Here’s to another “story-time” post. Something really stuck with me from work last week. Side-note: I work as a behavioral health counselor at a eating disorder recovery treatment center. While work is guaranteed to be unpredictable, one thing is certain for each work shift is that I will most definitely be asked a question by the patients that I am unable to answer. Last weeks shift was no exception to this. The topic? None other than “beauty.”
A patient approached me and asked, “do you think I’m beautiful?” She was tearful and looking for a specific response that I (ethically) could not give her. This is where things get tricky in recovery. No matter what response I chose to gave her, the disordered part of her can still easily distort it and internalize it as a negative representation of herself. In other words: responding or not responding was really a lose-lose situation. I explained this point to her, which perhaps made a bit of sense to the part of her that wanted recovery. She was still searching for more. She was searching for me to validate the eating disordered part of her that wanted to hear that she was beautiful.
“What I can say is that you constantly show courage. You showed strength tonight as you overcame your fear at dinner. You allow yourself to be vulnerable, and that is something to be so proud of.” The hard part was that this still wasn’t good enough for her to hear. And understandably so; ED’s like to place so much of our worth on our external appearance and what we believe beauty is or should be, while ignoring every other part of our identity that is so valuable.
Your first thought to my decision may be: “screw ethics. She required simple kindness of you and trusted that you would cheer her up and validate her.” Again, I understand where this perspective comes from. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what she thought she wanted to hear. Why? Because the ED distorts all compliments. Telling her she was beautiful would only reinforce what the eating disorder wanted to hear: that there was beauty in the current unhealthy state she still is in. I did not want the conversation to become appearance and beauty-focused, which would allow ED to win. It would be unethical if I chose to have the conversation go in that direction.
She is currently in such a safe environment in treatment. This is the time to process the intention behind her question: “what answer am I looking to hear, and why? What will this response do for me in recovery?” It is also the time to process how she felt after my response. My reply to this patient wasn’t supposed to be a reply that her ED wanted to hear, but a reply that would push her in recovery.
Reminder for today:
You are all so much more than what you look like, and so much more than your body. We have so much to offer the world as soon as we separate ourselves from our eating disorder.