What Thoughts And Feelings Are Associated With It?
Eating disorders are feeling disorders. The rigid rules and rituals of bulimic behavior are a definite way to distance one’s self from feelings that seem unmanageable, overwhelming, or just plain terrifying. These can be as nightmarish as the fear that comes from memories of abuse, the quiet pain of being unloved or considered unimportant, or feelings that are buried in past events or fresh from one’s daily life. A binge pushes away all feelings by providing something else on which to focus.
Eventually, bulimics use no other way of handling their feelings except to binge and purge. This is what they describe when they say they feel powerless. What’s more, the illness brings with it a whole new set of complications that mask the old feelings and often make them worse. For example, a person who is afraid of others may use bulimia to keep her distance by hiding her embarrassing thoughts and rituals. Or someone who feels incompetent may perfect the art of throwing up, while attempting little else. In this way, whatever precipitated the binge-purge behavior is effectively denied, and in the long run, buried beneath fresh shame and guilt.
Most initial lessons about feelings are acquired at an early age and have a profound impact. Some families do not express or know how to handle a free range of emotions, especially “negative” ones, such as anger, disappointment or even disagreement. Others have strict rules for controlling which emotions can be expressed and what modes of expression are permitted. Children in these types of families learn that they should monitor and protect their feelings, and in many cases deny them altogether. With no experience identifying and talking about them, a bulimic may not even know exactly what she is feeling, or might assume that her feelings are bad and she is bad for having them. She might fear other people’s feelings, as well, and work hard to insure that they are not upset in any way.
Eventually these unvoiced feelings will find expression in other ways, such as through an eating disorder. In fact, many bulimics misinterpret a wide range of emotions as hunger. Most say that they feel depressed, disconnected and powerless most of the time. The cyclical nature of the bulimic binges also applies to feelings which, in the space of a few hours, can move from worthlessness (low self-esteem), to powerlessness (I have no control over my life), effectiveness (I can get rid of these feelings), a “high” from the release of the purge, hope (that this binge might be the last), and finally the return to feelings of worthlessness.
Bulimia is also a thinking disorder in that sufferers are trapped in harmful thought patterns. One example is “black and white thinking,” where everything is divided into extreme categories. For example, foods are either “good” or “bad,” bodies are either “fat” or “thin,” and not being in-control means being completely out-of-control. Other patterns are magnifying problems, magical and dramatic thinking, constantly comparing one’s self to others, and taking remarks or situations too personally. Some bulimics also seem to hold a generally negative attitude towards life, which influences all aspects of their experience. Most think that they are worthless, as evidenced by the size of their bodies.
Individuals with bulimia typically harbor a set of deeply-held core ideas upon which other harmful conclusions are drawn. For instance, the belief that being fat is bad will also mean that food is bad, that having a large body is a sign of failure, and that self indulgence is a sign of weakness. Believing that “I am a bad person,” to which many bulimics adhere, makes possible the thoughts “There is no reason to take care of myself,” and “No one can love me.” This sets up an entire system of values and ideas upon which they are constantly monitoring and judging themselves, and sometimes others. Their minds do what is referred to as “spinning,” or going over and over the same negative thoughts. These endless, automatic “tapes” in the mind make it impossible for bulimics to hear anything else, much less their own inner wisdom.
All these negative feelings and thoughts must be brought to light and challenged in recovery. This can be at once a frightening, rejuvenating, exhausting, rewarding experience, which is why it is best done with the guidance of a therapist.
I can easily see how, during stressful times of your life, you seek some kind of comfort. I found this in food. Others find it in drugs and alcohol.
Before I started therapy, I never associated my desire to binge with my emotions. I always felt it was an uncontrollable desire for huge amounts of food. Now I understand the binge takes the place of allowing myself to feel any emotions.
When I feel sad, troubled, panic, anger or loneliness, this disease jumps out on me like a Jack-in-the-box. I find it scary because I also feel helpless and not in control. Then again, the mental “numbness” blocks out all the emotions and makes me forget about all my problems. It’s not worth it, though.￼
Reprinted with permission from Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery
By Lindsey Hall and Leigh Cohn
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