Isolation Versus Service

Portrait of a sad woman

Most people in recovery from an eating disorder have a long-standing pattern of isolation – keeping thoughts and feelings to themselves, and finding ways to avoid contact with other people so they can be alone to carry out their harmful food behaviors.

Even coming to therapy can be a challenging action for someone who is isolating, let alone joining a therapy group or 12-step program and being around other people who are also recovering. Many fear they will be judged and so even though they may acknowledge that they need and want help, they stay away – and they stay alone.

Isolation can be very lonely and depressing, or even life threatening if the depression increases. There is a big difference between isolating and choosing to spend time alone. It’s important to our emotional health to be okay with being alone sometimes – without feeling the need to use unhealthy food behaviors to quiet the mind or stuff down uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

Introverted people, for example, can feel very drained by crowded, busy events or intense interactions with others. They need time alone to “recharge their batteries.”

When being alone becomes maladaptive rather than replenishing, however, it’s important to take steps towards having more social contact and support.

Ease yourself into a support group – maybe even a really big one so you can get lost at the back of the room. Give yourself permission to just witness the process at first before you get too involved.

It’s important to know that you cannot recover in a vacuum. You need people to do it with. You need lots of support. Until you let people help you, you might just continue to struggle indefinitely. Luckily there are many formats of help available, some of which may feel more comfortable to you, such as telephone meetings, online meetings, groups on social networking sites, or message boards.

Giving service is also a gift to you

Service work – volunteering your time to give to others – is really the polar opposite of isolation and can help you feel like part of the world again, or maybe for the first time. The people you meet through doing service already have some common ground with you – a mutual interest or passion, a similar struggle with food addiction, a commitment to an organization, or some other bond.

By focusing your attention outside of yourself and your own problems, you join a community of people working on the same goal, whether at your home group, spiritual community, an advocacy group like NEDA or The Alliance, or a charity organization.

You can stay behind the scenes, donating your time to keep events or campaigns running smoothly. Without volunteers, many of these things would never happen. Yes, many of these causes need money as well, but by giving your time you also give to yourself.

You could take on regular service on a committee or for an event, or do an occasional shift at a food bank or soup kitchen. You can also bring the spirit of service into every day with random acts of kindness such as holding doors open for people, greeting someone with a warm smile, buying a coffee for the person behind you at the drive-through window, or picking up trash in your neighborhood.

Volunteering can have a downside, if we say yes to too many things and start to resent our commitments. It’s important to maintain that balance of peaceful alone time and time with others. If volunteering ever gets in the way of your own essential recovery actions, it’s important to shift things immediately so recovery always comes first.

When actively suffering from an eating disorder, fear, despair, loneliness and other painful feelings turn all of your attention inwards as you isolate from the people and world around you. Even the smallest act of service to someone else can break that pattern and open up your heart and your life to transformative recovery.

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