- Carolyn Costin
"What If I Don’t Know What I’m Feeling…"
At some point, eating disorder behaviors that may have started out as a way to deal with a variety of feelings such as anxiety, guilt or shame about eating or one’s body transfers to other areas. For example, if you fail a test and feel guilty and ashamed, you may try to get rid of those feelings by bingeing and purging. When this happens you have transferred your eating disorder behaviors from a way to deal with negative feelings about food, weight and shape, to a way of dealing with negative feelings in general. Another example of this is that restricting what you eat may make you feel in control and powerful over food or your body, but over time, you confuse this with feeling in control in general. People who severely restrict their food to the point of emaciation are not really in control. Or, as I often point out, they are in control of their “Out of controlness.” Individuals who struggle with binge eating often find themselves eating to numb or cover up the bad feelings they have about their eating or weight, but eventually binge to numb out other bad feelings in general.
If your eating disorder goes on long enough, it can get to the point where you don’t even need anything negative to happen to trigger or instigate an eating disorder behavior. Repeatedly engaging in eating disorder behaviors will cause them to become habitual, and people find themselves engaging in them almost automatically. The eating disorder becomes a way of maintaining homeostasis. Similar to an alcoholic who wakes up and drinks, an eating disorder can get to the point where nothing particular is causing you to restrict or binge or purge, you just do it habitually. In fact, not doing it makes you uncomfortable. When an eating disorder is very entrenched it becomes a coping mechanism to just help you get through the day. You probably don’t even realize all of the things you might be feeling if you weren’t engaging in the behaviors. Eating disorder behaviors keep your feelings out of your awareness. Stopping the eating disorder behaviors is important and necessary to understand and feel your feelings. If you stop your automatic behaviors, that is when thoughts and feelings will come up.
Looking for triggers or reasons for a binge, purge or restrictive behavior can provide insight and be helpful in recovery for sure. However, it is important for clients and clinicians not get stuck on the WHY of a particular behavior, because sometimes there won’t be a why. Instead it can be critical to focus on HOW to interrupt and stop the pattern that is happening.