Food is as essential to our well-being and survival as love, purpose and a sense of belonging, autonomy and self-worth. As children we are dependent on our primary caregivers to meet these needs however as adults it’s necessary to develop the capacity to satisfy such essentials ourselves. This is so we don’t find ourselves feeling helplessly dependent on others and afraid because we don’t know how to occupy the driver’s seat in our own life. To truly share one’s life with others and wholly give of ourselves in relationships and service is to act from a place of self-sufficiency and empowered liberty to choose those who we wish to be in an interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship with.
There’s a huge difference between being in mutual reciprocity with others than being in fear-based relationships. Where power is unequally distributed as one is dependent on another for their sense of worth, approval, acceptance and/or having their material needs met because they do not know how to fulfill these needs themselves. Adolescence and young adulthood oversees the period in which making the transition from dependent to independent takes place. For those who have experienced childhood trauma, abuse, toxic environments and insecurity, this process can be particularly messy, prolonged and problematic but the only way forward is to do what it takes, for however long it requires, to work through it.
To be an independently functioning, self-assured and assertive adult is to be in the empowered position of making positive choices, express one’s truth, desire and to remain confident and capable despite the external rejection, deceit, ambiguity, disappointment and obstacles life inevitably confronts everyone with. This is important in regards to eating disorders because this maladaptive behaviour functions to help sufferers tolerate circumstances they don’t want to be in but don’t know how to extricate themselves from. They either stuff down through binge eating or expel by purging or starving their discontent, protest, unmet needs and dreams instead of raising their voice, taking action and causing unwanted waves in others’ worlds their compliance and silence otherwise maintains.
To feel capable, worthy, enough and confident in knowing how to independently go about things is to be equipped with all that is needed to leave unhealthy environments, work situations, friendships and relationships if there’s no agreement arrived at to amicably work at changing the dynamic into a healthy one.
Without a pre-existing sense of being worthless, useless, bad and inadequate it is less likely individuals will remain in situations that leave them feeling as such. However should negative treatment and regard be congruent with core self-beliefs and negative relationship with self individuals are likely to stay.
The importance of empowerment, self-love and confidence is emphasised here because generally speaking, those susceptible to disordered eating are yet to cultivate these attributes in themselves. In such cases it needs addressing and work in treatment if recovery is going to be effective long term.
The reasons why those suffering from an eating disorder do not see, acknowledge nor explore what they are capable of, recognise their worth or unique beauty requires unpacking and a positive reconfiguration. These individuals will also benefit from learning to nurture their ability to assert themselves and to stop compromising who they are, how they feel and what they want.
A strong, healthy, positive and integrated inner reality and self-regard informs the compulsion to choose life-nurturing, sustaining and loving options or to seek them out. Consequently these people are unlikely to passively take on or accept anything less from others and the world.
Unfortunately and to many devastating consequences, those susceptible to eating disorders tend to lack an inherent compulsion to protect such self-preserving, loving or nurturing standards. The good thing is, with effective help and guidance this can change. Individuals can always excavate their voice, assert it and take action with appropriate assistance until it’s no longer needed and allow themselves to be heard and visible. Permission is a key word in this process because to give oneself permission to be as one is couldn’t be more difficult to those who live as though they don’t exist.
To state the obvious those with an eating disorder are not engaging with food as a means through which to sustain well-being and survival. As already implied they are also metaphorically expressing an emotional and psychological state of lack, insecurity and suffering.
Furthermore, eating disorders are hard to treat, even in those willing to recover, because they are complex and nuanced in the multiple psychological and emotional roles that they play. In fact eating disorders typically seem or feel indispensable to those living with them. A significant reason being that an eating disorder serves as a crutch temporarily numbing the unbearable pain and fear from unmet needs externally sought but impossible to fulfill. They first require satiation from within by the adult sufferer, or adolescent transitioning into young adulthood.
For example: regardless of how controlled, clean and minimally portioned the disordered eating practice becomes, it simply doesn’t and can’t transform the individual into feeling securely loved, accepted and esteemed by a parent, lover, friends, peers, siblings, children or as a valued member at work. Regardless of how one looks or eats, what one achieves, possesses or how others come to treat them, it simply can’t–at this surface level–contain the meaning and significance those with an eating disorder are self-destructing for. The physical lack of nutritional requirements mirrors their emotional and psychological deprivation.
If self-love, acceptance and worth hasn’t been established from within it cannot be experienced from others or circumstances working in their favour. After the initial thrill wears off the eating disorder doesn’t disappear because the root problem hasn’t been tended to. Thus these individuals remain compelled to continue to hate and reject themselves and their accomplishments as not good enough.
