This post will be very insightful

I was reading one of Grey Thinking's posts from around Memorial Day (you don't want to see the number of unread items that are in my Google Reader right now), and she said this:

I think this is a huge roadblock for many people in recovery — having a lot of insight and knowing what they need to do, but not being able to do it and make changes (or not really wanting to).

It was certainly a massive roadblock for me.  Insight into the "whys" of an eating disorder was seen as my ticket out of my disorder.  Maybe if I uncovered the family dysfunction.  Or the ways in which I felt out of control.  Or could understand why I felt the need to be thin. My insight into insight is this: it's a little a lot overrated.

I knew I was a perfectionist and a control freak--in fact, I frequently thought I wasn't good enough to be considered a legitimate example of either of them.  And there was family stuff, sure.  Who doesn't have family stuff?  I'd always had body dysmorphia.  I didn't know it was body dysmorphia, of course, but there was that, too. Insight really wasn't my problem.  Many of the young adults I met in treatment had some amount of insight--and yet there they were, back in treatment.  Just like me. 

I'm not convinced that having insight into what caused your eating disorder will get you well. But insight is still important to recovery.

So what in the hell do I mean by that?

An eating disorder is hard to understand while you're actually in it.  It seems obvious and sensible at the time, but when you look back, you sort of scratch your head.  So having insight into why you're acting so weird only works if you know you're acting weird. As well, the strength of the insight that promotes change has to be greater than the anxiety (or whatever awful feeling you happen to experience) that will happen as a result of that change.  Let me tell you--insight is very vague and ephemeral. Anxiety provokes action. Anxiety wins every time.

For me, insight into my illness's origins hasn't been the most useful thing to get me on the road to recovery.  As for keeping me on the road to recovery, that's a different story.

Here's the thing: insight comes in many different flavors.  Thus far, I've talked about the "why" flavor--why did I get sick, what caused this, etc.  The insight that has been useful to me is of the "now what" flavor--what I need to do in order to stay well, what my triggers and weaknesses are, what to do if/when I start to struggle.  It's still insight, but it's a different variety, and I use it totally differently.

For one thing, this type of insight is being used by a brain that is at least on its way back to normal functioning.  For another, there's not quite the uphill battle.  It's more of a let's-keep-this-rock-from-rolling-back-downhill kind of effort.  Okay, yes, you're still fighting gravity, but at least you don't have to get the boulder moving.

To take a line from Forest Gump, insight is as insight does.  To take Grey Thinking's tagline, "Becoming aware of your crap and actually overcoming your crap are two different things."

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Anonymous said...

Wow. This hits home for me.

I feel like I have a lot of insight into my mental health issues, but don't seem able to change.

If someone was asking me for advice as to what techniques that could help anxiety, for instance, I could probably help that person with ideas. But applying these ideas to myself? That doesn't seem to happen. I'm aware of things that could possibly help, but I don't seem able to apply them to myself. In fact, I find it much easier to help *others.*

With my ED, it's not as if I'm oblivious to basic things that would probably help - like following a meal plan, backing off exercise, sitting with my feelings, distracting etc. etc. But knowing and doing are two different things. Yup, anxiety, depression, hopelessness etc. tend to get in the way of doing things. And fear plays a big part - the fear of the unknown and so many other things.

Thanks for this post....

hm said...

I'd like some insight into how to conquer apathy. Apathy vs. anxiety. My heart's acting weird- I could die- eh- shrug. My pants are getting tight- OMG I'M FAT I'M FAT I'M FAT FUCK I CAN'T DO THIS EVERYTHING'S OUT OF CONTROL GAHHHHHHH- panic panic panic. Now that's disordered. Heart vs. pants size. I SEE that it's disordered. All kinds of insight into the fact that that is royally disordered, not normal ways of thinking and feeling. I'd kick my own ass for being such a stupid shithead about how I feel about the state of my heart, but I'm too apathetic to care- and besides, the ass kicker in my head already has her hands full with the kicking my ass over being fat thing.

BUT... I'm eating the food. I'm holding back on the exercise. I'm following my meal plan to the pickiest detail. I just am. Every single day.

Because you're right, insight's overrated. So are feelings. And sometimes thinking is just as useless. The only thing that really matters is "doing."

I DO have insight into the fact that it's not really about pants size at all. I get that I really do just feel a desperate need to keep things in line, under control, and food is how it comes out. Sooo insightful of me. But again- eh. How is that helpful?

