For help with
these issues, please contact:
Jane Rachel Kaplan, Ph.D., MPH
902 Curtis St.
Albany CA, 94707
A Glimpse Into Another
Eating is so simple.
Why can't my partner/daughter/friend use food
This question echoes in the minds of countless people across
People without eating
problems are mystified by the sufferer's inability to stop unhealthy
behaviors she may no longer even want. To them, her problem may even
seem to be exaggerated. But food obsession is not trivial or
self-indulgent. Far from being frivolous, the food-obsessed person is
often guilt-ridden, driven and unhappy.
If good advice and
common sense were as easy to swallow as ice cream, the person you are
worried about could be cured of an eating disorder in an instant. A
simple instruction would be enough: "If you're too skinny, start eating.
If you're too fat, diet and exercise. If you're throwing up to dispose
of megasnacks, stop it." Unfortunately, people are not this logical. If
we were, not many of us would smoke, gamble, drink or abuse other drugs.
The person with the problem has almost certainly tried this logic
already and it hasn't worked.
Let us help you try to
see the world from the eyes of a person with an eating disorder. She
probably does not perceive the world as a comfortable place, and it is
especially uncomfortable inside her mind. Her inner conflicts may feel
like intruders who mischievously take over and get her into trouble. In
one corner is an impulse that may seem like a sort of demon that must be
forever chained and guarded or it will take over. In the other corner is
a critic who offers no help in controlling the beast, but is always
ready to blame when it escapes.
For the person obsessed
with food, self-respect depends on how "good" she has been today, or
this week, or this month (how successful she has been in restraining her
eating). With one little slip, her self-esteem slides into an abyss.
There, her despair can only be relieved by the one consolation she
Imagine how life would
feel if you did not believe the world would accept you unless you were
prefect--physically, mentally, and in every way.
Imagine how you would
feel about your family and friends if you believed you did not deserve
to get anything you really wanted.
Imagine the pressure
you would feel if your first law was to control your emotions at all
If you can picture
these states of mind, you can begin to relate to the internal battle
going on inside your loved one, even if you can't see it on the surface.
Masking Inner Conflicts
One can hide many
personal conflicts behind food abuse. Anger is a prime example. In some
families and cultures, anger is forbidden. A child born into this family
or culture learns to suppress anger. Stuffing food down one's throat is
a powerful way to stuff down anger, or any other feeling, since you
can't speak or cry with your mouth full. Self-hate can result from
stuffing one's emotions in this way, but for some people it is safer
than feeling anger at others.
another important issue that may be hidden behind unhealthy eating. Many
food-obsessed people feel unworthy to ask directly for what they want.
Instead, they use indirect means: being nice, looking hopeful, hinting,
and earning it three times over. Sometimes they become care givers,
offering to others the very things they need themselves. Since pleasing
people is so important to them, they have developed masks of apparent
confidence behind which can lie problems hidden for years, from friends,
relatives, and even themselves.
When people feel they
can never do enough to redeem themselves in the eyes of a critical,
hostile world, they become people-pleasers. For example, some people
with eating disorders choose careers such as nursing or teaching in
which they are rewarded for functioning in a helping or pleasing role.
Body image plays a part
in the fasting-overeating cycle. If I feel that the solution to misery
lies in thinness, I will orient my life toward achieving thinness,
putting off everything else until I am slim enough. Most of the eating
disordered clients we have seen feel their bodies are unattractive,
ugly, uncontrollable--their enemies. This makes normal eating difficult:
why bother to take good care of something you hate?
Like money, food is a
currency pressed into service for bad as well as for good. For instance,
a person may use eating for not only nutrition, but also to pass the
time, to punish oneself or others, to procrastinate, or to keep people
Food obsession may
involve not only self-hate but also loss of control, loss of body
awareness, above-average spending on food or diet-related items, and
dread of holidays or other special occasions. Sadly, it also can divert
energy and talent. After examining her feelings in therapy for some
time, Helen exclaimed one day, "Just think! Now that I'm overcoming this
obsession, I can start working toward my bachelor's degree again!"
