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Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy to Treat Disordered Eating

by | Sep 9, 2021

Tug of War with a Monster

Have your struggles with disordered eating, over-exercising, counting calories, etc. robbed you of your energy and kept you from doing the things that are truly meaningful to you?  What have you lost, missed out on, walked away from, given up on, avoided, or pushed away because of a focus on food, exercise, or the number on a scale?  

What would you do if you didn’t have to struggle?  What would you want your life to be about instead?

According to Dr. Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT):

“The situation you are in is like being in a tug-of-war with a monster.  The monster is the combination of all the difficult experiences you have had (and all the negative things you tell yourself).  It is big, ugly, and very strong.  In between you and the monster is a pit, and so far as you can tell, it is bottomless.  It feels like if you lose this tug-of-war, you will fall into this pit and be destroyed.  So, you pull and pull, but the harder you pull, the harder the monster pulls, and you edge closer and closer to the pit.  Day after day you struggle like this. You try harder and harder. You look for different ways to pull, better ways to pull, stronger ways to pull. You keep hoping that something will work, but no matter how many new ways you find of pulling on that rope the monster continues to tug back just as hard in return.”

What would happen if, instead of expending all that time and energy in battling the monster, we could learn to just drop the rope?  The monster may still hang out on the other side of the pit, and he may even taunt you from time to time, but he cannot hurt you.

Maybe you clicked on this page because you have found yourself engaged in a tug of war with a monster named ED.  You go back and forth, each side trying to pull the other into the abyss.  This tug of war represents our thoughts and fears about our bodies, interpersonal conflicts, anxiety and depressive symptoms, feelings of being out of control, our thoughts about not being “good enough”, etc.  We may use disordered eating behaviors (restricting, overeating, binging, purging, etc.) to avoid the painful thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves and our past or present experiences. This strategy may work in the short term, but it doesn’t work particularly well in the long term.  

The truth is, when we spend all of our time trying to gain control, avoid, or get rid of painful thoughts and feelings, we can find ourselves feeling exhausted, frustrated, distracted, helpless, and hopeless.  But, by dropping the rope and choosing to not engage in the battle, we open ourselves up to learning new ways of accepting our thoughts and feelings as just information for our journey.  We can allow them to be present and learn from them without trying to control them, get rid of them, or even change them.  In this process, we can learn how to respond rather than react to our distressing thoughts, feelings, and urges so that we are better prepared to live a peaceful and meaningful life that is consistent with who we really are. 

About Leigh | View Profile
Leigh is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with clients who experience a wide range of symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and trauma.  She utilizes mindfulness-based and evidence-based treatments in her practice, including ACT, MBSR, DBT, CBT, and SFBT.
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