The Comparison Game.
I don’t know about all of you, but I struggle with comparing myself to others BIG time. Typically I compare in order to decide if I measure up to some unknown or made up standard that just seems to be there. I compare to be able to feel good about myself, but more often then not it makes me feel bad about myself. I need to know how I’m doing in life. I mean, how else do I know if what I’m doing is ok other then deciding where I fall in line compared to everyone else?
The problem with comparison is that it always leads me to some sort of judgement about myself. If I’m honest, it cuts me down more then it motivates me. When I’m on the “losing” end of a comparison, I feel insecure, anxious and bad. When I’m on the “winning” end of it, I become self-centered, prideful and have a false superiority. I’ve never looked at another person, compared myself, and had anything good come from it. Either I immediately feel bad about myself, or I feel better about myself, but in a manner that is an “I’m better then you,” sort of way, which is gross and wrong too.
There are the typical ways that I compare myself to others. Who makes more money? Who is in better shape? Who has a “cleaner” diet? Who has a better job? Who has the best decorated house? Who has better hair? Who has the best outfit? Who is a “better” Christian? I could go on for a really long time, but one of the not so obvious ways that I have compared myself to others comes from my good old Eating Disorder.
Having anorexia makes the comparison game even worse. It ups the anti. I already compare myself to others on a basic level, but eating disorders take it to the extreme. It’s like a voice in my head that is constantly keeping score and THE best way to win is this unhealthy standard of my body and nutrition. The perfectionism that comes along with an eating disorder and the critical judgment and harshness that it brings, not only towards myself but towards others, leads to major boughts of comparison, most often leading me to feel worthless, ugly and insecure or so anxious that I’ll lose my standing that I become even more obsessed and rigid.
People will assume that the number one comparison that an anorexic struggles with the most is comparing our body to others. Of course there is the body comparison but the one that has plagued me the most is FOOD. Comparing what I eat to what other people eat is a HUGE problem that has at times left me in tears and afraid to eat.
It’s like I have a heightened super power to pay attention to what everyone in a room is eating, how much of it they are eating, how little of it they are eating, how fast they were eating etc. I then compare it to how much I am eating, how fast I am eating and what I chose to eat. What’s worse is I don’t intentionally do this. It just happens. It’s like my eating disorder trained my mind to automatically do this and I feel helpless against it.
While I was anorexic I was never able to go to a meal without being completely consumed by the food comparison. There was the calorie counting and the avoidance of fear foods, but on top of all of that was the constant drone of my mind telling me that what I ate was worse then what someone else ate. That if I didn’t order the salad I would not be thinner then the person next to me. If I somehow took one more bit of the shared cheesecake then the other person I was somehow morally wrong and should be punished. I must lack self control and they obviously had it more together then I did because they didn’t need an extra bite. It also could have the opposite effect, making me feel superior. I am better because I can avoid pasta and be fine with my baked chicken with no sauce. I was rewarded by my eating disorder when I ate less then other people at the table or chose foods that had less calories.
I had rules. Rules that I didn’t even consciously know existed. I must always eat less then everyone at the table. If they have two slices of pizza and I have zero, I am better. I must always be the last one done. I must always leave food on my plate. If I share a meal I must always take less. If I do these type of things, I win! I’m better and more in control then they are. Sadly, however, it was much more like, I was being controlled then I was in control.
This was detrimental in so many ways. First of all, I could never enjoy a meal with other people. EVER. I hated going out to eat. I couldn’t concentrate on conversation. I became critical of them based on what and how much they ate. I wasn’t present and it wasn’t enjoyable. It was always best to just not eat or eat as little as possible to make the ED voice happy and allow me to be as present as possible. Second, and most importantly, I reduced eating to a game. It wasn’t about what I needed nutritionally, it was about control and being better than. I never ate what I wanted. I ate what my ED allowed and what I felt was ok compared to everyone else. I had lost the complete and total ability to eat for myself. It was always based on everyone else and rules.
