Self-Love Letters

When I’m feeling unproductive and ready to make a change, I make to-do lists. I start out earnestly, thinking about the things I want to accomplish during the day, then I get overzealous, and before long, everything I intend to accomplish in my entire life is scribbled on the six lines my planner gives me for the day. By noon, I have to reevaluate my plans because there is simply not enough time. By bedtime, unmade phone calls, my messy bedroom, undone homework, and the fishbowl that still needs cleaning are weighing on me, and I feel like a failure.

Instead of overwhelming to-do lists, I propose a gentler idea: a self-love letter. Every night before I go to bed, I leave myself a note on the mirror encouraging me to do the essential things I need to get done, some ideas to entertain myself before going on the internet for hours on end, and a bit of positivity. It goes something like this:

Good morning! Today is Sunday, October 5th. It’s really important that you reschedule that doctor’s appointment today and turn in that essay. If you get bored today, think about going to the library, taking one of the dogs for a walk, or doing some writing. Don’t forget that you have work at 10:30 tomorrow, and you also told Colette you’d give her a ride to the bookstore at 5:00. If you start feeling sad, just remember that your family loves you and you have that concert to look forward to on the 18th. One great thing about you is your smile. Have an awesome day! 

You can customize this self-love letter any way you’d like. For me, the essentials of it are no more than three “to-do” items (turning in my essay and rescheduling the doctor’s appointment in the example above), a few suggestions of ways to fill up my day, and an affirmation. The ideas of things with which to fill my day was especially important when I was home from school but hadn’t started treatment yet. I found myself getting bored, which led to feeling sorry for myself, which led to feeling depressed. Keeping myself busy became essential. You might want to add a space for something you’re grateful for, a long-term goal you’re working towards, or a way you’re going to reward yourself for getting through the day. Keep it open-ended and positive, and you’re bound to have a better day.

The Reframe Game

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.