This is post 3 out of 5 in the series about recovering from eating disorders during your freshman year of college. The other posts addressed relapse prevention and food fears during your freshman year.
Today's post will concentrate on managing comparisons during your first year.
Comparisons tend to be most prevalent when we find ourselves in unfamiliar environments, surrounded by new faces. Social Comparison Theory suggests that we engage in comparisons as a means of understanding ourselves and our place among others. Freshman year of college is a prime time for frequent comparisons, as you navigate the journey of self-discovery and establish your social circles. It is a period of acclimating to a new environment, encountering countless new individuals, and assuming new responsibilities. This can be intensified even more if you are going through the rush process, where comparisons are openly made and appearance often becomes a focal point, increasing the act of comparing oneself to others.
In my recovery I found comparisons to be the most challenging aspect to change, especially food and body comparisons. What truly was behind the comparisons I would make was the question of “am I ok, am I good enough?” Ultimately, I had associated my appearance and eating habits with my self-worth. While it's important to develop skills to address the act of comparing oneself to others (which I'll share in this post), the real work is in tackling the negative thoughts of "I'm not good enough" and rebuilding a sense of self-worth. While there are short-term coping mechanisms, true freedom comes from engaging in the therapeutic work to strengthen self-worth. This is why it is important that even if your eating disorder behaviors are better, that you continue therapy to address some of the underlying contributing factors.
While comparisons can sometimes be beneficial, they are often harmful and counterproductive in the context of eating disorders and early recovery. These comparisons often revolve around food, body, and exercise, and tend to be unfavorable, leading to negative consequences. Upward comparisons (meaning we fall unfavorably in the comparison), in particular, can trigger thoughts of engaging in eating disorder behaviors, amplify feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and foster a sense of isolation. Moreover, it is important to recognize that body image disturbances are an inherent part of having an eating disorder and persist during the early stages of recovery. So, the comparisons we make are unreliable in this area anyway.
What do you do in the moment when you are in those first few weeks and the comparisons feel like they are non-stop? I find the below steps helpful when it is the first time that the comparison comes up in a given situation.
First, bring self-compassion to the table. “Of course I’m comparing a lot right now because _________ (I’m around all new people, I’m just getting used to my body in recovery, I am having a lot of social anxiety, etc.). Self-compassion doesn’t change our circumstances but reminds us that what we are feeling and thinking is ok, that we are ok.
Next it can be beneficial to embrace a curious mindset: “What am I really trying to get by comparing right now?” Is it a feeling of security, a sense of belonging, or the need for approval? If so, what it is about the environment you are in or the people you are with that is leading to a sense of insecurity or feeling like you need their approval? Is it trying to learn more about your environment or gain practical information?
We then have to figure out how to meet the need without comparing in a harmful manner. If the urge to compare arises from a desire for security, belonging, or approval, explore alternative ways to fulfill those needs that don't involve external comparisons. For example, reaching out to old high school friends through a text message can reconnect you to a sense of security and belonging. Alternatively, remind yourself of your values and assess whether your current actions align with those values, allowing for a sense of self-approval. If the purpose of comparison is to gather practical information, consider if there are alternative methods to obtain that information without relying on comparisons. If not, adopt a non-judgmental mindset and examine the facts objectively, without attaching labels of good or bad to them.
Another useful skill in the moment is simply acknowledging and labeling the thought. For example, if you notice a comparison thought, you can say to yourself, "Ah, there's a comparison." Then, gently redirect your attention back to what you are currently doing and fully engage in that activity. With this method, you aren’t exploring the thought but noticing and shifting attention. You may have to do this multiple times but try to stick with it and overtime this will become easier. I find this skill helpful when I’ve gone through the above steps but comparison thoughts keep occurring in that same situation.
When working with comparisons, even the above in the moment skills are not going to be a quick fix. The discomfort that comes from a comparison (for example of “I’m so much bigger than everyone”) decreases faster if you immediately fall back on eating disorder behavior. However, it is important to remember that the alleviation of discomfort provided by the eating disorder is only temporary and frequently detracts from living in accordance with your values and pursuing your true goals . Using the above skills is not as fast and may only bring the discomfort down slightly (and potentially not at all when first practicing) but overtime the skills become more effective. You know where the eating disorder will take you but give yourself a chance to see where recovery can (even if it means having to sit in the discomfort a little longer.)
Next post, I will be addressing the topic of decreased support in eating disorder recovery during your freshman year of college.