Imagine that today is your birthday. The common expectation is that you will be experiencing feelings of excitement and anticipation as you take part in special plans with your loved ones, or do something new and spontaneous to acknowledge the day. The goal is to fully embrace and enjoy your birthday to celebrate your life and new age. In some ways, celebrating your birthday can mark the beginning of a fresh start.
A Birth of Painful Feelings
Now imagine that today is your birthday and you’re struggling with an eating disorder. While this day may still carry a tinge of excitement or specialness, it may also give rise to a range of challenging emotions.
You may feel intense anxiety at the thought of a celebration that includes foods that could intensify your eating disorder voice and behaviors. Body image thoughts might also exaggerate, as the attention is placed on you for that day. This may also increase behavioral urges and inclinations to isolate. Moreover, with aging comes the anticipation and experience of body changes. Having to acknowledge such changes may also make the eating disorder louder.
Moreover, engaging in an eating disorder can lead to isolation and changes in relationships. Birthdays may be a reminder of this as you reflect upon people with whom you might like to celebrate; you may feel a heightened sense of loneliness and have to face challenging relationship dynamics.
Your birthday might also be an opportunity to reflect upon the past year, or your life up to that point. For someone struggling with an eating disorder, taking the time to reflect may bring up painful emotions and an acknowledgement of how the disorder has taken away from your life – whether in terms of your physical health, your emotional well-being, your social life, or your occupational functioning.
You may acknowledge that your life has become really small as the eating disorder takes up a lot of your time, energy, and spirit. Feelings of shame, regret, and grief may arise as you come to terms with time that might feel lost and you may feel disbelief about your age. Other memories, accomplishments, or experiences may feel diminutive or masked by the eating disorder. If you are entering a new decade, you may look back on the previous 10 years and assess your quality of life. As you acknowledge your day of birth, you might experience a harsh reality check that you haven’t been living, but trying to survive.
It’s Your Day
All in all, facing your birthday can be a painful challenge when you have an eating disorder, and not the joyful celebration that is expected. If you are struggling, here are some ways you might consider to navigate your birthday emotions, and possibly find some enjoyment and healing in the experience:
A regular day. One way to celebrate your birthday in eating disorder recovery is to not celebrate. If you are struggling, you can honor yourself and decide to treat the day as any other day. You may feel pressured to celebrate your birthday in a particular way or experience specific emotions that you just can’t force yourself to feel. This is completely okay! Remember that you have a choice and are free to spend the day in whatever way you want. Honoring your feelings and experience are part of the process of recovery, and allowing yourself to do so on a day that is “supposed” to be full of excitement can actually be a great step in your healing process.
Give yourself a gift. While reflecting on the past year or longer can be difficult when you are in the midst of an eating disorder, such deliberations can also be an empowering and healing practice. Think of at least one way that you have grown or challenged yourself this past year. Regardless of where you are in your recovery, you have gained some sort of tool (an idea, insight, coping skill, or support) that is conducive to your well-being. Think of a gift you can give yourself to bolster your recovery – maybe you have been debating going to a therapist or treatment program and now can be the time you reach out. Maybe you present yourself with the freedom from throwing away your scale. You could open up to someone about your eating disorder to gain some relief and support. If you are conflicted about whether you even want to recover, you can gift yourself with the willingness to do so.
Create a self-care plan. You may anticipate that your birthday will be challenging for you. Whether or not you want to celebrate, you can choose to prepare for what comes up. You may experience feelings such as sadness, grief, or anxiety which can be easy access for eating disorder behaviors. Determine what you would need that day to help you stay afloat – this could be spending time with people with whom you feel safe and nurtured; you may go somewhere that feels like a safe haven to you; you can schedule in time to take part in your coping strategies (going for a walk, meditation, reading, etc.) You can ask someone you care about to check in with you throughout the day so you have an outlet for your experience. Being prepared can help you navigate this day with more ease.
With birthdays come expectations and pressures to spend the day perfectly. Sometimes the best way to celebrate is to honor yourself in whatever way feels peaceful and safe to you.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates Virtual Body Image Groups for adults and adolescents with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are experiencing body image distress or any other psychological turmoil related to a chronic illness, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment.