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Opening the Doors to Compassion and Self-Compassion Through Helplessness

Opening the Doors to Compassion and Self-Compassion Through Helplessness

By Kathryn Cortese, LCSW, ACSW, CEDS

My brother has an eating disorder. I am 9 years old and I used to be happy. I hate it and sometimes I hate him. He cries when my mother makes him eat. I want my brother to play with me. Can you tell me how to make him better?

            How many emotions are you feeling now that you’ve read this request? Where does your head go? How much compassion are you experiencing for this young person? Perhaps you’ve even been in his shoes? As you read this, consider the thoughts presented from the dual perspective or split-screen of the person with the eating disorder and the professional provider, a family member, or caring other.

By understanding how complex the experience of helplessness is you will hopefully be able to open the doors to compassion and self-compassion.

Helplessness is often composed of a pool of many strong and challenging emotions. On the surface, helplessness can take the form of the universal / “there is nothing anyone can do,” or the personal / “there is nothing I can do.” Swimming beneath is an active cluster of feelings that may not be identified. Yet, with some attention to the deeper “take,” you will notice a great sense of loss.

Let’s look at what varieties of loss fuel that sense. The loss of control is a clear one that accompanies any illness. With an eating disorder, this loss of control manifests both for the individual and those involved. At this juncture, the task to know when, who, and how to connect with professionals takes one into a territory of unknowns or to revisiting earlier exposures to the health care system. Questions like in-person or virtual, what level of care, what about insurance and finances, etc. take the fore and your life is in another dimension.

Loss of a sense of safety or security can be heightened with fears of the behaviors, physical symptoms, course of the disorder, and changes in routine.

Loss of the person to whom you were connected before the onset of the eating disorder happens to both the individuals themselves and to the friends, family, and loved ones. With the eating disorder wedged between the individual and the authentic self, and the individual and others, a cut-off/disconnect process takes hold and enhances the helplessness already present. This can sadly evolve to the fear that one may never reclaim what once was. The loneliness that envelops is its own type of longing and grief.

            Loss of self-efficacy ripples through everyone involved. The psychologist, Albert Bandura, stated,  “In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.” “Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our own abilities, specifically our ability to meet the challenges ahead of us and complete a task successfully (Akhtar, 2008).”1 Thinking, feeling, and likely believing one has little influence on a situation can be quite paralyzing and fuel hopelessness.

            Loss of meaning and purpose can pulse throughout the day. The individual may feel as though they’ve lost any goals other than to fulfill the demands of the eating disorder, such that the eating disorder can intrude upon and take over the individual’s identity. This mechanism can challenge personal beliefs about self-value, worth, and deservingness. Coupled with the shame imbedded in eating disorders, this is a slope that only moves in a downward direction. The supportive others often feel that who they are, how they respond, and what they think doesn’t matter.

            Confusion over one’s role compounds this loss of meaning and purpose. Who am I now? How can I still be the brother I was before, as seen in the case of the nine year old who wants his brother back. The same applies to the role of parents and carers. They may have been people who provided the necessities of life for the individual with the eating disorder, but now they may be called upon to keep their loved one alive.

            Taking the time to probe the state of hopelessness that actively houses all of the mentioned losses hopefully opens some doors. These doors don’t cure an eating disorder, but they can lead one to a sense of compassion and self-compassion. The healing power of compassion can transform lives. Kristin Neff reminds us to recognize our own suffering and that of others. The type of gentle kindness and caring that comes from any form of compassion helps us find some calm in difficult life challenges and supports the well being available within all of us.2

About the author:

Kathryn Cortese, LCSW, ACSW, CEDS, began working as a psychotherapist with individuals with eating disorders in 1989. She is committed to the beliefs that recovery is real, support is essential, and hope matters. In 2013, along with her son, Michael, Kathy purchased the Gürze Catalogue. To provide education and support, they offer their website, edcatalogue.com, the annual digital Gürze/Salucore Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue, a monthly ENewsletter featuring articles specifically written for this as well as a Book Interview, the ED Pulse, and a podcast series, ED Matters.


1 https://positivepsychology.com/self-efficacy/

2 Neff, K. (2015). Self-compassion:  The proven power of being kind to yourself. W.



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