As humans, we all do things for a purpose. Even if the behavior is maladaptive, ven if it harms us, it’s meeting a need. With certain disorders, like eating disorders and substance use, it can be tempting to “write off” the behaviors as nothing more than self-destruction, vanity, or selfishness. It might appear at first like there is no purpose to the disorder.
For a long time I was so confused by my eating disorder and why it had taken over my life. I found myself feeling really angry towards the time and experiences that I had lost while I was consumed with food and my body. At the time, I assumed that most of my feelings were about wanting to be perfect and look perfect. It brought up an enormous amount of guilt because I felt like I was destroying myself and my life for something that seemed very “on the surface.”
Of course there was an element of comparing myself to models and magazines, but at the root of my disorder was something much more serious, deep, and impactful. The more I started to think about it, the more I realized that my eating disorder gave me a sense of control. The more my life felt out of control, the more I felt like I somehow had to regain my sense of control through food. Eating disorders have been described as “the false promise of virtue,” meaning that they promise a lot of positive outcomes, like control, only to actually add to the problem of feeling out of control in the first place.
It was only when I made the connection to control that I was able to give myself the gift of self-compassion, instead of judgement, for all that I had been through and what my eating disorder was trying to provide me. This also allowed me to then try and find other ways to feel in control that were more adaptive and not harmful to myself mentally, physically, or emotionally. When I felt out of control, I started to realize that I had a lot of other options to feel better, like getting into a routine, creating boundaries with others, having a go-to list of coping skills, and reciting mantras reminding myself that I’m in control.
So how do you find what specific need your eating disorder is trying to meet? When you feel the impulse to restrict, binge, or purge, ask yourself what you are wanting to happen for you as a result emotionally. Some common needs are: worth, acceptance, and numbing.
If you’re looking to food to bring you worth, then you’re hoping that controlling food will bring you value, that people will notice you, and that things will line up in your life. You’ll want to be happier, get a better job, and you’ll be safe from rejection.
If you’re looking for food to bring you emotional control, then you’re hoping that either restricting, binging, or purging food will provide an escape from your emotions. This can look like emotional eating, or turning to food to cope with feelings. It can also look like using food behaviors, like binging or purging, to “check out” from the overwhelming emotions you are experiencing.
If you’re looking for food to bring you safety, like I did, then you’re hoping that control and routines with food will provide order, predictability, and safety. This means that you want to plan your food, you want to have control over when and what you eat, and you want to soothe your anxiety through routines.
Sometimes it can be tempting to try and dismiss these needs that an eating disorder is trying to meet for us and just focus on challenging the eating disorder behavior. Rather than recognizing our desire for acceptance, we just focus on the meal plan. Instead of realizing that there is a big gap in our lives around stability and predictability, we just focus on pushing through fear foods.
But if we don’t also make room for what the disorder is trying to help us with, then we’re missing a big piece of the picture. Often that can lead to setting ourselves up for a more difficult recovery. For example, if your eating disorder is trying to help you find value and worth, then there needs to be a focus in recovery on what makes you feel whole as a person and building up those skill sets. If your eating disorder is trying to help you deal with your emotions, then there needs to be work on emotional tolerance and alternative coping skills. If your eating disorder is trying to help you feel safe, then there needs to be a focus on creating a sense of order and routine in your day to day life outside of food.
More than anything, these needs must be met with compassion. Even though the eating disorder has been harmful in the long term, it’s been trying to help us feel better in its own way. We wouldn’t get upset at someone else for trying to help us feel better, even if they don’t know what they are doing. Instead of being angry with our eating disorder impulses, we can understand what they are trying to help with and find other ways of addressing those needs that are healthy, safe, and effective in the long term.