Food - a source of pleasure and pain
Food provides us with essential nutrition for health and vitality. Eating can be an intensely pleasurable experience. It is associated throughout history and in all cultures with celebration and hospitality. However, for many people, eating food, especially 'fattening' foods, feels scary and dangerous. Eating may be accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame and remorse. Social events involving eating can become extremely difficult.
What is an eating disorder?
'Eating disorders involve a preoccupation with control over eating, food and body weight. Left unaddressed the medical, psychological and social consequences can be serious and long term. The disorders can destroy a person's quality of life, and are potentially life threatening' (Source: Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria)
Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder are three of the most commonly diagnosed disorders, however, there are a wide range of disordered eating patterns that do not have a clear cut diagnosis.
Anorexia and bulimia are virtually unknown in less industrialised countries, while in our society it is estimated that 10% of young women suffer from an eating disorder. In highly industrialised countries where food is plentiful but our relationship to it so complex, it is not hard to argue that some degree of 'disordered eating' is the norm rather than the exception.
The mental trap
The mental trap is built of 'shoulds', fashioned out of idealised images bearing little resemblance to real human beings. Failure to comply with these unrealistic images feels like personal failure. There are a number of pressures that lead to these mental traps.
- 'I should always feel in control'
- 'I should never ever eat junk food'
- 'I should be a size 'x'
- 'I should never upset people'
- 'I should never show that I am angry'
- 'I should lose five kilos'
- 'I should exercise more'
- 'I should be more disciplined'
When we are inside the trap, we see the world distorted by its bars.
- We over-generalise from one or two instances.
- We pay attention to the things confirming our prejudices about ourselves.
- We ignore things contradicting these prejudices.
- When we are inside the trap it can seem that everyone is living a normal life except us.
- When we are inside the trap, it can seem that escape is conditional on changes which are beyond our control.
Experiencing an Eating Disorder can be one of the most isolating and distressing experiences a person can face. Beginning to feel happy and relaxed with your body and with food again starts with learning to be kind to yourself.
- Try to picture how your life would be if you were less conflicted about food and eating.
- Acknowledge that when you don't find it easy it isn't because you are especially bad/weak/lazy/lacking in self-control; it is difficult in our society to have a good relationship with food. Do some research into the mountain of material about overcoming eating problems and discover which approach feels right for you (see the list below). If you have found some self-help material that seems promising, ask someone to be your "coach" while you experiment with different ways of doing things.
- Most importantly - get support. Tell someone you feel comfortable with about your experience. Your story is precious, so choose carefully who to share it with. There is often a huge sense of relief to talk about things that shame and embarrass us/you. It is unlikely you will get the harsh judgement you are expecting. If you think you may need professional help but can't face going, ask a friend to come with you for the first visit.
- If there is no one you can trust with your story, write things in a diary - not just to unload the difficulties but also so you can see the changes you make.
- Remember that you have to look closely to see the changes. They may not register with anyone else, but YOU will know if you have taken on - and met - a challenge.
- Change usually happens in very small "islands of experience" and then the "islands" join up and feel more substantial. It seems as if something is happening which you can start to rely on... and it is...
Taking it further