Acts of love, acceptance and affirmation from family, partners, colleagues and friends aren’t automatically effectively integrated until those with disordered eating can love, accept and affirm themselves. Nonetheless, these positive experiences and acts of love are vital for the repetition and unconditional positive regard will eventually help to break the disordered eaters’ patterns of hateful thinking and behaviour towards themselves. In time, these positive experiences will be taken in by those with disordered eating and used as that which to model their relationship with themselves on. For this to take place however re-feeding has to be in progress. Without nutritious food, the brain and nervous system cannot function enough to engage with the inner work required to grow beyond one’s eating disorder.
It is important to be clear that individuals with an eating disorder have been able to develop this maladaptive behaviour due to the lack of an intact core self, self-love and confidence occurring during their formative years, leaving an unbearable hunger for nurture, acceptance and love. Consequently, as adolescents, young adults and adults, their power, thoughts and time is vulnerable to being seized, consumed and permanently distracted by the demands of the eating disorder.
Without challenging and doing the necessary work to replace the all-consuming destructive survival mechanism an eating disorder essentially is, it is unlikely that those hostage to its influence will change their negative core beliefs and kick the addiction. A vision for a desired future that seems attainable can be used to foster the motivation, stamina and strength required to handle and work towards daily life without the crutch an eating disorder is.
A ‘perfect’ body and clean, disciplined eating regime cannot compensate for all the areas of life that those with an eating disorder feel themselves to be bad, unworthy, dirty, lacking… So, through the illusion of perfection or escape promised by the eating disorder, sufferers persist with their dangerous relationship to food and the body as though their internal survival, regardless of how compromised, depends on it. Life according to the eating disorder’s rules results in the individual being able to tolerate being in their own skin despite their intense core self-hate, rejection and insecurity.
This maladaptive strategy for emotionally and psychologically surviving all that is experienced as intolerable in the disordered eater’s life could in fact cost them their life considering that statistics suggest 1 out of 10 diagnosed with an eating disorder die from it within ten years.
Starving, binging and purging until reaching a level of emptiness/purity/cleanliness induces an immediate state of euphoria and gets one high, transcendent and ultimately addicted to such fleeting relief. However, the long term effects are misery, physical debilitation and pain which is why the crutch eating disorders are can break people slowly but thoroughly from the inside out.
An eating disorder might be understood as neutralising the sufferer’s overwhelming negative feelings such as fear, confusion and anger. This maladaptive way around such emotional turmoil is very limited, destructive and Band-Aid like.
I use the Band-Aid analogy because eating disorder payoffs only ever superficially fulfill the sufferer’s core needs. The individual becoming aware of what their emotional and psychological hunger is for and how they have come to externalise it through a physically life-threatening relationship with food is the journey of coming to let go of the infected wounds from which the eating disorder is born. The aim here is to transform this negative energy fueling disordered eating into life-enhancing behaviour.
Nothing could be more foreign and challenging to cultivate in those dominated by self-hate to the extent that they’re putting themselves through a painfully slow and humiliating death. I say humiliating because shame is often expressed at behaviour those with an eating disorder have found themselves capable of in order to comply with the demands of their eating disorder. ie: lie to people they love, steal, spend hours in a public disabled toilet throwing up or from laxative abuse, leave a work meeting to make sure they have rid themselves thoroughly of lunch and like Portia de Rossi in Unbearable Lightness who leaves her dog alone in the cold, car open with her purse on her front seat while she obsesses over how many flights of stairs she needs to run up in order to compensate for calories eaten and the exercise regime she hasn’t maintained.
To overlook what is informing individuals’ eating disorder can only ever result in failing to treat the core problem. An individual doesn’t end up at the mercy of an eating disorder for no reason but for multiple reasons that need to be honoured and given new life-affirming and sustainable solutions. Despite how terrifying life without an eating disorder initially feels it’s not necessarily easier or less terrifying than to continue living with an eating disorder as well as continuing to carry the wounds that make this eating disorder possible.
Enough nutritious food is an apt metaphor for love, of which the eating disordered individual is starving to death because the emotional and psychological need of love is equal to the body’s need for adequate portions of nutritious food.
Those with an eating disorder may be understood as mistakenly chasing external validation in an attempt to satiate their hunger to be enough, loved and accepted. Consequently this need to keep chasing the illusion of perfection continues as though their life depends on it. In actual fact it might be argued that their life and therefore recovery depends on love, particularly self-love, confidence and assertion as much as it does on re-feeding and sustained adequate nutrition.
If individuals with an eating disorder cultivate within themselves a capacity for self-love what’s in the way of giving themselves the permission to eat enough of the foods that will love their body back will shrink. If a person’s core belief is that they do not deserve to be alive, the hardest things to do are those which will sustain their life.
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Dr Angelina Mirabito
PhD on the therapeutic value of reading and writing trauma fiction and its potential value in the post-traumatic growth process.
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