Yesterday, at the beginning of my second week in treatment, Claire, a former patient of my treatment center came to talk to us about sustaining recovery in the real world. As she shared her story with us, I began to notice some common themes: always putting others before herself but never feeling like she’d done enough, numbing or “stuffing” of emotions, shutting out friends and family, and intense body hatred and shame. I listened to Claire tell a story that sounded very similar to mine, and I was eager for the part where she would reveal how she conquered her personal Warden, how she banished the eating disorder voice from her head. I was dismayed to hear that she hadn’t. Claire calmly explained to us that she still experiences eating disorder thoughts and urges. What had changed was that she deals with them in a completely different way than she has in the past.
This left me stumped and feeling a bit underwhelmed. What’s the point of all the hard work I’m doing in treatment if Ill never be free of the obsessive, destructive eating disorder thoughts that make me miserable? Claire went on to talk about the coping skills that work for her and repeatedly mentioned reframing as one of them.
Reframing is a way of thinking that involves acknowledging that you’re having a negative thought and trying to replace it with a more positive one. For example, if I have to write a ten page paper on a subject I don’t understand, I might think, “I’m going to fail this assignment because I am too stupid to grasp the concept.” To reframe this thought, I must first acknowledge that it is negative. During my senior year of high school, I spent several months in an intensive outpatient program where I learned to simply say, “I am having the thought that I am stupid.” This takes some of the power away from the thought and puts some distance between you and it, inviting you to examine whether the thought is really true.
The next step is to come up with a positive or neutral statement to counter your original thought. It doesn’t have to be something so over-the-top that you’d never believe it. I wouldn’t tell myself, “I will get an A+ on this assignment because I am smarter than my professor.” Rather, a good way to reframe the negative thought would be to tell myself, “I may not understand the material now, but I have the study skills to learn it, and I am a good enough writer to make this work.”
As Claire continued with her story, telling us how she reframes her thoughts on a daily basis, I realized that I often reframe my own thoughts without meaning to. The way Claire talked about reframing made me want to incorporate it into my own life more often. I imagined having as many positive thoughts as I do negative ones. That’s a lot of positivity! Someday, Claire and I, and all the other women with me in treatment will be free of disordered thoughts and urges. But in the meantime, recovery is having the thoughts but responding to them differently. To be in recovery I will still hear what my disorder tells me, but I will choose not to believe its lies, and not engage in disordered behaviors. Someday, I will be fully recovered. Until then, I will reframe, reframe, and reframe again.