longingly and your relatives are scared of hugging you because they think you might break. Also no boobs.
- You have attention (who cares if it’s negative?) BUT IT’S MOSTLY NEGATIVE, YOU FRIGHTEN PEOPLE.
- You feel in control (most of the time, intermittent bouts of random groundless crying aside). But you’re not. It’s your eating disorder that’s controlling you.
- People who don’t know you well enough compliment you on your looks. And those who do know you are one step away from carting you away to a loony bin (well, if they still had those).
My point? It wasn’t better. It’s just really hard to see that when you’re stuck in this loop of distorted thinking, a self-destructive routine that permeates all three aspects of your life: your affect (let’s face it, you’re either miserable or maniacally happy), your behavior (because who doesn’t lick the yoghurt top after they open it?) and your cognition, which is the hardest, most difficult thing to change. We are biological organisms and we rely on shortcuts and schemas to make things easier and life more manageable.
Except sometimes they make it harder.
More info on cognitive distortions:
- Burns, David D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook: Using the New Mood Therapy in Everyday Life. New York: W. Morrow. ISBN 0-688-01745-2.
- 15 Common Cognitive Distortions.