You cannot simultaneously act out an eating issue and fully trust yourself.
Compulsive overeating will soon fall under the clinical label, “Binge Eating Disorder” (BED), in the next edition of the psychiatric diagnostic manual. I define compulsive eating as eating for reasons other than physical hunger. However, I believe several of the core issues involved can apply to those with anorexia, bulimia, and all other forms of eating problems as well.
In an instance of disordered eating, where exactly does the lack of trust happen? Essentially, the disconnect occurs at the moment when you subconsciously decide you cannot afford to treat yourself with kindness.
I cannot trust that I will eat an amount that is healthy for me, I must count calories.
I cannot wear this shirt, because although I love how it looks and feels on me, others have told me it makes me look fat.
I cannot NOT eat right now even though I am not hungry, or I won’t feel better.
I must eat at mealtimes, and not whenever I am hungry, because then I might eat all day.
I cannot eat a salad, or it means I am dieting.
I cannot eat only what my body wants, I’ll get sick or die on that tiny amount of food.
These examples illustrate some painful underlying logic systems. These are moments in which there is some perceived threat – and the choice is often made to shut off from oneself somehow, as an alternative to dealing with the expected negative outcomes. At times like these, you may use food as a buffer, instead of exploring the fears any further. Falling back on a painful ritual, instead of taking the path you truly want to take (wearing that shirt, eating when hungry, etc.).
Let’s take one of the examples, “I cannot eat only what my body wants, I’ll get sick or die on that tiny amount of food.” Every cell of our bodies has been crafted by evolution to do one thing: survive, and ideally thrive. There is no way, if you were truly sensing in to your body, that your body would let itself starve. The same goes for adequate nutrition. Your body gives clear messages about a lack of protein, vegetables, whatever is necessary. The body is not what’s in the way of natural eating – it’s the distrust of our natural hungers. However, after days, weeks, possibly decades of eating out of sync with the body, you fear the unknown territory of what it will actually feel like to let your body tell you what to eat. You cut yourself off from the body-healing, self-loving possibility before giving yourself a chance to make it through.
You’ve got a Natural Self that’s starving for simple expression, gasping for room to BE. There is nothing defective about you that makes YOU unable to “just eat food and get over it!!” whereas seemingly “normal” eaters can. The only difference between you and them, is that due to many individual and cultural factors, you developed habits around eating that created a system to override your natural hunger/fullness mechanisms.
But the sweet news is that those mechanisms are still there in you, for you! Although it might take practice to slow down and tune in enough to sense them, they are there. This means that you have a physical basis for trust in yourself. This is a monumental discovery and a crucial part of recovery – just knowing that you have what it takes in your body to be a “normal eater.” That you’re not just cursed with boundless hunger, that you’re not out-of-control at the core.
As for the emotional trust it takes to allow the tuning in to your body – it’s similar, but more complicated because this is where thoughts and beliefs come in. Yet the same truth about an intact, wise nature applies: If you are reading and understanding this, you have the equipment inside to feel longing (emotional hunger) and to make an effort to tend to it. Picture this as a mother being at least able to hear her child’s cry and know that this means something is wrong. Without this, the baby would die, because the mother would have no ability to recognize when to take appropriate care of the baby. But with at least the ability to sense when something is wrong, this mother has a chance at soothing her baby. She may need to learn how to discern whether what’s needed is food or a diaper change, she may need to learn how to breastfeed or swaddle the baby – but these are skills that can be learned! She already has that essential mechanism of registering the baby’s pleasure and pain.
So your body can tell you when it’s hungry and what it needs, and your feelings can tell you whether you are stable or need soothing. What could go wrong?
What goes wrong is that beliefs about “how things should be” cause you to doubt yourself so severely that you either rely on an external judgment system (dieting/calorie-counting) or throw “trying” out the window (bingeing). You think, for example: “If I don’t eat whatever I want right now, I will be in a bad mood for the rest of the night and maybe even lash out at someone.” You’ve deemed a “bad mood” as unacceptable; you “should” be pleasant and should keep any negative feelings away from others; and in failing to live up to the “shoulds,” you’re driven to escape.
The alternative to being a slave to your fears is living from the inside out. You put the external expectation of always being happy to the side, you put the external expectation of a relationship always going smoothly to the side. You tune into your self, inside. You make the decision to find a personal, quiet space and sit for a while until you know how you want to take care of yourself. You dedicate yourself to what it would mean to be kind to yourself in each new moment. The kindest thing might be allowing a “bad mood” to inhabit you as much as it wants to, and to inquire into it. Your sensations and feelings are your true self talking to you! What’s not your true self talking to you is: “Oh my god… I can’t believe you ate this way AGAIN. Unbelievable… Tomorrow’s another day.” That’s only the uprooted, survival-mode version of you.
Trust yourself. Trust that whatever is presenting itself to you in your body and in your heart is something true for you in that moment, and that you can respond to it with kindness. That’s what hurts the most about living with disordered eating and body image, after all – the harshness, the constant pressure and disappointment, the feeling of not being your true self.
Your true self is there in every moment, right now as you read this. Always there to tune into, to know, to offer kindness to as only you can. If you can, don’t smother it with food or starve it… Don’t allow anything to override your own truth.
Open to yourself.