In working at inpatient, residential, and partial hospitalization programs for the last 6+ years, I have seen a strong relationship between the eating disorder and isolation. When eating disorders are active, folks find themselves drawn away from loved ones and connection for a variety of reasons often centering around fear and shame. When we feel shame, we want to pull away from other people not because we don’t love or care about them, but often because we are afraid of being rejected, judged, or shamed further.
But what will they think?
When it comes to folks struggling with eating disorders, there is a heightened shame and fear around how others view their body. Therefore, it can feel essential to isolate from others in order to protect yourself from experiencing rejection, condemnation, and misunderstanding. Through isolation, we are able to create a moat around ourselves, seemingly keeping out pain, judgement, and shame. Yet, we end up locking ourselves in with past pains, judgement, and shame.
Isolation impacts relationships with other people because it communicates separation and lack of desire to build connection. As a loved one of someone who has an active eating disorder, you may find yourself becoming angry, hurt, or afraid in response to the isolation and separation. It is scary to witness someone you love moving further and further away from you and watching the life begin to drain out of their faces.
Loved Ones: you are NOT alone.
The eating disorder WANTS you, as a loved one, to feel hopeless, helpless, and angry. It wants you to keep your distance in order to, unknowingly, support the continued construction of the moat between you and your loved one with an eating disorder. Know that you both end up feeling isolated, lonely, and disconnected. The eating disorder will make attempts to convince you that you are only hurting yourself or only impacting yourself.
This is dead wrong.
As a human being, we impact one another in both wonderful and painful ways. There is no getting around this as it is the privilege we are born into. Just like any other privilege, we also carry a responsibility to navigate this privilege as best we can. You do not get to pick and choose who you impact and how that impact is felt. You DO get to choose how you interact with yourself and others when you acknowledge your impact.
How do eating disorders effect relationships? In all sorts of ways! Eating disorders can create separation between loved ones, conflict, hurt and pain. Eating disorders can also create closeness, vulnerability, and love felt so deep it can be overwhelming. The choice becomes how do I want my eating disorder to affect my relationships? Do I want to choose vulnerability and courage and bring my struggles to my loved ones or do I want to choose to create a moat in order to “protect” my loved one?
Hint: the “protection” you seek only creates a different kind of pain and hurt. It doesn’t really protect anyone, yourself included, from pain.
The choice is yours. May you hold onto your courage and choose vulnerability.