In my work with Eating Disorders and with mental health in general, here’s something that is consistent: The lines between food behaviors and feelings are complicated. There are a so many reasons why this is the case. Much of society, social media, and advertisement has set us up for failure in this arena. Engaging in food behaviors can feel easier than wading through difficult emotions. For some, it’s been clear for years that food acts as a comfort and/or distraction during times of stress. Even still, much of this is trickier and sneakier than that – more complicated than often what is recognized at surface level.
For instance, restrictive eating behaviors and weight loss are often praised in our culture. Whereas those with drug and alcohol addictions are generally not celebrated for these behaviors – those with restrictive eating patterns and excessive exercise are praised for their “self-discipline” and their “perseverance,” meanwhile a destructive eating disorder can rage underneath in secrecy. As “gains” are made through weight loss and appearance manipulation, these individuals may receive compliments and praise which naturally make them feel good about themselves and their behaviors, despite engaging in behaviors that are ultimately risky for their body and mental health. This can lead to associations between acceptance and worthiness with continued restrictive eating behaviors (or bingeing or purging or over-exercise, etc). If someone does not receive praise, their eating disordered thoughts may wonder whether they are in some way now not doing what they are supposed to be doing to earn the title of “self-disciplined” or “persevering” or “beautiful” and therefore increase their rigidity around food and other ED behaviors to fall deeper into these patterns.
This association with restrictive food habits being something worthy of praise is detrimental in other ways as well. Let’s consider another example. An individual has adopted the belief that eating desserts makes said individual “bad” and not eating desserts makes him/her “good.” One evening, celebrating a friend’s birthday, this individual eats cake. The shame and anger is overwhelming. He or she engages in purging behavior. The shame and anger begins to dissipate for a moment. The association begins to form between purging and the release of anger and shame – a quick fix. Consider the implications for this association. Sitting in shame and anger and allowing those feelings to be present until they pass and caring for oneself in the meantime through a coping mechanism that is healthy and life-giving – while, of course, better for experiencing long-term relief – can feel much more difficult than what has just been established to be a quick fix.
These are some of the associations and feelings that can be unpacked through therapy work with a skilled ED therapist. Often the deep-rooted associations between feelings and food are not fully understood and are particularly deceptive as they are often reinforced by societal norms. When an individual is entrenched in an eating disorder it can often, for a myriad of reasons, become a means of coping to get through the day. It’s used to numb, it’s used to seek relief, it’s used to seek acceptance. These connections must be explored and healthy avenues for getting needs met can be established. Meaning, it’s important to trace eating disorder habits back to their root so that new, non-destructive, values-based coping mechanisms can be integrated in their place. If someone is searching for acceptance through eating disordered behaviors, this is an important hunger to acknowledge, to understand, to feed through different means.
Reach out if you feel this is something that would be helpful to talk about further with myself – or I can help you find the right fit in another ED professional! No matter your story, your food behaviors, your feelings – there is healing and hope available for you.