NEDA Week 2018: Break Your Rules

NEDA Week 2018: Break Your Rules | The Full Helping

Not too long ago I chatted with a client who told me, “I’m realizing more and more that I need to break my rules, because I made them all up.”

She delivered the words straightforwardly, and I didn’t have the feeling that she expected a big reaction from me. Still, I nearly fell out of my chair. Her sentiment—”I need to break my rules, because I made them all up”—might seem self-evident, but it’s a realization that has taken me the better part of twenty-five years. I was amazed at how neatly she articulated it and how little time it’s taken her, relatively speaking, to see it.

As I reflected on the conversation, I asked myself why it took me so long to see through my own rules, and then I realized that it was the wrong question. At the height of my anorexia, I did see through my rules. I knew that they had no inherent meaning. The real question is why was I so attached to them, if I knew that they were arbitrary and self-imposed?

The best answer I have is that I like rules. Rules make me feel safe. They give me sensations of meaning and order and calm, which I don’t have an easy time accessing on my own. They speak to the old and nagging belief that there’s something within me that can’t or shouldn’t be unleashed, an appetite so monstrous that it’ll consume me if I let it go.

I’ve bid farewell to my food rules, but the tendency toward self-limitation is still there. It shows up in the form of self-imposed deadlines and commitments, in small and subtle acts of me bossing myself around. It’s still a buffer between me and my fears, which is still a problem. The longer I tiptoe around my fears, the less certain I am that I can survive them.

Self-imposed rules and their safekeeping create a sense of fragility that doesn’t need to be there. I’m not so delicate that I can’t handle being triggered or uncomfortable. There’s nothing within me that needs to be shackled up. I learned this lesson as it applies to food when I was in recovery, and I’m still learning that it applies to the rest of my life, too.

When I encourage people to toss out their food rules, I’m not talking about mindful, self-aware intentions that make eating more nourishing and health-supportive. By “rules,” I mean arbitrary, limiting formulations that keep us from taking pleasure in food. I mean unnecessary and exhausting rituals, prohibitions so old that we don’t even remember why we came up with them, and constraints that make us feel safe, but also trick us into thinking that we can’t handle freedom.

Yesterday, I talked about my second recovery affirmation, which is “take up space.” Today’s affirmation, “break your rules,” is different but intertwined, because it’s impossible to be expansive and seek growth when you’re busy holding yourself captive.

The more permission you give yourself to eat what you want, the sooner you’ll recognize that there’s nothing wrong with your hungers. They’re OK. They’re more than OK; they’re beautiful, wise and nourishing. They won’t feel that way if you’re constantly trying to cage them up.

People often ask me how I let go of my food rules, and I don’t have a simple answer. I just got tired of a lot of them; at some point, letting go became easier than holding on. Studying nutrition has helped, because it’s shown me that bodies are magnificently resilient and that our diets can be beautifully capacious, which are things I didn’t use to understand.

The most important step, though, has been that of befriending my body. Inhabiting my physicality through yoga, breath, cooking, eating, and sexuality has opened my eyes to how lovely my appetites are, how undeserving of senseless overregulation.

I could say more about this, but instead I’d like to share Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” which is a poem that many of you probably know already. It was a guidepost for me when recovery was at its toughest, and I’ve cherished it ever since:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

I’ll be back tomorrow with affirmation #4.


This week, I’m working with GoFundMe to raise money for the National Eating Disorder Association and the work it does for people with eating disorders and their families. Your contribution will help to keep NEDA’s helpline, referral system, and legislative advocacy going, and I’d be so grateful for any show of support that feels right to you. You can learn more and donate here

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Categories: Food and Healing

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  1. Oh my gosh how I loved this post! I laughed out loud at the wise words of your client you started out with! This is the kind of thing I feel blessed to admit cracks me up about myself when I catch myself in an act like this–it kind of makes it impossible to take myself and my rules hyper seriously. Such beautiful bookends for this post–that quote–and Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese–an old favorite of mine, and so perfect for this theme in the way you develop it.
    Something I’d like to see more of from you as a person who doesn’t have an ED but who does follow some seemingly strict guidelines in order to thrive (literally walk, talk, etc.) is specific examples of the problematic food rules you and those in recovery hold yourselves captive to. (A good e or this would be that book I think you should write. . .) xoxo

  2. Thank you for this post, dear Gena. A thought I had while reading is how liberating it feels to let go of the rules and how – at least for me – it goes with the realization how much I actually LOVE the very foods that I was the harshest about avoiding in the past, how much enjoyment they bring me and how much I miss out on, when I tell myself that I should not have them for one reason or another.
    But then, like you are describing, I thrive on rules, too – maybe in parts too much. Although they are mostly not related to food anymore, I sometimes wonder how beneficial my rules actually are and whether I should not work on removing them from my life even though they currently give me stability ans a sense of order. Yet, I believe that humans tend to give themselves and each others rules to order life. So, perhaps, the realization that creating – some – rules is actually also part of being human and of living in the company of others? And that one should not blame oneself overly for having them? Just some thoughts…

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