Eating Disorder Voice

What is it?

Put simply, the eating disorder voice is a negative form of self-talk, or a person’s inner critic that is a part of their eating disorder. It refers to specific thoughts that are driven by, and can maintain, the eating disorder. It is both problematic and disruptive. The voice has been described by some as ‘toxic’.[i]

What does it do?

  • It creates and sets certain rules in relation to food, weight, body behaviours, and how the person interacts with other
  • It creates a distorted logic that conflicts with a person’s rational thoughts and this in turn contributes to emotional distress.
  • It may make promises, threats and feel as though life without it is not possible.
  • It may reinterpret comments made by others and undermine a person’s confidence.
  • It may demand an exclusive relationship with the individual.
  • The negative, controlling and belittling tone of the voice may attempt to discourage a person from using their personal support network.
  • The voice may be rigid, rule-orientated, harsh, loud, critical and demanding

Initially, the voice may be experienced as a source of comfort, however it may rapidly push a person’s body and self-control to the extreme.

Aspects of the voice often emerge when individuals contact Bodywhys by phone, email and through the organisation’s support groups. For some people, it can feel as though they ‘must’ or ‘should’ do certain things as part of their eating disorder.

Dealing with the voice

Counteracting the voice can be a significant challenge. Professional support can be effective by developing a positive rapport to help to deal with the eating disorder voice mindset. Friends and family can also play a role. The voice may be present in the background, ready to jeopardise the progress an individual has made. Becoming free of the voice can feel stressful as a person may have previously experienced it as source of guidance. Moving forward may involve trying to separate out the person’s individual beliefs from those that are primarily driven by the eating disorder voice.

Examples of the eating disorder voice:[ii]

  • Promises (of reduced pain): If I’m thinner/lose more weight then rejection and criticism won’t hurt so much.
  • Threats: If I don’t keep my eating under control, I’m going to get obese and be rejected by everyone
  • Self-disappointment: I’m so disappointed at myself: I’ve failed to live up to my dietary ideals again.
  • Self-criticism: I’m such a failure. I try really hard to do well and make friends but I’m just not the type of person I want to be.
  • Reinterpretations: When they say things like “you’re looking well”, what they’re really meaning is how much weight I’ve put on.
  • Moral judgements: Practising self-restraint is an important virtue. I despise people who have no self-control.
  • Fear of life without an eating disorder: If I let go of my strict control and ideals around eating, I’m really quite frightened about what life would be like.
  • Denial (of symptoms): Feeling tired and/or cold doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me. I just have to be stronger.

[i] Tierney, S. and Fox, J.R.E. (2011) Trapped in a toxic relationship: comparing the views of women living with anorexia nervosa to those experiencing domestic violence. Journal of Gender Studies, 20(1), 31-41.

[ii] Scott, N., Hanstock, T.L. & Thornton, C. (2014) Dysfunctional self-talk associated with eating disorder severity and symptomatology. Journal of Eating Disorders, 2(14).

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