Common "Thinking Errors" Among Those With Eating Disorders

The following is a list of thinking errors common among those with eating disorders. Author Gary A. Grahl's is not only a former E.D. sufferer, but he is also a practicing licensed professional counselor. He knows what it's like to suffer from an E.D., and can he can help you identify the errors in thinking that often result in eating disorders. By identifying the thought processes that have led to your E.D., you can begin to make the changes necessary for your recovery.

The thinking error is in bold. In parenthesis, is a reference in Skinny Boy of Gary Grahl's thinking error, and how it affected his behavior. In italics, is Gary Grahl's professional explanation of why you should not allow yourself to believe this type of thinking.

"Expressing feelings is too uncomfortable. I can’t handle it."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 93; pg. 219-221)

We are emotional beings, though we may not want to admit it. Feelings need to be expressed in some fashion, even if only from a heavy sigh. “Stuffing” them down does not make them go away but only piles them on top of each other like blocks. When this tower gets too high, it becomes wobbly and will eventually topple over. Feelings work the same way, except when they are allowed to build and build they will topple over and come out crooked and ugly (i.e., tantrum, swearing, running away from home, drug and alcohol abuse, deliberately breaking rules, eating disorders, self-harm, etc.). They’ll also seep out through tiny cracks in your subconscious in the form of passive aggressive behavior, manipulation, lying, and other destructive behaviors. If you can learn to express them directly and politely, you will avoid many of the complicating problems down the road.

"It’s not okay to be angry. It will only get me in trouble."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 214-215)

Feeling angry is okay and normal. We all feel mad at times. How you choose to express it can be either harmful or helpful. The key word here: choose. Each of us “flies off the handle” every now and then. We are not perfect human beings. However, we are all responsible for maintaining control over our thoughts, words, and actions, no matter how much we choose to deny this fact. We become experts at making excuses (“He made me do it!” “I couldn’t help it!”) and blame because it’s so easy. So the next time you get mad, express it firmly, directly, but politely. Use “I” language (i.e., “I feel..., when you…, I want…”) The message will read like a billboard along a highway: Members in this family can be angry and still not lose love and positive attention. It works like a charm!

"Once I get down to ninety pounds, I will finally be satisfied.
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 134-135)

This goal is an illusion. It slides further out of reach the closer you get to it. Once you get to ninety pounds, your pride has a tendency to grip your motivation like a football coach giving you a pep talk at halftime. “IT” will cleverly convince you that this weight loss feels great and that you can do even “better.” Why let the dieting and exercising go to waste? The best defense against this trap is to throw your scale out the window or drop it into the incinerator. You will need to work on finding another focus of control that won’t harm your body or mind.

"Food must be earned."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 62)

We need to eat to live, not live to eat. The human body needs nourishing food to keep in running smoothly. That’s it. When we choose to use food as a means to comfort hurt, we are mistaking it for Band-Aids. It’s important to learn and develop other forms of coping. Lots of ideas are fair game: We can verbally identify feelings and express them appropriately, take a nap, exercise in healthful ways,  read, talk to a friend, write in a journal, visit a counselor, draw, mold clay, paint, take a drive, listen to music, the list goes on and on, only to be exceeded by your imagination. 

"The pride I feel holding on to my eating disorder is certainly worth it."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 16-19)

Pride is a secret weapon of shame. Since pride can be a good thing, as in taking pride in a job well done, school spirit, or in working hard to reach a goal, shame can easily twist it out of context and turn it into a tool of destruction. Hence, losing a few pounds to feel better about yourself is cleverly twisted into: “C’mon, you’ll feel even better if you lose more. The scale may read eighty-five pounds, but you did it. Think of what seventy-five pounds feels like!” The trick is to identify these thinking patterns and accept them as irrational. Sometimes writing the thoughts down in a journal and reading them through out loud can help your mind perceive them as harmful and even silly.

