What Therapy Taught Me About Disordered Eating

Smiling Woman Looking Up

Cara Peterson

When I came forward for help with my eating disorder, I was given incredible support from concerned friends and family, as well as a dedicated team of professionals on my college campus ready to set me on a path towards recovery. It felt as though all these hands were being extended out to hold me up and keep me steady as I wandered into what would no doubt prove to be difficult terrain.

That said, there were often times during the recovery process when I felt misunderstood—to the point it felt as though my struggles were being invalidated—because of the stereotypes surrounding the issue. Disordered eating often gets portrayed as a superficial, shallow habit having to do solely with looks when, in actuality, it’s an addictive, all-consuming mental illness that develops from the desperate desire for a sense of safety and control in what can feel like an overwhelming world.

Below is a list of epiphanies I came to during therapy about the nature of the disorder. My hope is that this insight can be used to help those who wish to better understand the complexities behind disordered eating in order to best support loved ones struggling through them. And for those struggling to better understand themselves.

Disordered eating is often marked by a severe distrust of the body.

We feel if we aren’t constantly vigilant, our bodies will embarrass and betray us by gaining excess weight. The body dysmorphia—a clinical term describing the inability to stop thinking about a body flaw that is either minor or imagined—that often comes along with disordered eating doesn’t exactly help. We lose the ability to see our bodies the way everyone else sees them. We may be emaciated, but we see an overweight person when we look at ourselves in the mirror.

Disordered eating is a way of internalizing that which is oppressing us externally.

It’s a way of grasping for control by taking bigger, abstract concepts and turning them into an equation. Like “once I lose these next X pounds, I will have what I need to be happy.” Or “only when the scale says this number will I know I’m truly safe from those trying to bully me and hurt me.” Or “only once I lose weight will I feel like I belong in this campus culture.” The disorder allows us to feel that if we try hard enough, we can make our environment into exactly what we want it to be. That if we are perfect enough, everything around us can be, too.

Our weight becomes symbolic and metaphoric.

“Thin” becomes synonymous in our minds with words like “protected,” “strong,” “admirable,” “successful,” and “in control.” While “fat” becomes synonymous with words like “vulnerable,” “weak,” “worthy of rejection,” “failure,” and “out of control.” We have a hard time separating “thin” and “fat” from these words of greater consequence because they have been melded together out of fear—the kind of fear that reduces complexities of life into over-simplified concepts so they can feel manageable even when they aren’t.

Disordered eating is not so much a choice, as a triggered response.

Those who are most impacted by the triggers don’t tend to be the surface-level, image-obsessed people we get stereotyped as. Most often we are the ones I once heard an eating disorder specialist refer to as “porous,” meaning we are sensitive to external vibes and the undertones of what hangs in the air. Porous individuals tend to internalize what everyone else is emitting—anxiety, social competition, anger, sadness, jealousy—into common spaces. We feel all these things and we feel them so intensely that we don’t know what to do with it all. Overwhelmed, our brain kicks in with a coping mechanism (not unlike drugs, alcohol, or other addictive forms of release) as an escape.

Disordered eating is a distraction from the things that are actually scaring us.

By taking our fears and—instead of allowing us to feel them—only focusing on losing weight as the one solution to all our problems, we are given a way to feel in control. Except that feeling of control doesn’t come from actual control, it comes from being so distracted and detached that we become oblivious to reality. 

Disordered eating most often arises from emotional upheaval that has gone unexpressed or been invalidated.

For example, there is a disturbing incidence of sexual abuse in the backgrounds of women who exhibit the most extreme behaviors of disordered eating. Some may be trying to lose as much weight as possible to reject the feminine curves that would otherwise draw attention and make them potential objects of lust. Others may attempt to reject that kind of attention in the opposite way by gaining excessive amounts of weight. Manipulating their bodies in this way adds to their sense of security because it gives them a way to feel protected from being violated again. Their eating disorder may also be a form of protest against what happened to them.

In some ways, an eating disorder is not unlike an abusive partner.

It’s familiar, comforting, and reassuring. It’s always there and always willing to pull us back into its tight grip. But in order to receive its “love,” we must also put up with its bullying. We must endure constantly being told we are fat and ugly, we aren’t good enough. In recovery, we learn that these messages are lies. We have always been good enough. 

We obey our disorders because they promise us that if we make ourselves perfect enough by turning our bodies into flawless figures with no excess, then it will shut up the voices telling us we aren’t Enough.

The reality here is that the voices never shut up. The more we give, the louder they become. The opposite of control is not always chaos, sometimes it’s freedom.

Without our disorder, we have to explore who we truly are.

Particularly for those struggling with anorexia, being skinny has often come to feel like our defining feature—if not our full identity. That potential loss of identity (even if only temporary until life becomes refocused as we get better) is not to be underestimated or disregarded, as the disruption of that sense of self can make those of us actively trying to get better feel incredibly anxious, fearful, and vulnerable. To make matters worse, for many of us this disorder is the only coping mechanism we ever developed. Recovery can mean going through a transition full off loss and agitation, but this process can improve our understanding of ourselves. 

Disordered eating and people-pleasing tendencies are highly correlated.

We care what others think. We want to make our friends and families proud. We want to be perfect in every feasible way to gain their approval. We, as you may recall, are “porous.” This is something to keep in mind when interacting with someone who may be seriously struggling during the recovery process. During my recovery, there were times when loved ones would express their fear for my mental and physical health in the form of anger. Which was confusing because being skinny had been part of a strategy to please those around me. I took these expressions of anger very hard. I felt guilty and confused and misunderstood. 

However, in later conversation with them I was brought to understand that their anger was meant to be taken as directed at the situation I was stuck in, not at me. This was an important distinction for me to understand, as well as an important distinction for my loved ones to keep in mind during our future conversations about my eating disorder.

Notice a trend with all these points? Not a single one stops at just image or looks. Each one stretches into issues of control, fear, love, unmet need, and desire. There is immense complexity to the issue of an eating disorder. Keep this in mind and be gentle with those struggling with this issue, whether it be someone you know or yourself.

For recovery resources and treatment options, please visit our help and support page. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call  ANAD’s Helpline at: (888) 375-7767 or the National Alliance of Eating Disorders Helpline at: (866) 662-1235.

If you are thinking about suicide, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. In crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer from the Crisis Text Line.

Cara struggled with disordered eating all throughout high school and college. She is currently writing a book called The Effortless Perfection Myth on the gender issues women face while in college.