How Are Eating Disorders Helpful?
Propping up shaky, superficial, or contingent self-worth.
Posted Jun 19, 2020
First, I’m aware that this is a somewhat incendiary title. Of course, failing to listen to your body about what it needs will ultimately not be a winning strategy. At the same time, no human being is motivated to do any behavior that doesn’t do something for them.
One of my favorite authors, Anita Johnson, author of Eating in the Light of the Moon, describes an eating disorder as a log that has fallen in the river during a storm. If you’re in the river, drowning while the storm rages around you, it makes perfect sense to hold onto that log for dear life. The problem is, if you continue to cling to that log after the storm has passed, you will just be weighed down, unable to swim to the real safety of the shore. Eating disorder symptoms, even as they cause immense harm, also do something very real for the people who suffer from them. Because of this, healing means paying attention to those needs and figuring out how to meet them in a way that is truly nourishing and loving towards the self.
For many people with eating disorders, it may seem as though there isn’t much buffer zone between being “completely amazing” and “a worthless piece of lazy garbage.” The picture that many people have in their minds if they were to not engage in eating disordered behavior they would “give up” on being thin/successful/perfect and hang around in their sweatpants all day watching TV. Many people who have eating disorders have had periods of depression which have coincided with times of living in a larger body, so that the feelings that they had themselves due to depression become associated with the idea of a certain body shape/size.
For many of these people, the fear of fat is connected to how they will think of themselves and treat themselves if they are in a larger body. The ideas of being good enough and being critical/cruel to yourself are falsely intertwined. Many are afraid that if they were to let go of being a relentless taskmaster to themselves, they would never be motivated to be successful or healthy.
In fact, of course, the opposite is true—when you are compassionate and loving towards yourself it follows that you treat yourself well. You end up striving towards actual health (comfort, ease and balance in your body and mind) and strive towards actual success (achieving the things in life that matter to you, rather than mindlessly working for external praise and validation that don’t actually correlate to your values).
Additionally, many people with eating disorders often stop treating themselves well. They might give up on health behaviors, shame themselves, and avoid other people. The eating disorder tells them, “If you’re not thin, there’s no reason to bother. Why put yourself through moving your body or eating nourishing foods if you haven’t lost weight?” There may be some idea that sometime in the future they will lose weight and then they’ll begin trying to be happy—but because they’ve put conditions on their self-worth, they find it difficult to honestly treat themselves as though they matter.
Of course, self-worth that is dependent on your external appearance or on making yourself sick in order to maintain cannot be not very solid at all, so the eating disorder keeps demanding more and more. The fabled idea of having “made it” and feeling good about yourself on an ongoing basis never arrives. If you don’t truly love yourself, which includes not making your self-worth conditional or contingent on anything, you will likely not treat yourself well. For real healing to happen, an eating disorders therapist can help you to find the kind of self-sustaining, deep appreciation for the self that leads to true health and achievement of the goals that really matter to you.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.