Others have regained energy for sports, classes, relationships and
Control is a central
theme for people with eating disorders. It is unthinkable to them to
relax control over their thoughts, feelings, words or actions. The
common fear is that if control is relaxed, even for an instant, disaster
will follow. The illusion is that peace of mind can be purchased with
eternal vigilance. The cruel trick is that the food-obsessed person gets
the vigilance without the peace of mind.
television shows, and movies reveal our imperfections. We are shown in
full color how our thighs "should" look. Our own bathing suits leave us
exposed for the world to see and (we dread) to judge. Since the media
show almost no women with less-than-perfect bodies, the illusion is
given that "if you don't like this, you're nobody." To figure-obsessed
women, the identity itself is precarious, dependent on success in
dieting, forfeited at the least transgression.
But not all eating
disordered people are obsessed with their figures. Some people began
over- or underrating to cope with a loss, or during an illness, and then
found they couldn't break the pattern.
Perfectionism is a
characteristic of many bulimics and anorexics. They drive themselves to
have excellent grades, the boss's approval, the wittiest conversations
and, of course, the perfect figure. If they fall short of their
expectations, they judge themselves harshly, shun praise, worry, and
work too hard. This perfection is not usually the love of doing a good
job, but a driven fear of rejection. Perfect behavior or performance
seems to offer a route to some sort of acceptance. Unfortunately, the
perfectionist almost never gives herself full marks for a good job,
since she is imagining an even more perfect performance. So even success
brings no praise or pleasure. It is as if the eating disordered person
must be perfect, but cannot be happy.
But what is this
perfection for? It may represent a hope that a perfect performance can
be a substitute for herself, which she dislikes and distrusts. It's as
if she says, "My schoolwork, my house, my mothering, my body are me.
This is all of me."
Even if the desired
praise results, it doesn't really soothe the anxiety. The hurting,
invisible person within who produces the perfect performance remains
hidden, feeling unseen and still insufficient. So, seeing no way out of
this vicious circle, she tries even harder to be perfect.
Maureen constantly puts
herself down. Nothing she did was good enough in her eyes. Kevin, her
husband of three years, was amazed and confounded. It was depressing to
hear her berate herself day after day. He tried everything to lift her
spirits. He praised, cajoled, kidded. But she continued to demand only
the best from herself, becoming upset if anything "went wrong." She was
also critical of Kevin, who was an easygoing man.
Even though Kevin
thought she was beautiful, Maureen hated her body. After a party she
would criticize every person there, including herself. Maureen binged
and purged since she couldn't keep her weight down to model size any
other way. She still felt fat and ugly. She spent a lot of energy hating
her weak will.
When she finally
realized that she was being too critical, she tried to change her
thinking. What's wrong with me? she wondered. I have everything-- a
loving husband, a good job, a lovely apartment. Then she berated herself
for not being more contented.
Maureen had spent so
much of her life criticizing herself that it was a revelation to learn
in recovery how much else there is to life. Some people with eating
disorders must work hard in recovery to stop blaming themselves and
accept life's satisfactions.
other people, instead of being restorative and supportive, often feel
draining to those with eating disorders. Those we have known are
generally hungry for love and respect. They go out to meet the world
from a position of high need and low self esteem, convinced, I'm not
okay, and I must hide this dreadful secret-- cover it up with
perfectionism, or earn love by niceness and taking care of people's
This is a
disadvantageous position from which to meet other people. The eating
disordered person, convinced the other person is better, suspects the
other person thinks so too. She thinks the other person is busy judging
her, and can just imagine what the other is saying. So she tries hard to
please. But this hard work creates resentment- which must be hidden. She
feels imprisoned and isolated.
The people in
her world are cast as potential or actual critics:
- the person who must be placated
- the person she is angry at (but doesn't dare
- the enviable, successful one
- the authority figure such as the teacher or a
beautiful model she is supposed to look like
- the friend who blithely takes up her time
- the person she is supposed to be rescuing
There are also men who
are to be impressed, and men who are sexually threatening. There are
very few people who are seen as nurturing and accepting, or less
acceptable than the patient herself.