When I entered treatment and started to eat again the comparing of food with others didn’t go away, it just simply reared its ugly head in different ways. I became increasingly insecure about the amount of food I was eating. In recovery it is important to eat a LOT of food. The body needs the nutrients to heal the damage. So, all of a sudden I am eating MORE then a lot of people around me and I became increasingly anxious and insecure. I was ALWAYS hungry. I was also gaining weight rapidly on what most people would call a normal amount of food. The confusion about what my body was doing left me frantic when I ate with others. Because of my anorexia I had lost all ability to understand what “normal” eating was, so I would hawk watch everyone around me to see if what I was eating was ok or not. Instead of making sure I was eating less, I now was making sure I wasn’t eating too much. Is it normal to eat a whole burger? How many scoops of ice cream do most people eat? If I eat two eggs in the morning, and they eat only one am I overeating? Again I reduced my food intake to how it compared with others. If I finished before everyone I must be out of control. If I finished my entire meal and the person across from me did not I would automatically feel like I ate too much, even if my body was telling me that it was the right amount. If I was the one who chose a sandwich in a group that was eating salads, was I making an unhealthy choice? This questioning chatter is relentless.
Again I was plagued with the food comparison and it was again detrimental to my life. I wouldn’t allow myself to eat enough in recovery because I felt like I was eating more then other people, and that was “bad.” Other times I would eat what I was supposed to and because it was more then someone else I would be overcome with anxiety and stress. I still could not eat with other people without the constant stream of thoughts about what I was eating vs what they were eating. Even in my support group I would automatically feel bad if I finished my meal and others didn’t. I felt shame about the amount I ate and beat myself up for allowing myself to eat. My body image, if you can believe it, took an even further nose dive down. How can they eat that and be fit, but I eat the same thing and have the shape of a telletubie? I must not be eating right. Maybe if I ate one egg like them instead of two at breakfast I wouldn’t have these dang bingo arms. It’s like a hurricane of thoughts in my head that leaves me insecure, confused and tired. I again wish I could just avoid food altogether because it is just TOO stressful.
These thoughts are constant. Even now, almost two years into my recovery process, I still have automatic thoughts to compare my food intake with others. Just the other day I was splitting a slice of cheesecake with my husband and automatically started counting how many bites I had to how many he had. The good news is that despite this incessant onslaught of thoughts, I HAVE learned how to eat for myself, fight these thoughts and make them lose their power.
First of all, my body is not your body. My hunger is not your hunger. What I like may not be what you like. What my body needs at that minute may not be what your body needs. My natural size is not your natural size. These things were VERY hard to believe in the beginning. We are all led to believe that one size should fit all. That there is a BEST body type. That there is a diet that is perfect for all people. This was so hard that when I started to eat for myself I depended on my dietician to let me know that what I was eating was ok. I couldn’t trust myself yet, but I was willing to try. So I ate for me and I trusted her to let me know if what I was eating was unhealthy or not. Over time I started to realize that when I listened to my own body and ate intuitively, I had a well rounded diet that was a healthy amount of food and nutrients FOR ME.
Second of all, I had to realize that I don’t know what other people eat or do in a day. I don’t know how much energy they are expending or intaking. I use to show up to a meal and assume everyone was at the same place I was when it came to hunger. I’ve learned this assumption is what leads me to the comparison game. When I accept that I don’t know what everyone else eats or does in a day, it made it easier to accept what I needed to eat for myself rather then comparing it to what they were choosing to eat in the moment. When I am STARVING at lunch because it is now 2pm and I haven’t eaten since 8am, but someone else ate a big late breakfast that I didn't’ know about at 11am, so they want a small lunch, it is hard for me to be ok with the fact that I need to eat more at lunch then they do. I had to realize it was OK for me to eat what I needed to eat. I need to eat for me. Unless people hand me their food intake for the day, I literally have no idea how much they eat or don’t eat, so I am basically comparing myself to the unknown, which is not only unwise, it isn’t healthy.
