What Recovering From an Eating Disorder Will Teach You
By Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed
It may seem odd that an eating disorder could teach you something, but that’s exactly what happens in recovery. Remember, an eating disorder is a constellation of symptoms or behaviors that reflect how you learned to manage the ups and downs of life. Through no fault of your own, you became fixated on food and weight in your best effort to take care of yourself and, therefore, missed out on acquiring essential life skills.
Autonomy, the ability to stand confidently on your own two feet, is one life skill that gets compromised. Sometimes it’s because you depend on food or a weight obsession to make yourself feel better, rather than cultivating your own abilities. Other times, frightened of independence, you use your condition as a way to get people to take care of you. You may even believe you’re not capable of leaving the nest and hold on to your dysfunction to prove it. Still, other times a parent (or partner) ends up playing out your internal struggle, treating you like a child when you try to be responsible.
Everyone has uncertainties about dependence and independence, and even mentally healthy people struggle occasionally. A person becomes autonomous by developing a keen sense of limits and those of others. Think of a swinging door: You should be able to easily push the door open when you need to depend on others and ask for help and let it swing shut when you don’t. A door that’s always open or one that’s locked tight is a sign of trouble.
A second life skill that gets derailed is emotional regulation, which is actually a whole set of facilities that help you experience and modulate feelings. If you habitually focus on food or weight when you’re stressed, you miss the practice of self-soothing and bearing intense emotion. You sidestep the efforts of learning to delay gratification, manage impulses, and tolerate frustration. Every time you use an eating disorder to comfort or distract from inner turmoil, you forego opportunities to engage in positive self-talk, relaxation techniques, or getting soothing from others. Recovery allows you to use these approaches until they are (more or less) second nature.
A third life skill that gets lost is self-care. When food abuse is the response to every need, you develop an insufficient repertoire of self-care skills. You become a one-note song, a monochromatic painting. There are actually an almost limitless number of ways to take care of yourself, from calling a friend to having a good cry. But when food becomes the answer to every question, you lose sight of these options. Recovery allows you to tailor your responses to your many needs.
The ability to create intimacy is a fourth life skill that is not developed. When you care more about calories than about having people close to you, something is very wrong. Social and interpersonal skills develop from interacting openly, from testing yourself around people and testing them around you. Intimacy is rooted in risking vulnerability, honest expression of feelings, give and take, mutual care-taking, and in both parties being accountable to the relationship. When your primary relationship is with an eating disorder, your emotional energy gets diverted away from healthy relationships. Recovery gives you a chance to test your wings and experiment with forming deep attachments.
Recognizing that recovery is about much more than food gives you additional incentives to get better. Learning will happen when your brain sprouts new neural pathways that develop from doing something over and over. Fortunately, science tells us that we can change at any age. Whether you’re 26 or 62, it’s not too late. One of the wonders of recovery—aside from the sheer joy and relief of being healthy—is that you get a second chance to acquire the life skills to be happy, healthy, successful, and wise.
About the Author
Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed, is a psychotherapist and educator who lives and practices in Sarasota, FL. She is the author of The Food & Feelings Workbook and The Rules of Normal Eating. Visit www.eatingnormal.com.
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Summer 2007 Volume 5, Number 3
©2007 Gürze Books