If you have an eating disorder, you’re not alone. Many people struggle with their relationships with food and their bodies. But for those struggling beyond disordered thinking or eating into full-blown eating disorders, don’t give up! There is hope.
Science has shown that the same genetics that predispose people toward alcoholism can predispose people to have eating disorders. It’s often common for people with eating disorders to have other family members who struggle with eating disorders, drugs, alcohol, or the underlying issues of depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). People predisposed to eating disorders often have high anxiety and shyness. For those who struggle with anorexia, they also can have a high need for routine, structure, and ritual and a very persistent nature. For those who struggle with bulimia, they often have a high need for adventure and change, and can feel bored and give up easily.
Though not everyone with a temperament predisposition toward eating disorders will develop the full disorder, there are many stressors that can push people to express the disorder. Contrary to the popular belief that eating disorders are about vanity, there are many reasons people develop a disorder. For some, they never learned how to manage their sensitive temperament type. For others, it’s about invasion and a desire to want to make the body smaller or bigger to avoid abuse. For some, the disorder is triggered by weight loss caused by a medical condition. For others, it’s about feeling abandoned. They may believe that the only way to truly get love is to become the perfect ideal; it borrows from the perfectionist temperament and tries to solve the perceived problem of “what’s wrong with me?” For others who feel abandoned, they feel so invisible that they let their bodies show what they cannot express in words. For some, it’s a feeling of ambivalent attachment acted out in their relationship with food. Much like toxic nourishment, they feel compelled to take too much on or in and then feel overwhelmed and sick with guilt and shame.
However, these temperament differences do not doom people to have or stay in an eating disorder. It’s all about how you relate to your temperament and what you do with it. The number one reason people can’t manage their temperament in a direction of a meaningful life is having little to no relationship to one’s self. If the inner parent isn’t directing the show, the inner child runs amuck. But just like any parenting skill, you can improve your relationship to yourself.
The Way Through
One skill to build one’s relationship to self is to develop what object relations therapists call a “witness function.” Meditation practitioners call this mindfulness. It’s the ability to witness thoughts and feelings without having to act on them. We can all have thoughts that don’t serve us, as well as overwhelming emotions. That’s what makes us human. But the difference between suffering and pain is being able to step back from the thoughts that don’t support the life we want long enough to find a better thought to act on. We can’t not think thoughts, but we can direct our actions toward the ones that work and away from the ones that could get us in trouble. We can simply ask ourselves “Wait a minute. Does that choice move me toward or away from what I want in the bigger picture?”
The next skill, then, is to know what we want in the big picture. To know what we truly value and what gives our lives meaning is the emotional anchor that is bigger than our pain. When we’re in the throes of compulsion, all the good stuff we’ve filed away as useful information becomes inaccessible, but we still have access to our strong emotional beliefs. Knowing that we don’t ever want to see mom/sister/dad/lover/brother/friend look at us in terror for our lives may be one thing we value in the big picture more than the 10 minutes of relief we may get from an eating disorder behavior. Or perhaps we want to go out with friends and eat a normal portion of pizza without agonizing over it, cutting it into a million pieces, or using compensatory behaviors to undo it. Whatever our “why,” it’s a necessary thing to know and utilize in difficult times.
Because “thin enough” never happens, the eating disorder always wants more. There’s never an end goal or a touchdown dance. And whatever we thought we’d get when we accomplished this goal never ever comes. In fact, achieving whatever the eating disorder wants just gets us further from what we truly value. So another skill is grieving the lie the eating disorder promised and feeling the original pain that brought us to express the disorder in the first place. Or at least what maintains it now, which might be very different. For example, for some people, their eating disorders developed in childhood, as a reaction to their parents’ divorce. They thought, “If only I was good enough, maybe my parents wouldn’t fight so much.” They noticed that their illness actually helped their parents unify, stop fighting, and stay together. Now, being the “sick one” has become an identity and a substitute for love and attention. They don’t know who they are without it, and as they recover, they will need to go through the developmental phases they missed while in the disorder. A good reality test is to ask the question, “Will using this eating disorder behavior really get me [fill in the blank]?”
Another skill is learning to identify, set, and maintain healthy boundaries. Often, people with eating disorders are terrified of conflict, and may have had their boundaries trampled through trauma. They may feel like their voice doesn’t matter, but then their bodies express this voice through eating disorder behaviors. Learning where you end and another begins, what you have a right to in terms of freedoms and structures, and how to express anger appropriately helps you know your rights and how to protect them. Our bodies will often express what we feel we cannot. They’re waiting for us to make the conflict conscious so we can resolve the conflict in reality.
The last skill is to separate shame from guilt. Guilt is feeling bad about something we did, and it’s a very useful emotion to help us repair relational damage. Shame is feeling bad about who we are, and it actually destroys our relationships with self, others, and our spirituality. It de-resources us, and makes us feel isolated and worthless. The only way out of shame is to stop arguing with it or believing what it’s telling us, and simply recognize it as shame and stop engaging. It’s a hard one to get, but we can truly never love ourselves, or others, if we are demeaning ourselves. Shame doesn’t just hurt us; it hurts everyone who loves us. An eating disorder can often be a way to punish ourselves for how horrible we think we are. The answer is not to keep punishing ourselves, but to recognize that we don’t and never did deserve punishment in the first place.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, you’re not alone. There’s hope. There are treatment facilities that can help you get the right level of care you need. There are outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalizations, residential, and inpatient levels of care. Don’t suffer alone or in secrecy. There are people who understand, and there are ways through this. You are loved, and you don’t have to go through this alone.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
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