Here you are at perhaps the most meaningful and powerful juncture in your life and yet everything seems to be sliding sideways. You have come face to face with your eating disorder; you have embarked on a full-blown recovery effort; you are engaged in meaningful psychoeducational learning with a therapist you like; you rest and you eat; and you navigate the fear of it all each moment of every day.
Just as you are getting some traction and making some tangible progress, your family and friends are expressing increasing disapproval towards all these positive changes. Why? Why now?
In this post we’ll be looking at a psychological concept originally fleshed out by Dr. Harriet Lerner in the 1980s: countermoves. 1 The term “countermove” originates, unsurprisingly, from war games. By definition a countermove is reactionary and therefore often lacks any preemptive strategy or measured sense of its long-term impact. The primary motive for a countermove in war games (or board games as well) is to force a reaction in the hopes it will rebalance the power differential.
Within our primary relationships, countermoves by our nearest and dearest can occur when we are undergoing substantial personal growth and change. Out of the blue, your partner, friend, parent, or child says:
“You’re spending too much time with your therapist. I think it’s unhealthy.”
“You’re taking this too far. I’m worried that this is going to kill you.”
“You are being selfish and self-absorbed and I’ve had enough.”
“You’re no longer pretty/happy/outgoing/easy-going/sexy and I am embarrassed to be with you/don’t find you attractive anymore.”
“You always take things too far/never stay balanced, with anything you take on.”
These are a few of an almost infinite number of “change back” demands from loved ones that constitute countermoves on their part.
An eating disorder is activated by voluntary or involuntary restriction (when the person has the genetic predisposition). However its reinforcement and practice happens due to innumerable environmental influences. Habitually creating an energy deficit in the body then becomes a coping mechanism in one form or another. For some, active restriction means profound acquiescence to the demands of others, yet for others it generates labile (changeable) emotional states creating a level of chaos and instability for self and others. Still others might express both acquiescence and emotional hyper-fluidity and some may express profound withdrawal mimicking clinical depression. However you behaved when you were actively creating energy deficits in your body, your family and close friends expect these behaviors from you.
There may be initial excitement, support and appreciation for the changes in your behaviors and actions as you begin recovery, but at some point it’s not uncommon for close others to begin to feel unsure of where these changes will all end up. Who will you become when you are not your prior self?
These countermoves occur when those close to you feel threatened. They might feel threatened at the thought of losing you; they might be threatened by your unpredictability and it makes them feel they have less control over you; they may feel burdened by the support they must provide while you navigate recovery; and you don't immediately have to know or care about what their reasons might be. Your first responsibility is to hold your space and stay in the moment of your recovery process.
Chances are that the first time someone close to you applies a countermove like the ones above, you will feel profoundly blind-sided and it will rock your prior steady connection to how important your recovery process is to you. It will hurt. You will doubt your own judgment and feel guilty that your choices, decisions and actions are upsetting someone you care about. Resist the strong urge to respond immediately to these countermoves. Give yourself space by responding with the following: “I appreciate your honesty. I will need some time to really think about what you have brought up. Let’s come back to this tomorrow.” If the individual is particularly agitated and insists on an immediate response, stand your ground and reiterate that you just don’t know how you feel about it yet.
Countermoves usually don’t require any reaction at all. They will require reassertion of your boundaries expressed with kindness and firmness. The recovery process is hard and watching someone you love go through that process is just as hard. The countermove may actually reflect that your partner, friend, or family member is over-faced by the responsibility of trying to help you keep approaching and eating the food.
And let's face it, the more you approach and eat food the more anxiety skyrockets for you. And that circular constant panic is wearying for anyone to interact with, even when they are completely on board with your recovery efforts. But, and this is very important to internalize, you’re not responsible for other people’s emotional reactions to your mental and physical health status. In these cases, the countermove doesn’t suggest that they are no longer on your team. Instead, it suggests that your loved one needs more support and respite (and you are not the one to provide that). You are responsible for your own emotional reactions and your therapist is there to help you develop adaptive mechanisms to respond to the constant panic. You are doing your best and your job is to keep doing that. An appropriate response to this kind of “I’m exhausted” countermove is something along the lines of:
“I understand your frustration with the constant wheedling and whining from my lawyer-like eating disorder driven emotions. I live with it in my head 24/7. I have endless love and appreciation for how you’re helping me navigate my recovery effort, but we need to be realistic. Just as I have the benefit of support from my therapist, I think you need to treat this as the care-giving challenge it really is and have your own support from a therapist. You have a right to feel frustrated and depressed, but I can’t hear that right now without being pulled into guilt and a sense that it’s better if I relapse. And we both know that’s not what we want. And I don’t want you to feel guilty that you’re frustrated either. You need space to express that, but it’ll have to be outside the relationship while I work towards remission.”
That’s an appropriate response when the countermove was not really a “change back” demand, but rather more of a temporary explosion of feeling over-faced. But what are you to do when the countermoves really are about them wanting you to return to your active eating disorder-driven self?
Fundamentally such countermoves require you face the reality that someone dear to you can only offer you conditional love—conditional upon the subjugation of yourself for their peace of mind and world view. In these cases, it’s even more critical to resist the urge to react to the countermove at all. It’s okay to feel hurt, confused, even abandoned or alone as a result of such a painful revelation. But you cannot own their subsequent decisions, choices, or behaviors. You can only own your own confusion and hurt right now.
A countermove that really demands you change back is an invasion of your personal boundaries. It’s actually designed to have you feel responsible for another person’s thoughts and feelings.
No equal and opposing force is required when you face the external pressures from others to conform to their expectations of you. You can feel what you feel and you can take each moment as a moment for eating, as your practice to remission requires of you. Courage isn't about being strong, or denying the presence of frailty, fear and despair. Courage is merely a moment-by-moment set of actions that can generate enough momentum to pull strength, calm and peace out from your inner self.
Countermoves in real-life relationships can become power differential reinforcements only when you treat them as power moves in the first place.
“I have thought about your request that I stop pursuing remission from an eating disorder and that I return to what you define as a more likeable or reasonable version of myself. It’s not a request I’m willing to fulfill and I was, and remain, pretty shocked you thought it was something reasonable to ask of me in the first place. This is the real me and I like where this whole journey is taking me. I hope you can adjust, but that’s for you to figure out and it’s not my responsibility to fit your definition of an acceptable me.”
Keep your behaviors and actions focused on recovery and address the turmoil of emotions that your loved-ones’ countermoves are generating for you in both therapy and in talking with other supportive people in your life.
Your life is not a war game. You don’t want to enter into some spiral of brinksmanship with someone close to you, nor do you want to sign over some sweeping Treaty of Self to your loved ones thinking it will keep the peace. While it doesn’t happen in all cases, a calm, kind and consistent refusal to either retaliate or capitulate often gives your loved ones the room and time they need to catch up to the new you that you are becoming.
1. Lerner HG. “The dance of anger: A woman's guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships.” (New York: Harper & Row; 1985).