It’s miserable, but it’s also seductive: eating disorders and the ‘impostor syndrome’

Yesterday I found a raw, heartfelt blog post about what it is like to live with an eating disorder.  I remember that through my own recovery process, one of the things that was most meaningful to me was reading the words of people who “got it”.  It seemed few and far between to find someone who truly understood the way I was feeling…mostly because of the mysterious and hidden nature of eating disorders themselves.  We hesitate to expose them, despite the fact that millions of people do understand what we are feeling.  Today, I utilize an empathic approach to my therapeutic philosophy as much as is helpful for my clients.  I want them to know that I get it, because I do.

Reading the blog post yesterday, titled Eating Disorders and the Fear of the Ordinary , I was instantaneously drawn to the writer’s reality.  She wrote about something she called “the impostor syndrome: the gnawing fear that you don’t really belong there, that you don’t have what it takes, that you somehow slipped through the cracks in the admissions process and are actually an intellectual embarrassment, an incompetent fraud who knows jack-all about anything — and that sooner or later, like the Wizard of Oz, you will be found out and exposed for the humbug you really are.”

I reflected on my own journey.  Did I feel like an impostor?  Certainly I did, trying to fit in with crowds of people who did not accept me, trying to mold myself into something I wasn’t in hopes that I would be accepted.  The most significant way that I was an imposter was in relating to my own self.  I was not living within my own skin, my own body; I was detached from the neck down.  I couldn’t believe that the body I had was mine, and for many years, I didn’t want it to be mine.  Now I know that it was not about my body at all, but about accepting myself for who I was, inside and out.  Accepting my sensitive nature, accepting that I had a streak of perfectionism in me that would always peek through.

The author talks about feeling as if we are impostors who “are horribly afraid that somewhere along the line somebody will figure this out. We are convinced in the teeth of the evidence that there is something fundamentally flawed about us, something that needs fixing and yet is unfixable.”  This can lead to hurting ourselves through destructive behaviors and feeling as if we are different from everyone else.  This would-be self-absorption makes us feel different, special, unique.  This feeling, she says, is “miserable, but also seductive.”  Thus one of the reasons that eating disorders are so difficult to recover from: we must realize that we are not so different from others, that we belong, and that we are deserve the same self-confidence that others do.  But that is also, in the author’s vein, ordinary.

The author also points out that when struggling with an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia or binge eating disorder, one may feel very alone and separate, but

“what’s so funny about this whole self-fulfilling prophecy is that we aren’t really alone, and our methods aren’t really as terribly original as we’d like to think they are. The statistics don’t lie: there are eight million [reported] eating disorder sufferers strong in this country alone, each and every one of us absolutely convinced that we are unlike all the others, that we are somehow Extraordinary.”

What are we trying to achieve by being extraordinary?  Do we want to be noticed? loved?

I encourage you to read the entire post, and to reflect upon how it relates to you or to someone you love who has struggled with an eating disorder.  The final words are written as if from my own mouth: “I’m not extraordinary, and I’ve nearly killed myself trying to be — but what I am is perfectly imperfect. That’s what I have to offer this world — and that’s fine by me.”

Divorcing the fat stigma and embracing health, wellness, beauty at ANY size

Everywhere you look, there’s an advertisement to help you lose weight — especially this time of year! Celebrities talk about fasting for days before an awards show and commenting on how “AMAZING their body looks after losing all of that baby weight!!”.  As if that is the most important thing in the world.  Why is everyone so afraid of fat?  We are conditioned to believe that the thinner we are, the happier, the more successful, the richer, and the more popular we will be.  We will have it all.  But what about already having “it all” — no matter how we look?  This perspective is revolutionary in mainstream Westernized culture, and quite controversial at times, pushing against such rigidity about what we “should” look like and “should” do.  Tell me this: does thinness REALLY cause happiness?

I was curious about this question so I asked a few of my acquaintances who are affected by this social pressure.  After thinking for a moment, my subject said: “well, yes, it will make me happier because it will give me more self-confidence.”  I asked another colleague the same question and she said: “no, thinness will not make me happier because my body is balanced at its natural set point; no matter how much I could starve myself or workout, my body will always look this way.  If I decided that I needed to be thin to be happy, and my body was not where I wanted it to be, I would be choosing to make myself miserable.”  In both of these perspectives, I gleamed a similar theme:  confidence in our selves could influence happiness.  Many of us look for happiness by changing the way we look, feeling as if that is something we can control.  And we can, to a certain degree.  But if we are choosing to control how we look and doing so in a way that is not focusing on health and wellness of our bodies as well as our minds, this can lead down a dangerous path to eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.