Her relationships with
others are contaminated by her relationship with her body. It
accompanies her like an unwelcome guest in every encounter with other
people. She may feel that her body is not the one she intends to spend
the rest of her life with: this is not her real body-- so this meeting,
this friendship, this connection or romance or opportunity, is not
wholly real either. At best, it is a dress rehearsal for when she
becomes thin and perfect.
How You Can
As mentioned earlier,
the way you think may not seem logical to the person with an eating
disorder. In fact, it can intensify her feelings of being different and
helpless to break the vicious circle of eating, guilt and self -hate.
The well-meant cries, "Eat!" or "Stop eating!" can drive her deeper into
Gillian, a recovered
bulimic, explained the "rules" she had lived by during her teens and
early twenties, when her problem was at its peak:
I'm not good enough,
but I'm supposed to be perfect. So I must take care of others first. It
helps if I get good grades, so I study very hard. If I let go of my
tight control I'm convinced I'll melt or explode or maybe disappear; I
especially can't show anger or aggression. I should be the best because,
if not, I must be the worst.
To many people with
eating disorders, this is how the world works, and it isn't an easy
world to love in! Give your loved one credit for doing for doing as well
as she does with work or school while coping with all this. Your
understanding can provide support while she explores and tries to
resolve hidden problems. In later sections, we will suggest ways to
express your understanding and concern.
For many eating disordered
people, inner conflicts are constantly raging:
- They feel worthless but have high
expectations for themselves.
- They try to fulfill the social roles of both
female and male.
- Their hunger for affection battles the habit
of appeasing and taking care of others.
- They treat the body as an ugly, disobedient
servant, robbing themselves of a source of the pleasure and
consolation they sorely need.
- They desire to be attractive but fear the
vulnerability that mature sexuality requires.
To bulimics, life is a
series of nightmarish transitions from relative calm to revulsion and
loathing; how tenuous and fragile is their capacity for control; how
much effort they expend to maintain control for even a few hours; and
how purging, for all its horrible effects, is all that stands between
them and an anticipated loss of all self-worth. They accept the pain of
purging rituals as the only remaining test of endurance they know they
To succeed in a world
now requiring male toughness, their ability to starve and purge becomes
the only remaining vestige of toughness to which they can point.
Emotionally, physically and socially enfeebled, they dread a future of
dependence and mediocrity, but doubt their capacity for anything else.
If they fear growing up and facing the demands of adult life, it is not
only because they do not know what to be, but also because they no
longer have the energy reserves to "be" anything.
We have many sayings in
English that connect eating with anger, frustration, or other unpleasant
emotions or events: eating crow, eating your heart out, ramming
something down someone's throat, swallowing your pride--even cramming
for an examination. An eating disorder is a sort of powerful and
dangerous saying in action.
Little did Joy know
that Kate's inner life was drastically different from what she presented
to the world. Behind Kate's friendly, competent facade lay a scared,
obsessed person who was convinced people would not really like her if
they knew the real Kate. She had learned many ways to hide this true
self. She was so good at it, in fact, that people even turned to her for
advice, thinking that she "had it all together."
But sometimes Kate was
so tired and lonely, tired of pleasing everyone and doing everything
perfectly, that she would lock herself in her room with a bag of cookies
and a gallon of ice cream. She would eat until she couldn't hold any
more. It felt awful afterwards, but while she was chewing and
swallowing, all her troubles seemed to disappear.
But they reappeared,
with a vengeance, as soon as Kate stopped eating. Agonies of self-hate
would well up. I can't believe it! She would cry to herself. I broke my
promise again! I'm such a wimp. I can't do one simple thing, how do I
expect to ever amount to anything? At this point she would go to bed and
cry herself to sleep, usually swearing to herself, tomorrow for sure
I'll be good.
* Author's note, February,
1997: Please keep in mind that every eating disordered person's world is
different. This chapter was designed to give you a sense of some of the
struggles people face in living with an eating disorder.
Jane Rachel Kaplan
© Copyright 1997-2012 Jane Rachel Kaplan, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Dr. Jane Kaplan Ph.D., Psychologist Provides Eating Disorders Therapy in the SF East Bay area, near Berkeley, Albany. Weight Management Coaching, Psychology of Nutrition and Healthy Eating Counseling, Individual, Group and Family Therapy for Anxiety and Depression.