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Disciplined or Disordered?

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

My, oh my isn't that a fine line?

Let's start with an easy example. When it comes to correcting misbehavior (say, of a child), there's a big difference between punishment and discipline. While punishment focuses on making a child suffer for breaking the rules, discipline is about teaching him how to make a better choice next time. When punishment is self-inflicted though, we turn the corner into self-destruction, disordered behavior, or even abuse.

When recovering from my eating disorder, there was a lot of tension between being disciplined and engaging in disordered behavior. Some of the best athletes of all time have undoubtedly toed this line, so I figured, what's the problem? Where is the line drawn and when has it gone too far? If you find yourself toeing this line, only you know the answer. For me, discipline became disordered when I wasn't fueling my body for it's workload, when I cared more about avoiding weight gain than about being healthy, when I sacrificed performance to uphold the self-inflicted rules of my eating disorder, and when my disciplined nature resulted in profound unhappiness and severe health issues. But before it got really bad, it was only sort of bad. The slow spiral is hard to stop once it's started.

Athletes are fed a diet of discipline as the avenue to success, and I'm not here to contest that. Discipline is the best path to personal fulfillment, freedom, and advancement in any realm. I really believe that. But athletic discipline is necessarily tied to weight, which is a blurry line at best. Eating disorders are the most common in endurance athletes, and more common in women than in men. A 2013 study with elite adolescent athletes showed 14% of females compared to 3% of males had eating disorders. In endurance sports like running or cycling, 24% of females and 9% of males suffered from disordered eating.

What a grey space to live in, constantly. So often, foods are demonized heavily in the media and even among health professionals. I started cutting out things like desserts, which is innocent enough. But soon, I was eliminating meat, cheese, "bad" carbs (which meant most carbs), and even things like peanut butter, peas, white rice, and egg yolks. To make matters worse, everyone has their own opinions about nutrition (often based on very little real knowledge or evidence) and I was receiving so much mixed messaging that I didn't know what to believe. Soon, no food felt safe.

My disciplined habits soon became self-inflicted punishment. Even the bible has something to say about punishment and discipline:

"For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness (Hebrews 12:10)." .

A short explanation of this Bible-speak is this: punishment looks back. It focuses on making payment for wrongs done in the past. Discipline, however, looks forward. The lessons we learn from discipline help us not make the same mistakes again. Punishment is about condemnation and discipline is about correction. Discipline is about doing what is the most helpful. Punishment flows from anger and malice, while discipline is a sign of love.

It strikes me as sad that our cultural appropriation of discipline has made it synonymous with suffering and self-inflicted punishment. You should be happier because of your discipline, not less so. That is true regardless of what you apply the discipline to: sports, work, relationships, self improvement, or any trade/skill.

I've distilled some of the most distinctive differences between disorders and discipline here:

1. Discipline strengthens, while disorders weaken.
2. Discipline is self-love, disorders are self-hatred.
3. Discipline helps you achieve goals, disorders inhibit your goals.
4. Discipline is proactive, disorders are reactive.

Discipline surrounding food and body can feel empowering at first. We set goals, we achieve them, and we feel good. But for me, the more discipline I exhibited in terms of food and my body, the more oppressed and obsessive I became. Learning to relinquish the control I was exerting and trading it for self-kindness and intuitive movement and intuitive eating was incredibly hard. A lack of discipline has, in a lot of ways, become culturally synonymous with laziness. And because those who suffer from eating disorders are often very type-A, relinquishing any discipline or control will feel bad physically, mentally, and emotionally. We often live in extremes, swinging from extreme restriction (ie discipline) to binges. We do this because we understand discipline as punishment instead of a way to care for ourselves.

Recovering from my eating disorder necessitated an entirely new worldview, one that is focused on self-care and kindness over everything else. One in which I established and kept boundaries. One in which I am able to listen to my body and honor it instead of disciplining it to death. There is a very fine line between punishment and discipline and the greatest athletes and achievers have likely toed that line many times. Finding a balance is difficult but essential, especially to those recovering from any type of mental disorder.

P.S. Read more about this topic here and check out Jessi Kneeland while you're at it. Read Discipline Equals Freedom by Jocko Willink or watch Jordan Peterson's method for self-discipline.


Sarah Rose

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