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Discipline & Disordered Eating

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

How important it is to examine and heal your relationship with *discipline*

Happy Tuesday, and please enjoy this month’s guest post (below) by Stefanie Bonastia!

<3 Jessi


Discipline is a loaded concept, especially in the disordered eating recovery space.

Webster’s Dictionary defines discipline as: “control gained by enforcing obedience or order; self control; punishment.” Discipline around food and body, which at first feels empowering and goal-oriented (the more discipline you have, the less you eat, the more you work out), becomes threatening and oppressive when you’re healing from a disordered relationship to food and exercise.

Eating disorder recovery involves learning to relinquish that obsessive self-control and punishment in favor of self-kindness and intuition. In other words: in order to recover, we recognize that we have a disordered relationship with discipline and commit to letting it go.

What sometimes happens for people in recovery though, is that in the quest to reject the self-punishing version of discipline that once bred twice daily gym sessions and overriding hunger signals, discipline becomes a bad word. And so, under the illusion that you must now be a weak and undisciplined human being, you either adopt a “screw you” attitude and swing to the other side of the pendulum (usually in the form of chronic binging), or spend your time vacillating between discipline (restricting) and boundary-lessness (binging), unable to stay somewhere in the middle.

This inability to stay in the middle often happens because the person has literally no experience understanding discipline as a form of self-kindness. Instead, discipline has either been something they strictly adhered to for the purpose of tightly (and unsustainably) controlling themselves or something they abandoned to protect themselves from the expectation of it.

Folks in recovery tend to always either sprinting toward or sprinting away from discipline.

I was recently working with a client we’ll call Mina, who was a collegiate athlete, straight-A student, and all-around high achiever, but came to me because she no longer knew “how to eat”— she knew how to restrict and she knew how to binge, both in extremes, but no longer understood how to live without feeling starving or painfully full. She either had incredible discipline, or none at all.

Mina’s parents had divorced when she was young, so she grew up living between two houses. Her father was a strict disciplinarian who understood life through logic, and had little tolerance for the psychological complexities of a creative child who wanted to write and draw but also please her all-powerful father (who wanted her to be an athlete and law student, like he had been). His message was consistently one of working hard at all costs, and Mina absorbed his value system like a sponge. Her creative talents became pastimes to make room for athletics and good grades, which earned her the accolades of her father. She began to see her creative endeavors as frivolous and eventually dropped them because they weren’t bringing in plaques and trophies.

Meanwhile, according to Mina, her mother felt guilty about the divorce and didn’t approve of her ex-husband’s military style of discipline, so she adopted a much more relaxed approach to child-rearing. Everything Mina couldn’t get away with at her father’s house was free-reign at her mother’s — she was allowed to eat what she wanted, do what she wanted, hang out with who she wanted, and stay out as late as she wanted. When Mina pushed the envelope, her mother replied with a half-hearted protest that said, “no, but yes.” So she started doing things that she wasn’t sure she even wanted to be doing, just because she could.

Both of Mina’s parents were coming from a good place. They both thought they were giving Mina what she needed — success, from her father’s point of view, and freedom, from her mother’s. And both philosophies had something to offer. But the extremism on either side, which is often adopted by people with eating disorders, left her without an internal system for navigating the balance of her own best interest.

On one hand, achievement felt good; but it was rigid and punishing, and took her away from herself. On the other hand, freedom felt good; but it was loose and chaotic, and took her away from herself.

By the time Mina came to me, she was operating as two selves — one of discipline and one of chaos.

Mina’s situation tells the story of the internal battle so many people with eating disorders live with—that they understand discipline, and they understand chaos, but they don’t know how to manage life in the gray. There is a tendency to overshoot both, so that discipline always has to mean boot-camp level self-control while freedom has to mean open-ended mayhem. You either restrict or you binge.

What Mina, and many others struggling with this issue, come to realize is that discipline doesn’t have to be rejected and thrown out with the trash in order to recover. Is it useful to put it on the shelf as you rebuild your relationship with food and body, to let yourself relax and feel safe? Yes. But eventually, you realize that part of feeling safe is having boundaries. In order to feel secure, we need to know that we won’t be left in chaos.

But what does that mean, for someone recovering from disordered eating?

At first, it means allowing yourself to abandon the rules and eat whatever the hell you want for a period of time as your body learns that it is not, in fact, facing a famine. It means letting go of discipline. It is in the letting go of discipline that we have the space to actually listen to our internal guidance system without external rules running interference. Letting go of discipline offers us the opportunity to identify our hunger and fullness signals instead of overriding them with meal plans and WW points that tell us how much to eat. Without rules, we can re-establish our inner knowing.

This feels like chaos, at first.

It feels out of control, and kind of absurd to intentionally let the mayhem in. But through the chaos, discipline gets redefined. Instead of using discipline as a means of self-control and punishment, discipline becomes the inner advocate saying, “I’m hungry, it’s time to eat” and, “I’m finished now, and it’s time to stop.”

When discipline is used on both sides of the spectrum — to communicate what we want as much as to communicate what we don’t want — we land in self-kindness. Where discipline was once only used as a means to push (our selves, our achievements, our bodies), we can now experience it as a means to push and pull.

In that way, discipline can become less like a dictator and more like an ally.

It took Mina the better part of a year to undo the discipline-as-punishment mindset. During our time working together, she practiced surrendering control of food and exercise, which at first left her feeling ungrounded and directionless. When she felt shame over eating “too much” and followed it up by not exercising it off the next day, the discomfort felt suffocating. It did not magically shift because she spent a few weeks trying it on for size — it took many, many months.

What eventually happened for Mina, and for others who battle the discipline vs chaos tug of war, was that her willingness to embrace the chaos without running back to discipline allowed the pendulum’s momentum to slow down. Without the momentum to catapult her back to the other extreme, she was able to pay attention to her intuition at a slower pace. She decided that she actually did not want to be a collegiate athlete, but she kept running on her own for the feeling of it. She didn’t want to go to law school, but instead chose to major in journalism (which, incidentally, was a choice well-received by her father). And instead of staying stuck in the binge restrict cycle, she learned how to eat in a way that supported her athletic goals without binging or restricting.

By the time we finished working together, Mina was able to see gentle discipline as a way to honor her self-care in both directions.

Allow yourself to question the rigidity of your discipline, or the absence of it, in your own life. Are you too hard on yourself, or have you rebelled so furiously against the pressure of it that you can’t make use of boundaries anymore?

Don’t be afraid (or be afraid, but in a hell-yes kind of way!) to take it all down and sit in the sticky, messy, confusing discomfort while you lay a new foundation, created by you and only you.

You can rebuild the structure of your life with food, exercise, or anything in your life that feels out of control. Find support, and feel just short of “ready.” (You will never arrive at “ready”.) Will it be terrifying? Hell yes. Can it change the game? Also, hell yes.

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