"My friends will think I'm some kind of freak if they find out I have an eating disorder."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 78-79)

True friends will be supportive and show they care with good intentions, even if they aren’t exactly sure what to say or how to act around you. Those who make snide remarks, talk behind your back, or tease you in some way are not deserving of your time and attention. They are either ignorant people—who you can choose to enlighten by explaining your situation—or outright cruel. It’s important—though this will be difficult, but possible—to seek out real friends during this time, people who take the time to be on your side. If you don’t have anyone who fits this description, pray or seek out God’s guidance, or think of ways to build at least one friendship. We need encouraging people during rough times.

"You see that person over there looking pretty, smart, popular, and 'all put together'? That’s success, and it’s the only way to feel truly fulfilled."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 57)

Some people who look all “put together” could win an Academy Award. You’d be surprised at how many of your peers with straight “A’s, with fantastic-looking bodies, popularity, smarts, and perfect families struggle with some type of addiction, embarrassing habits, abuse and neglect, loneliness, and hurt. Being fulfilled comes from a lot of steady hard work over time, building supportive relationships, developing your faith in God, and discovering and honing your talents and individuality. Another helpful strategy is to take the spotlight off of “me, me, me” and shine it on others through works of service. A sense of altruism and purpose will flow through your heart. It will feel good.


"Who I am is not 'good enough.' I have to be like somebody else."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 115)

You can’t help but be who you are. God has a purpose for your life and designed your body and mind for this very reason. I found that no matter how much I tried to play Let’s Be Somebody Else, I could only do it for a certain period of time—maybe a day or two. I always came back to ground zero, being someone without an identity. But the closer I examined that person, the more I realize he wasn’t a nobody but a somebody. Every now and then, someone would throw a compliment my way, referring to a talent they saw I had. “Gary, you have a caring heart and are a good listener. You’re resilient and have lots of determination. You’re really good at sports or always seem to find the good in others. You’re also stubborn and dislike someone dictating what you should or shouldn’t do. I also see you’re…” Welcome to the real you! Now go to work and make him into an even better work of art! 


"Openly disagreeing with someone is disrespectful and will ruin the relationship I have with that person."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 215)

Each of us is unique and special in our abilities but also with our opinions. Our own opinions are in no way tied to another person’s character. To express your viewpoint directly and politely, even if another person disagrees, is okay and responsible. If the other person chooses to get upset with you and wrongfully interprets your opinion as a personal attack, then that is their “stuff,” not yours. It originates from the person’s own baggage and needs to be understood as such. You cannot control another person’s perceptions, nor do you have a right to. You are only in charge of your own thoughts, words, actions, which includes the expression of emotion in a constructive way.  


"Love others instead of myself."
(See Matthew 19:19) (For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 65)

The Biblical words are: “Love others as yourself.” This means loving others with the same time and dedication that you put out for your own interests and needs. It means sharing another’s burdens, not transferring them onto your own shoulders. In other words, you are responsible to another person, but not for another person. Helping others sometimes mean holding back your well-intentioned assistance and letting them figure it out for themselves. It demonstrates confidence in the other person’s ability to problem solve and learn.


"Being honest with my parents about who I am and what I want is something neither of us can handle."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 151-154)

Your parents may not always agree with what you have to say, or with how you divulge your feelings. But your parents have lived a larger quantity of life than you have and are capable of handling their own feelings and reactions. They’ve done it for years now and can handle their own feelings, just as you can. Just about every parent who looks inside their heart wants their kids to be open and honest with them. Put yourself in their shoes; if you were a parent, would you want your kids to be direct and honest with you? How would this create trust? Live out your answer with the interactions with your own folks. This does not mean it will always be easy or comfortable. Keep in mind that what is healthy is not always pain free. In order to rid the sting of a fresh cut, you have to endure the temporary sting of the alcohol swab before the Band Aid is set. 


