I became interested in the complex world of eating disorders when I was a doctoral student working as a teaching assistant for an upper level psychology class. Students in the class selected articles in the Journal of Counseling Psychology to review. Part of the assignment was to describe why the article appealed to them and to relate personally to their chosen topic. The vast majority of the female students chose articles about eating disorders and I read dozens of papers about students’ own struggles, or the struggles of their friends, sisters, cousins, and mothers. I felt overwhelmed by the numbers and by the stories. People were really suffering. The experience led me to seek clinical training in this area so that I could make eating disorders an area of expertise.
Through reading, training, and working with clients over the years I’ve learned a few things. An eating disorder is really about so much more than the shape of your body or how much you weigh. True, it typically begins with a preoccupation with food or weight. People often say that they believe they can be happier if they change their bodies, and that if their bodies were smaller they’d get that job, that partner, that life would be great, that they would value themselves. The promise is alluring, but unfortunately it’s not real.
The control of food can be one way that we try to feel better, stronger, more competent, or to cope with painful feelings. Restrictive dieting, bingeing, and purging begin as a way to manage difficult emotions, but they are dangerous to your physical and emotional health, self-esteem, and sense of control. In fact, these behaviors can be life-threatening.
We can try to change our bodies but it doesn’t change our insides. The real change comes when we tune inward. Sometimes the task is to identify what we need and to ask for these needs to be met. Sometimes it’s to cope with overwhelming feelings associated with painful feelings of rejection, or histories of sexual abuse and other forms of trauma. Often it’s to learn about who we are and learn to value that. Sometimes it’s all three. It’s hard work, for sure, but it’s the work that can create a positive and lasting impact.
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