Just gotta "do." Wouldn't recovery be easy if I could get SCARED for my heart, my kidneys- I mean, not just a momentary flash here and there- but a good solid SCARED that stuck around like a loyal dog and motivated me to get better?

Anxiety wins over insight- but willpower wins over apathy. It's about choosing. I just hope my willpower holds up- every day I think the anxiety/apathy combo is going to be too much to handle, and one more day is all I've got left in me to do this. So far, so good, for now.

Anonymous said...

totally have the insight. got the skills. the anxiety and constant annoying crap screaming at me from the ed voice has me flat against the boulder careening straight downhill. so effing sick of it all.

HikerRD said...

Perhaps having some insight can allow you to have more compassion for yourself as you work on recovery. For binge eaters, for instance, understanding the triggers allows them to not beat themselves up for their behavior. And, it allows them to address unhealthy thoughts that land them in trouble (yes, like black and white thinking).

But unless you are well nourished enough, there's not much insight to be gained!
thanks for this post!

Katie said...

I agree with this so much. I spent the better part of a decade trying to work out WHY I had an eating disorder, until I got to the point where it seemed positively logical that I was anorexic. It didn't do the slightest bit of good to my recovery. Like you, the most useful insights have been working out my triggers and how to overcome them - mostly practical stuff. The biggest and most helpful insight Without action, therapy can go on for years without progress.

Katie said...

huh *squints at post* The last sentence of that didn't make any sense, did it? I started writing one thing then wrote something else and didn't delete the first bit :P sorry about that!

Laura said...

i love this, only because it translates over to all mental disorders. i also really like how you said there are many *flavors* of insight, because I agree, it doesn't feel or taste the same every day. one day it can be the best tasting thing in the world, like cotton candy at a carnival, and the next day it can feel like unexpected sour milk after you poured it on your cereal.

thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Cathy (UK) said...

I was also of the opinion, before any 'doing', that if I understood 'the mechanisms' of my AN: why it happened, what was happening in my body and brain etc. that I would be able to modulate the mechanism in some way and recover. I like systems, I like understanding the intricate details of how systems operate and how they can be manipulate or modulated.

Initially I was frustrated when my therapist/psychiatrist informed me that first and foremost I had to gain weight. However, eating more and stopping my crazy exercise regime (both of which led to weight gain) have been by far the most valuable therapeutic strategies.

I now have a fair idea of why I developed AN, why I stuck in it for so long, my co-morbidities etc. This has helped me to sustain my recovery. However, insight before 'doing' is actually rather futile.

Kate said...

I remember wanting to learn that I had been abused or otherwise traumatized as a kid, because then it would all somehow make sense. Clearly, that wouldn't make it all better or necessarily easier, but it seemed as though, knowing that, at least my disease would have a tangible, addressable catalyst.

I've had therapists tell me that I was too smart for my own good. It's amazing what one's brain can convince oneself of - for better AND worse.

Heather Anne said...

Wow. Amazing post, Carrie. Thank you for sharing all of this. I am always touched and amazed at how candid you are about your struggles. It helps so very much to have someone to be able to commiserate with regarding the "this stuff sucks" portion of recovery.

I can say with 100% conviction that excessive insight into my disease has almost and could very well, should I engage in it in the destructive form I did in the past, kill me. I became so in touch with my issues and aware of them, that I used it to hide behind the actual changing of behaviors as you discussed in your post.
For me, my insight has been a tightly woven shroud of almost fraudelence. If I was able to wax lyrical about my struggles then it would take the focus off the lack of willingness to change and convince others that I was making progress. In the past, this allowed me to stay stuck and to legitimize it, because (gasp) I KNEW what the problem was.

I have also found that in most areas of my life, I believe I can "think" or analyze my way out of them. I learned from some very gracious mentors and some 12 step sayings that remind me that my best thinking got me to the place of pain and destruction, why do I believe that same brand of thought is going to get me out of it? I must stop thinking and start doing. For cerebral peeps like us, this is beyond challenging. I thank you so very much for sharing here as always.

grey said...

I have (unfortunately) hundreds of unread items in my google reader... it's scary to open!

I love your comment, "insight is very vague and ephemeral. Anxiety provokes action." I completely agree, and it reminds me of the first time that my therapist said, "anxiety is a good thing -- how are we going to create more in your life this week?" I of course thought she was crazy and that I was going to need a new therapist ASAP, but the rationale behind it does make sense: I'm trying to avoid uncomfortable things through my eating disorder, so actually having and facing the anxiety is maybe a sign that I'm doing something right.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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