It is the start of a new year and the new year’s resolutions of many people include being fit and eating healthy foods or attaining their goal weight. Yet, for many people with a problematic relationship with food this is very difficult. Obesity, bulimia and anorexia are well known eating disorders.
This article is for those people who eat to much, who eat even when they are not hungry, who eat to soothe themselves and who end up hating themselves for their eating patterns and their body size. These are the people who are at risk of becoming obese. There are overeaters and then there are also undereaters – people who deprive themselves of food and restrict and control their food intake excessively (often to the point of starving themselves). And then there are people who binge eat and purge. These people take food in, but get rid of it before their bodies can digest the food. In practice I have also found that some people who were obese later become anorexic indicating that the role and use of food can change over time within the same person. Yet, their use of food stay the visible symptom of emotional distress.
Al of these problematic relationships with food indicate emotional struggles. The underlying reasons for an individual person’s eating disorder cannot be presumed, but must be discovered with that person. People attain the weight they are and eat the way they do for various emotional reasons. I’d like to discuss some of the possible underlying problems for people with eating disorders:
- If we start with early development, eating disorders are often seen as a way of coping with chronic disturbance in the empathic connectedness between parents and their child. The binge-eating person’s excessive need for food is understood as a way to tolerate anxiety in a person who does not have an internal sense of soothing. For these individuals food can become a soothing presence. When we want to start thinking about the meaning of binge-eating the early soothing bond between mother and child is of vital importance. If this relationship was not adequate the person can continue to seek comfort and soothing using food. Over-eating can be a substitute for maternal love and comfort.
- Problems with genital sexuality can be an underlying factor in eating disorders. If you are over-weight you can protect yourself from other people’s sexual interest. Experiencing pleasure in eating can at times be an unconscious defense against acknowledging genital (sexual) longings (particularly when there is enormous guilt about sexual longings). A person can regress (return to an earlier way of functioning) to find pleasure in food (oral pleasure) to defend against guilt-ridden genital (sexual) longings. This process is totally unconscious. If you are anorexic, you might be turning on the brakes on your physical and sexual development and maintain your prepubescent weight and appearance. In this way you can try to avoid the development of a body that becomes mature and sexual. If there has been sexual abuse in your history these factors become very significant. If you restrict your food intake it can provide you with a feeling of goodness and control over a sense of “badness”.
- Problems with eating can also be thought about in terms of aggression. When aggression is denied and avoided people may turn to food as a means of unconscious expression of aggression. It is important that aggression is acknowledged so that it is not expressed using food. Purging after binge eating can unconsciously be associated with getting rid of all badness, hate and destructiveness.
- Restricting your food intake can also be a way to gain a sense of control. Your food intake might be one of the things that you can control in a world where many things feel very out of control.
- When obese people loose a lot of weight they can be left with a strong feeling of vulnerability.
- Within a family a child/teenager’s eating disorder can be indicative of underlying family dynamics that need to be thought about.
If you have read this article it indicates a certain curiosity and motivation to understand yourself or your loved one with an eating disorder. This might motivate you to seek help to understand what your underlying emotional struggle is.