Missing Link in ED Recovery: Self-Compassion

By Camille Williams, LCPC, CEDS-S, Eating Disorder Program Coordinator, Timberline Knolls

Research has demonstrated that recovery from an eating disorder (ED) often takes years and lots of treatment (Eddy et al., 2017). Relapses and ambivalence are very common in the recovery process. Part of this is because ED behaviors are “helpful” in some ways and serve a function such as numbing difficult emotions or providing a sense of control. Another part is a lack of self-compassion.

Individuals with eating disorders often report feeling worthless and not good enough. The ED confirms these thoughts while providing a “solution” to feel worthy and good enough. The ED may convince someone if they are thin enough they will be worthy or if they only eat “good” foods (whatever ED dictates) then they will be worthy. Of course, because the inherent belief of this individual is that they are not good enough, their ED shares this belief as well. Therefore, the individual can never live up to the eating disorder’s expectations. They are still not thin enough or they “slipped” and ate something they “shouldn’t” have. This continues the shame cycle of feeling unworthy and using ED behaviors to cope.

A significant part of recovery is decreasing ED behaviors, and the other part of this shame cycle includes addressing the beliefs about self. This part of the shame cycle cannot be neglected or ignored. Recovery will be challenging if low self-worth is maintained while trying to comply with recovery recommendations around behaviors.

Eating disorders are in distinct opposition to self-compassion and self-worth. Food and water are two of the most basic and necessary human needs. Taking care of self and the body with compassion and a sense of worth means basic needs are a top priority.

Food is often a way to show compassion, love, and care to others. From newborn babies to experiencing loss to celebrating new transitions in life, these things all have food or nourishment as a central theme. Food is nourishing not only for sustaining life, but also as connection, comfort, and love.

Part of recovery is recognizing and accepting being worthy of all those things – connection, love, comfort, and food. The wonderful thing about starting a self-compassion practice is that so many individuals in recovery are already incredibly compassionate people. They can provide connection, love, and comfort so well to those they care about. Recovery is time when it is crucial to start doing that for self as well.

Here are some tips for increasing self-compassion:

  1. When you are experiencing a difficult situation or emotion, notice your initial thoughts. Would you say those thoughts to a friend or are they too critical and mean? Think of what you would say to a friend instead. This will start to change the narrative in your mind and help with practicing more empathy and kindness towards self. Think of it as the “golden rule” in reverse, treat yourself the way you treat others.
  2. Reassess or redefine what self-worth is to you. Again, maybe think about how you see worth in others and begin to apply that same definition of worth to self.
  3. Compliment yourself for your accomplishments and focus on goals related to values that align with a meaningful life. Does tracking weight or calories bring meaning to your life? Or do you get more joy out of being with loved ones? If you already have a daily gratitude practice, include one thing to appreciate about yourself each day. Take the time to revel in living by your values rather than trying to shrink yourself and your life.


Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. The Guilford Press.

Eddy, K.T., Tabri, N., Thomas, J.J., Murray, H.B., Keshaviah, A., Hastings, E., Edkins, K., Krishna, M., Herzog, D.B., Keel, P.K., & Franko, D.L. (2017). Recovery from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa at 22-year follow-up.  The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 78(2), 184-189. https://doi.org/10.4088/icp.15m10393.


*The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp™ Foundation, Inc. or its Board of Directors.*

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