The "Benefit" of an Eating Disorder

Jenny was going to a family reunion last month. She tearfully described how her grandmother has Alzheimer’s, her aunt has breast cancer, and her uncle just died. She revealed in her therapy session, "I was afraid to feel my sadness. And I realized this sadness would be made worse by the deep grief that my parents - with whom I spent many loving and joyful family holidays with - are dead and gone and never coming back."

She continues, "I ate a sandwich for lunch that morning and tasted that the bread was stale. I knew it might give me a stomach ache, but I ate it anyway. It wasn't my intention to hurt myself but I become aware of the "helpful" nature of a stomach ache to numb me from my heart ache. I was afraid of my painful emotions at this party and used my eating to block them out. I chose stomach pain over emotional pain."

Jenny's keen awareness confirms how an eating disorder can play a role in protecting you from even deeper pain. While it is true that most people outwardly proclaim their desire to resolve their binge eating, bulimia, or anorexia, they are often drawn to these disorders because of the comfort and distraction they provide.

Trusting food can feel safer than trusting people. Loving food can feel safer than loving people.  Food never rejects you, abandons you, criticizes you, or dies. It is the only relationship where we get to say when, where, and how much. No other relationship complies with our needs so absolutely.

Much like other addictions, eating disorders freeze emotions and can become a detour from real hurt and pain. They divert difficult feelings and consume enormous time and energy. They sidetrack a person from facing deeper emotional problems. Unconsciously, a person is then attracted to this “benefit” of an eating disorder.

Although there are many reasons for developing an eating disorder and many treatment strategies to heal, little attention has been paid to the "benefit" of holding onto it. To determine what that might be, I often ask my patients, "If we help you resolve your eating problem, what's the next issue that will come up for you?" Many times, it's a lot worse!!

  • "I would have to face the fact that I'm in an emotionally abusive relationship," Marjorie explains. "I would rather feel stuck over how I’m going to lose fifty pounds than how afraid I am of my husband."
  • "I would have to confront my depression about my father's cancer," Phil realizes. "Throwing up and worrying about my weight is a good distraction from my fear about Dad."
  • "My son was diagnosed with autism, and I just don't want to deal with it," Shelley answers. "I am doing everything I can for Josh, but I'm nice and numb thanks to my bingeing."
  • "I'm old enough to start dating, but I'm really afraid no one will like me," Laurel responds. "I starve myself and hope that I will eventually feel pretty enough."
  • "My husband is an alcoholic," cries Janet. "When I'm focused on my exercise and dieting and overeating, I don't pay as much attention to his destructive drinking. I can blot it out for awhile."
  • "Our business is losing money," Toby recognizes, "and I'm worried about our finances. Truthfully, I'd rather count calories obsessively than tally up our accounts and be anxious."

Even less dramatic issues can be lurking under the eating disorder that would cause someone to hold onto their overeating, bulimia, or anorexia as a source of comfort and soothing. These issues might include: guilt, deprivation, jealousy, worry about sexuality, dating, competition, trauma, frozen grief, hidden depression, or inner emptiness.

In order to change the hidden "benefit" of your eating problem, your first step is to become aware of the ways your emotional eating "helps" you. Does overeating keep you company when you're lonely? Does bingeing give you pleasure at a time in your life when you're feeling deprived? Does purging help you procrastinate from some dreaded chore? Does restricting your food make your depression seem more manageable? Does having a binge disorder, bulimia, or anorexia serve as an excuse for not moving forward with your life?

If you are committed to tackling your life without an eating disorder, we need to decode its meaning in your life.

  • Identify the benefits that your eating problem has provided.
  • Name the feelings/actions/decisions you are avoiding.
  • Think about the ways your eating keeps you stuck.
  • Consider what the first step to improve your eating would look like?
  • Consider what the first step to improve your life's issues would look like?

You do not have to change your whole life at once. Just for today, just make it better. With self-compassion and resolve, you can improve your eating and life one step at a time, one day at a time.

Published in The Psychotherapy and Training Collective