The dilemma of black and white thinking
Confession: I’ve always hated dichotomies.
As human beings, it is so normal for us to want to fit things into boxes or categories: healthy or unhealthy, right or wrong. Fortunately (yes I mean fortunately), our world has many more options. Learning to sit in the unknown versus limiting our options with just a black and white narrative, is imperative for recovering from an eating disorder.
Are eating disorders ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Sounds like it should be a simple answer. And yet, I encourage you to explore the in-between. Struggling with an eating disorder has the potential to be severe, enduring, and life threatening. And, for those who watch their loved ones in the fight for recovery, it can be terrifying and instill feelings of deep helplessness.
While I do not rejoice when someone comes to me with their struggles of restriction, over exercise, binging, or purging, I also do not judge, condemn, nor attack them for struggling with an eating disorder. If you struggle with an eating disorder or are watching your loved one struggle, here are some important considerations to support recovery:
- An eating disorder is often a signal that the need for control is vitally important because perhaps, that person’s world and internal experience feels chaotic. Deep rooted feelings of shame, unprocessed trauma and/or a lack of identity or purpose in life can lead one to take control where they can- their body.
- Eating disordered behaviors serve the purpose of helping that individual survive. When someone restricts, binges and purges or over-exercises for example, what they are really trying to do on a biological and physiological level, is to regulate their nervous system and simply try to get through their days. Their eating disordered behaviors, however destructive, is like them clinging to a life raft in stormy waters. Hard to blame them if this is all they’ve ever known how to do.
- An eating disorder, provides a sense of competence and a sense of self. I’ve heard many clients express that being able to eat very little all day or complete two a day workouts with little caloric input feels like an accomplishment, something they can feel proud of. And in the absence of other accomplishments or a sense of going somewhere in life, eating disordered behaviors may feel like a “quick hit” of feeling confident.
No one heals by being criticized, chastised, rejected or controlled.
The battle to be “perfect”
Eating disorders are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’ They are. Like most things in life, eating disorders have both cost and benefit and therefore cannot be defined by the same dichotomy that those who experience eating disorders are constantly fighting: perfectionism.
More often than not, the drive toward perfectionism is deeply intertwined with the eating disorder. Due to this, the constant battle between good and bad becomes the filter through which all thought, action, and interaction occur.
I can’t eat this cookie! It’s unhealthy.
I can’t go to happy hour with my coworkers because I haven’t ran yet today. Too many calories in beer.
If I eat my grandpa’s homemade mashed potatoes, then I will gain 10 pounds. I’m unlovable.
This date is going well, but he just asked me to get a drink. I’ve had my caloric intake for the day already, so I guess I’ll reject the invite.
I ate too much, so I have to purge. I’m disgusting.
You are not alone in these experiences. The drive for perfection translates into: I want to be loveable, worthy, important and know that I matter. At the end of the day, this is true for everyone! Wanting recovery from your eating disorder puts you in the company of brave warriors who are willing to stand up for themselves.
Gratitude and Curiosity Along the Journey of Recovery
In my six plus years of working with folks struggling with eating disorders at the highest levels of care, from in-patient residential to partial hospitalization programs, I have learned to bring gratitude and curiosity toward the individual and their eating disorder.
What if instead you brought gratitude and curiosity to yourself and your eating disorder? I invite you to become an explorer of your own internal world and to wonder in what ways has my eating disorder saved me from pain, fear, shame, and grief? In what ways has my eating disorder provided safety, comfort, and stability in a world of chaos?
If it had not been for your eating disorder, then you might not be reading this right now. For the ways in which your eating disorder has saved you, I am utterly grateful.
While I innately trust that you eating disorder has kept you alive and protected, we must bring curiosity and acknowledge that what once saved you is now imprisoning you from the life you desperately want to live.
To be curious is to wonder: what am I protecting myself from by engaging in restriction, rejecting a man or woman who likes me, and isolating from family events surrounding food? How can I acknowledge the protection my eating disorder is attempting to provide me while recognizing that the negative behaviors only keeps me from living up to my values?
My guess is you want to feel more connected, more successful, more loved and accepted. So, we must bring our curiosity in order to introduce new ways of interacting with our fears, pain, shame, and grief.
There may be a time and place for dichotomies, but is your eating disorder ‘good’ or ‘bad’? My answer is: both and neither.
Gratitude and curiosity is where I’m headed.
Will you join me?