"God doesn’t know what He is doing. If He did, He wouldn’t have allowed this eating disorder to come barging into my life"
(For an example, see Skinny Boy Acknowledgements—paragraph 2; Genesis 50:20)

I can never claim to know God’s intentions or plans in a particular life event. All I can do is “guesstimate” and put my faith in His good timing and purposes. However, when I look back at the many trials and tribulations I’ve experienced throughout my life, I can often connect them to a particularly life-changing lesson learned that never would have become reality unless I first experienced the frustration and pain of the moment. For example, without enduring the process of my eating disorder, I probably never would have built the level of confidence I have now, or discovered my true identity, or learned assertiveness skills, or how to manage emotions and conflict, or discovered my calling in life. A sword does not turn into a shiny, sharp, mighty weapon of warfare on its own. It starts out as a cold, bland piece of iron, stoked in searing heat, hammered mercilessly by a blacksmith, and then shaped into a glistening tool of honor.

"Don’t get involved with your friends’ personal lives. They don’t want your help."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 186-187)

If one of your good friends was suddenly struck with an illness that caused them to slowly self destruct, wouldn’t you want to do something to help them in some way? I rest my case.

"My friends will never like the real me. I’ll be dateless the rest of my life."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 196)

When a person builds a friendship, he or she wants the other person to be real and genuine. Putting on a façade can be hurtful and downright rude to the other person in the relationship because it implies distrust in handling his own feelings and reactions. Most people generally resent being protected emotionally. If you act a certain way (not your true self) to get someone else to like you, the real you will eventually poke its head out in little ways, catching the other person off guard. He or she will be confused and wonder where the original you they have grown to know and love went. This leads to hurt feelings and misperceptions and scars relationships.

"Trying to recover is hopeless. I’ll never discover anything new about myself. My eating disorder is who I am."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 223)

Your eating disorder is simply a mechanism you choose to engage in to help you deal with overwhelming feelings of hurt, uncertainly, guilt and shame, loneliness, fear, and a lack of a sense of control. It is not your identity and never will be. Even if you choose to maintain an eating disorder, you are still a distinctive individual with a unique personality, traits, talents, strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. When you gain knowledge of new and exciting coping strategies and put them into practice, you’ll discover the same “book” is still there, only with a different “cover.” Life can actually be an exciting adventure full of meaningful relationships, purpose, and attainable goals. In other words, enjoyable, not simply survival.

"When temptation comes knocking, I’ll always answer the door."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 236)

You don’t have to answer the door. You can choose to stay focused on more interesting and healthful stimulation. Temptations to binge and purge, diet, exercise excessively, self-harm, isolate yourself from people, avoid expressing your feelings, and other hurtful attempts to gain control and comfort will forever be pounding on your door. You have a responsibility to yourself to gather other means to “get through” and cope that won’t harm your body, mind, or spirit. Mind you, this will take work to practice different thought patterns. There is no such thing as an easy way around the hard work of genuine change. But stick with it. Grunt it out. You’ll be amazed at your ability to overcome peril times. If you’re telling yourself you don’t have the self-discipline to do it, that’s shame talking and a cop out. Each and every human being was born with this ability. It simply needs to be tapped into, which takes consistent effort.

"It’s easier on my family if they simply ignore my eating disorder. It will go away."
(For examples, see Skinny Boy pg. 124)

To be honest, it is easier to avoid the hurtful arguing and conflict that comes with facing an issue. But it will NOT go away. It only builds in strength deep inside you, like a caged panther waiting patiently for the next opportunity to strike at the zoo keeper if he comes too close. If an issue is immediately dealt with by expressing feelings and thoughts in direct, polite ways, your emotions will remain stable and be easier to handle when the next issue come along. Your family will soak up the message that it’s okay to talk about problems, and that people can handle their own emotions responsibly. Family members gain trust in each other to deal with conflict. It builds self-confidence and integrity. They learn to accept that conflict is separate from their identities and are an inevitable part of even the healthiest lifestyle.