I am a huge fan of the philosophy of the Health at Every Size organization (HAES), whose mission “is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. It supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control). Health at Every Size encourages:

  • Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
  • Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite.
  • Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.”

Already over 3600 people have signed the HAES pledge to honor and respect their bodies.  Imagine what our world could be like if we chose to love and accept our bodies instead of abuse and control them?

We cannot talk about the fat stigma in the US without discussing the growing problem of obesity in our country.  Statistics show that nearly one third of adults in the US (33.8%) are obese.  The same HAES principles can be applied to those who are obese as can be applied to any other person:  if we choose health and wellness, meaning giving our bodies nutritious and delicious foods and eating in a manner that is mindful and pleasurable, exercising so that our muscles can be strong and active, and finding joy in the beauty of our bodies, then we might have healthier connections to our bodies.  What about embracing terms like health and wellness instead of fat or skinny?

post from the “Dances with Fat” blog written in response to Paula Deen’s recent admission that she has type two Diabetes and those who are criticizing her states:

Public health does not mean public thinness.  It also doesn’t mean being a judgmental busybody who shames or stigmatizes people who don’t look or act like you think they should.  Being for public health means that you are for people having access to the foods that they choose to eat, safe movement options that they enjoy,  and affordable evidence-based medical care.”

There is a movement that has formed to push against the our society’s fear of fat.  We each have our own experiences and opinions about this topic, as it is very close to our hearts and our daily lives.  I invite you to leave a comment, raise your voice, as we need more dialogue to shut out the noise of unhealthy eating and mindsets about food!

Parents can be the key to early intervention in eating disorder development

Parents have an important role in detecting the early signs of an eating disorder in their child.  As a parent, you have a front-row seat to the daily behaviors, emotions, conflicts, and coping mechanisms that your child exhibits.  You can tell if your son or daughter is having a rough day by the way he or she manifests emotions.  Perhaps your son gets frustrated and kicks objects around the house.  Or your daughter is in conflict with a friend and isolates herself in her room.  Many of these behaviors are normal coping mechanisms for the developmental phase that the child is currently in, and they learn more about themselves and the world by utilizing a wide range of emotional expressions and behaviors — sometime to the befuddlement of their parents.

How do you know when a child might be developing a coping mechanism that can lead to destructive behaviors such as an eating disorder?  And what do you do?  As a parent, you have the opportunity to be a soothing and comforting support to your child as he or she navigates through life and through your supportive presence, you can model adaptive and healthy coping mechanisms.

Someday Melissa is a non-profit organization founded in 2010 by Judy Avrin following the death of her daughter Melissa to an eating disorder.  Someday Melissa’s mission is “to promote recognition and awareness of eating disorders and the importance of early treatment”, and the organization created a documentary about Melissa’s journey in order to raise awareness about the dangers of these disorders.  The goal “is to show the film, speak to groups, provide educational materials and have a vital website and blog that are continually updated with information and resources; to share stories of recovery and hope.”

Below is a poster of the film:

In her recent blog post on Someday Melissa’s blog, Judy writes about the “Power of Parental Denial”.  When a doctor suggested to her that he suspected Melissa had an eating disorder, Judy refused to believe it.  She had been careful not to talk about weight or body image in front of Melissa because she was aware of the sensitivity of those subjects herself.  She states that the “signs of Melissa’s eating disorder — desire to lose weight, constipation, increased exercising, mood swings — in retrospect seem lime flashing neon warning signs that should have set off alarms.”  But they didn’t.  Why?

Judy continues to explain that beginning signs of eating disorders can appear like “normal” adolescent behavior and can seem to be explained by other causes.  Doctors are just as crucial as parents for noticing early signs of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, and they sometimes do not point them out — perhaps because people struggling with eating disorders are very skilled at hiding or ‘explaining’ their behaviors.

Many people who are struggling with eating disorders can appear at a normal weight, making it more challenging to detect the symptoms.  Those struggling with bulimia nervosa are rarely underweight and are sometimes a bit overweight, and with the stereotype that ‘people with eating disorders are typically emaciated’ still rampant, many are overlooked.  Judy also points out the power of shame.  Many parents as well as their children do not want to admit that the child has an eating disorder due to the shameful acts and behaviors that can surround these disorders.  The shame can become overpowering and lead to an even deeper cycle of denial and control.

Judy’s mission is to educate parents, teachers, doctors, therapists, friends, and family members about the signs of an eating disorder so that treatment can be sought at the earliest possible time.  Early intervention drastically raises the recovery rate for eating disorders, as the behaviors may be less entrenched and the emotions less intense.

There is a wonderful resource for parents created by the National Eating Disorders Association called the Parent ToolKit.  This, along with parents’ attention to and involvement in their child’s emotional self can save many lives.