Have you ever found yourself using food as a source of self-abuse? If not, I’m SO happy to hear that. If so, you aren’t alone. It is estimated that in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life which includes anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified - an eating disorder that doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for the others listed).
Food is one of our basic needs - you can’t mess with it without psychological ramifications. That’s much more obvious when eating issues turn into mental illness and diagnosis of an eating disorder. It’s less obvious in seemingly innocent dieting, restrained eating, food guilt, “clean” vs dirty, emotional coping with food, etc. I’ve found, however, that whether severe or not, it has the potential to negatively impact your life.
While I avoid making blanket statements about causes or triggers for disordered eating behavior, I don’t mind saying that at the root of most is feeling a lack of self-worth. Food becomes punishment, in one way or another. At times some may not feel worthy to eat and receive nourishment while at other times food is used to stuff down uncomfortable emotions. It could be a way to numb or distract from horrific life events or to inflict punishment from perceived failures.
I know first hand what that feels like and I wouldn’t wish it on my enemy. I think the most life-changing part of recovery was to realize that just because I think it, DOES NOT MAKE IT TRUE. I remember vividly the day my therapist suggested this and I remember hoping, with everything in me, that it was true. So maybe I actually deserve to eat when I’ve lost patience with my kids? Or forgot to pack their homework? When I didn't make it to the gym? Or didn’t do everything on my to-do list? Maybe my physical discomfort (which I had a lot of) was a result of literally beating myself up rather than my punishment for not being perfect? Yeah.
I really don’t want to get too heavy, but I firmly believe that recovery from disordered eating begins with separating yourself from food morality. Shame thrives there. You don’t have to earn the right to eat nor do you need to use food as away to distract feelings of unworthiness. The most effective strategy I've found is to observe my thoughts, and instead of believing them or trying to get rid of them, I just assess whether they are helpful to me or not. It's like reading a story. There is no judgment, just a curious and open state where I decide if thoughts meet my values and improve my life. If not, then I quit reading that story. My experience has been that over time, unhelpful thoughts come less and less frequently (although I would recommend not trying to control an outcome and instead just stay present with what is happening right now). Ultimately, if you suffer from mental illness (eating disorder, depression, anxiety or the like) I hope you come to know that there may be something wrong with how your brain functions but nothing wrong with YOU (although your mind can make you think there is).
Above all, recognize what is draining your sense of value. Is it social media feeds? Certain people? Negative self-talk? Possible faulty beliefs about yourself? Feeling the need to do it all? Caring too much about what other people think? Making assumptions? Comparing yourself to others? I encourage you to make a list. Consider doing a social media, negative self-talk, relationship, thought process “cleanse” or “detox” or at least set appropriate and healthy boundaries around these things.
I’ve found this authenticity mantra from Brene Brown to be so effective in learning how to truly support myself - “Don’t shrink, don’t puff up. Just hold your sacred ground.” YOU are sacred. Holy. Worthy beyond your wildest dreams. You are also human and you can expect to make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean you have to punish yourself, with food or otherwise, because of it.
Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD