Disordered Eating: The Battle Against Change

A plain white sushi plate had three very plain looking pieces of sushi on it.The season of spring is about renewal and rebirth: life-force energy that lay dormant through winter is now resurging above ground, driving the emergence of flowers and tender young shoots. Looking out my window, I can no longer see the street for the riot of leaves. Spring is a colorful illustration of the ongoing flow of life, a testament to the fact that everything is always changing.

Eating disorders are another matter entirely. Disordered eating patterns, which often seem irrational and illogical, offer protection from the unknown, the unpredictable. Rigid rules about what and how much to eat and when and how much to exercise, regular bingeing and purging episodes, constant thoughts about shape, size, and weight, daily scrutiny in the bathroom mirror: all of these things create a sameness and predictability to life. Day in, day out, the objectives are the same, the thoughts are the same, the actions are the same.

In the inner world of the disordered eater, life becomes comfortingly stable. Anxiety about the future and factors beyond our control are staved off by avoiding certain types or amounts of foods, or smoothed away with rich, heavy food, or tossed out by vomiting. The acts of eating or avoiding food function as antidotes to the existential angst we can feel when we contemplate the hugeness of life and the degree to which things are outside the boundaries of what we can control. The bathroom scale provides concrete reassurance that all is well or offers a tangible objective to accomplish via control of eating and body.

The majority of people who struggle with eating issues are female, and female bodies are a microcosm of life’s constant, rhythmic change. As the moon cycles through its stages from dark to full and back again, so do women’s bodies with their menstrual cycle, swelling and shrinking as hormone levels shift. For a disordered eater, whose body is the key to emotional well-being, these shifts can be terrifying, and under-eating enough to cause menstruation to cease can bring a certain sense of security.

All this goes to say that those who struggle with disordered eating often lack adequate resources for tolerating the uncertainty of life. Fear of the unknown, and lack of skill in handling that fear, can become motivation to avoid situations that induce such fears. Avoidance of uncomfortable emotional states is a hallmark of eating-disordered thinking and behavior. And the more one avoids such situations and emotions, the less well equipped one is to handle them when they inevitably occur. On these occasions, eating-disordered beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors swoop in to handle the fallout, reducing discomfort via the reassurance of food restriction or excessive exercise, the release of bingeing and purging, or the soothing numbness of overeating or bingeing.

The rhythm of life, the change of the seasons, and the monthly cyclical changes in women’s bodies are expressions of the nature of life: constant flux. As I write now, a windstorm is buffeting the branches and leaves of the trees outside my window. Safely and securely connected to the solid tree trunks, the branches and leaves flail wildly, but return to stillness when the wind dies down. For the disordered eater, lacking a sense of a solid “trunk,” unexpected or challenging circumstances appear dangerous, inspiring fear of being knocked loose from some safe base.

So footholds and perches must be established, and they come in the form of eating and exercise rituals, and often perfectionistic striving: to be the smartest, the thinnest, the prettiest, the best in sports, the nicest, the best at work, and to avoid speaking up if it would mean rocking the boat—beyond reproach. For disordered eaters, this precarious status creates the illusion of security.

All this adds up to something that is aesthetically pleasing yet lacks substance, like paper flowers: pretty and perfect, lacking in life force. Disordered eaters trade their life force for the security that internal sameness and predictability bring. To heal is to dare to let go of this safety and jump into the currents of life, ragged and wild.

© Copyright 2011 by Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS, therapist in Durham, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Megan

    Megan

    April 18th, 2011 at 2:56 PM

    This completely sums up my feelings. I know that when I control my eating I am in control over something big in my life and that makes me feel good to have that. You are right when you say that leaving that behind is leaving behind a consistency that I crave and yet cannot seem to find in other areas of my life. Why? I don’t know. This was something that I kind of seized hold of at a young age and have not been able to shake it. It makes me feel good, really to have that control over my body.

  • Amanda J

    Amanda J

    April 18th, 2011 at 7:09 PM

    Being in control of how much you eat shows you are not a person who eats uncontrollably,that’s it.But that should not mean you starve yourself.Maybe changing what you eat and what you don’t according to your menses may be a good thing but not getting enough nutrition is not the way to go about things.

  • shawn

    shawn

    April 19th, 2011 at 4:05 AM

    being comfortable is what’s important and it is important when it comes to the foods too.eat what you are comfortable with but do keep a check.as Lon as this is followed,any problem like that of the menstrual cycle can be overcome.

  • StacyL

    StacyL

    April 19th, 2011 at 4:30 AM

    @Megan I know how much we can allow disordered eating to affect us, but please try to seek help. I am a recovering bulimic myself and this is something that I have fought for a very long time. There is no easy fix and it does take a leap of faith but that is so worth it.

  • katerina

    katerina

    April 19th, 2011 at 12:25 PM

    changes in weather do promote changes in other spheres of life too…psychologically and physically.so we just need to learn by observing the changes in us and we will soon have it figured out.this will definitely prevent problems and adjusting every gear with every change of season.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    April 20th, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    Thanks, everyone, for your insightful comments!
    Megan, I believe that what you are saying describes on the the cornerstones of an eating disordered perspective: 1. that for humans to function, we must control ourselves and our environment 2. it is crucial to happiness to feel as though we are in control of something 3. that rigid eating and/or exercise rules, or whatever it takes to get our bodies to be the right size and shape, equal being in control of our eating or our bodies. I believe that this entire premise is faulty, for life isn’t about control, and our bodies aren’t designed to be controlled, they are designed to be nurtured and nourished. When we listen to them and nurture and nourish them and treat them with loving respect, they will be whatever shape and size is right for us.The perceived need to feel as though we are in control of something is a symptom of low self-worth or poor self-esteem, of something being amiss in our psyches or spirits.
    Amanda,I’ll say to you what I just said to Megan!
    Shawn, I’m not sure what you mean by “problem like that of the menstrual cycle.” I agree that we need to be comfortable with the foods we eat, and from a healthy place, not a disordered one.
    Stacy, thank you for chiming in! It sounds like you have worked hard to recover and that it’s paid off. I hope that your experience lets others know that there is hope.
    Katerina, yes, not only is change an ongoing part of life, changes in one area beget changes in another. One of the big challenges of recovery from disordered eating is to move through fear of change, to stop resisting it, to accept it and develop coping skills for handling it and the emotions it brings.

  • Sheila

    Sheila

    April 20th, 2011 at 2:35 PM

    So I guess I get the need to feel in control over something and you choose to do this with your food. But what I do not understand is doing this to the point to where it makes you physically and emotionally ill, where you cannot take not making these poor decisions. That is not rational to me, but I guess that battling this way with food is not somehting that is rational to begin with.

  • Lois

    Lois

    April 23rd, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    Menstruation is determined by body weight, not your eating habits. Your weight is a side-effect of the eating habits but not a direct cause.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    May 5th, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    Sheila,what you say illustrates one of the most difficult aspects of helping someone whose eating is disordered: the thinking and behavior seem irrational to people who have healthy relationships with food and with their bodies, but the inner world of a disordered eater involves its own logic. Part of recovery is moving from eating-disordered thinking to healthy thought patterns, but it’s tough, because the brain that is thinking in disordered ways is the tool that must be used in order to participate in recovery.

    Lois, that’s not entirely true. While there is a relationship between weight and menstruation, there are other nutritional factors that affect it. In the initial stages of my recovery from binge eating disorder, when I was losing weight from an overweight weight to one that was in the normal range for my height and build, I lost my period for 8 months.

    In the years that followed, I twice got down to my lowest weight. (Ironically, I was recovering from compulsive overeating, but I believed, and was supported by those around me, that thinner was better.) The first time, I lost my period for a year-and-a-half. The second time, I didn’t even skip a period. I was eating very differently during those two time periods– the first time, I was eating hardly any fat and very little protein, lots of whole grains and vegetables. The second time, I was eating significantly more protein and fat.

    Also, I’ve been told by health professionals that the number of calories a person is taking in relative to the amount their body actually needs has more impact on cessation of menstruation than what a person weighs.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    May 6th, 2011 at 1:40 PM

    Oops– what I meant to say, in the second paragraph, above, was,”…I believed, and was supported by those around me in this, that thinner was better, so the thinner, the better.” I hope that is clearer!

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