Third, I had to realize that I can not read minds and the judgements that I assume others are making of me, either don’t exist or don’t matter because they have no idea. For example, I have gained a LOT of weight. I would consider my current body over-weight for me. (Notice I said FOR ME.) If I go back for seconds at a meal, I automatically assume that everyone is thinking, “of course the big girl would go back for more food….” This thought has kept me from eating enough food more times then I can count. Even with my family. I had to stop believing the lie that because of my current size, I should not be allowed to eat the amount my body needs and since another person might be smaller then me it is ok for them to eat more. My size is not an indication of how hungry or full I am. I also had to realize that no one has actually said these things to me so I do not know FOR SURE that they are thinking it, AND if they are thinking it, jokes on them because they have no idea what is going on with my body and why it currently is the weight that it is. Having these realizations allowed me to eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full, not for my size or the fear of the thoughts that other people were having about my size.
Fourth, I have to stick to the facts. One of the comparisons that I get caught up in the most is the one where I see someone who is fit eating more then me and I get upset because I am eating less but over-weight. I automatically think I am doing this all wrong. I start to believe that maybe I shouldn’t eat this amount of food after all because it obviously is not working out for me. When these thoughts begin to take over I need to take a step back and look at the facts. The fact that helps me the most for this one is, I am recovering from an eating disorder and they are not. My body is NOT normal right now and it is not healthy and happy. It is healing. My metabolism has been suppressed and my body is hoarding fat to protect me. These are facts. I am not over-weight because I am eating wrong, I am over-weight because this is what my body needs to do to heal. These facts help me to take a step back and stop comparing myself to people with healthy bodies. Mine is currently not healthy. That’s a fact.
Fifth, everyone is on a dang diet and it is REALLY REALLY REALLY hard to overcome an eating disorder and food comparison thoughts when sexy slim Susie is bragging about cutting out gluten because she watched a Netflix documentary and now she has lost ten pounds. It is very easy for me to quickly spiral into the thoughts that I should be back on a diet and maybe eating bread isn’t good after all. I mean, look at Susie! She is so thin and happy and here I am eating Potbelly, overweight and unhappy. Maybe what I’m doing isn’t right after all. WRONG. This one is very difficult to combat. We live in a diet obsessed America and to choose to not be on a diet is almost considered radical at this point! The thought that we can eat all foods (yes, chocolate and cake, and bread, full fat yogurt, and sugar) is so bogus to most people now a days that I often feel alone on my journey to freedom. It is extremely hard to sit across from a Susie at lunch and not compare what I am doing to what she is doing. The ONE thing that gets me out of my comparison rut is to remember that I once was Susie….and how did that work out for me? How did cutting out food groups and counting calories and starving myself end up? Did it make me happy? Did I feel fulfilled? Did it work? Nope! Sure, I lost weight...for a little while. Then my body out-smarted me and does it's own thing! I would consider myself an elitist when it comes to dieting…and it almost killed me. I also am able to look at the science behind dieting and how our bodies react to it. This helps me to pull out of my comparison cycle and tune into the fact that if I cut out certain nutrients that my body needs, it is detrimental to my health. If I become obsessed with eating no sugar, people literally find me annoying to be around. I remember quickly how crazy dieting makes me and I it snaps me back to being ok with eating for me again.
At the end of the day I don’t know if I will ever be able to sit down to a meal and not compare what and how much I am eating to others. My prayer though is that when I am fully recovered from my eating disorder that I will be completely free from these thoughts. My goal is to eventually be able to become so confident in my freedom and health that these comparisons don’t even cross my mind. I’m realistic and know that this will take time. Undoing years and years of an ingrained thought process doesn’t happen over night. But I’m confident that by putting the energy into fighting these thoughts and comparisons during my recovery, while draining and stressful, will eventually lead me to my goal. I’m confident in this because today, I am SO much different then I was a year and a half ago. The thoughts still come, but they have so much less power then before. It use to take me a week of crying over a comparison to calm down and check the facts. Now I can do it within moments!
Eating for me is one of the hardest concepts of recovery that I have had to learn AND it has also been one of the most freeing. Plus, who wouldn’t want an extra bite of dessert? It’s really freaking good!
- Sara -