The first thing that happens to us in our life is that we are nourished and nurtured. We naturally, form loving bonds with family around us. This is the essence of life, the meaning of life, however you put it. And it should end with a strong confident next generation.
So how in our deepest soul, could food and nurture and love inevitably not get mixed up in our thoughts?
When love for a child doesn’t happen the ‘right’ way we want, the way we approach food can be different. The wires of comprehension of what ‘love’ is, can become distorted in our attempt to nurture ourselves. We all need love in order to be happy, functioning people.
I believe that in many different ways, love is historically ‘conditional’ for people with significant problems with food. Whether it is intended, or not. It is somehow tied to performance. Love is difficult. Complicated. Unconditional love never happened. So people with an eating disorder (ED) compensate. By stuffing love in their mouth.
While self-esteem withers.
I grew up without a mother around and with the stricter less ‘loving’ love of a stepmother. I very quickly came to know that by cooking and providing food I was approved of. And so when I tumbled off to university with my friends I became known as the cook. It was my language, my identity, it was my way of making people love me. I couldn’t rely on wit, confidence, money or an inspirational personality. I was the cook that everyone loved … because I made stuff that made people feel good.
I had ten years of struggling with my weight. But I truly believe my issues stopped when I ‘let my mother go’. I let ‘her’ be ‘her’ and I stopped wanting nurturing, motherly love from her. Even with her Master’s degree in psychology.
I look at my friends – the cooks among them are often the ones that feel a desire to bring people together, through creativity and expression but also through a need to be loved. You make for people. You give. You love. And they love you for it. You feel loved. Seriously, it’s a transaction that works.
It helps make your life meaningful.
Friends with two solid loving parents, with parents I envied, often approached the cooking game later. They didn’t need the approval of others. They had enough already.
Yes, I am a generalist, but when I talk with people, look at a chat stream on a blog or read books by people with actual eating disorders, it occurs to me that a larger proportion, much more than the low 50% stats that text books give – of ED sufferers nearly always state their lives include a difficult parent relationship or a sexual violation.
And I believe this just isn’t covered enough in traditional academic books you find in a library.
Is this because the academics don’t want to pick on the parents – because then the parents won’t buy the books? Regard a personal ED website and it is either difficult relationships with parents that can be anything from high pressure, perfectionist or overprotective types to kids struggling with alcoholic parents. And then there are the deeply heart wrenching stories of the girls (mainly but not always) that have been raped and/or abused (not necessarily parent related).
Who wants to deal with all that? Especially when it is the parents paying the psychologist fees and buying the books? Because most twenty or thirty-somethings with bulimia spend it all on food. There is no cash left.
To me the solution is intensely tricky. In its simplest form it is about forgiving the people who, in the earliest days, made you feel bad about yourself. Letting them go. This can include trying really hard to understand why they treated you like they did. Or why they didn’t treat you like you wanted them to. Accepting them. Sometimes an impossible ask. Especially if you live with them.
And then learn to love yourself. To become a manufacturer of love and self esteem and joy for only you. To mindfully change. To know that eating love will only destroy you, physically and emotionally.
How do you start the business of acknowledging that food will never fix that deep empty pit that those other people who grew up with enough love, will never know about?
This is the toughest addiction. As tough as alcoholism and drug addiction, and just as damaging. You better believe it. And like an alcoholic or a drug addict – only you can change.
I can’t tell you that you are wonderful and you say ‘yes you are right’ and change your habits.
When we feel one of the bad feelings; guilt and anxiety, it can be because we seek perfectionism and control in ourselves. And our parents can be heartbreakingly critical – controlling and perfectionist. Just differently.
Astonishingly, it can come down to genes – these are the same gene traits, just mixed different ways.
Oh the destructive irony. Frequently, so much of us is them no matter how hard we reject that thought.
Is it about the fact that our parents can nearly almost never be the perfect nurturing loving parents we need them to be? They are just human. So an integral part of this is accepting that parents can’t be perfect, often when they are just struggling to be one step up from their own parents who weren’t perfect either, when they themselves were children.
The same anxious perfectionist gene traits passing from generation to generation. Dads butting up against daughters. Mums saying the wrong thing. How can that not go wrong sometimes? How can the personality types most likely to end up with an Eating Disorder (ED) like bulimia – traits like obsessionality, anxiety, inhibition (which might also mean defensiveness) and perfectionism, not drive parents crazy? Particularly obsessive, perfectionist parents.
How can that not lead to ultimately anxious people with low self-esteem? Especially if you are ‘the difficult child’. Those very traits that should lead to success in professional life and major career advances can be the very same traits that can destroy a soul.
And all of us with children have a child that is more difficult, more challenging. Their drive, their innate selfishness to do and discover and be themselves, their unconscious rejection of the easier personalities we sometimes wish they had, make it hard to simply love them. And then what happens if they are an anxious child? Parents must love, limitlessly and non-judgementally. Love in a way that has nothing to do with success or achievement.
However sometimes parents fail. They just can’t do it. And maybe we need to accept that.
So how does a bulimic learn to love themself and not look for it everywhere else? Real, nurturing, comfortable love. That you may have never had before. This is such a foreign concept to so many of these girls that haven’t been close, I mean really close, to a parent. In that comfortable, gossiping about everything, knowing that you can say anything, kind of way.
I was once told by a dear friend and respected academic that yes, many of the gene traits above listed are present with all the other sufferers she knows – but there was something more. Something that went to the heart of every eating disorder sufferer that she knew. And it was so simple. It was this: Not believing that the ones you love, love you.
It was the loneliest sentence I have ever heard. And it leads to the loneliest lifestyle.
You believe you are unlovable.
And I know she was the ‘difficult child’, with tragedy thrown in for good measure. I also know that she is brilliant and smart and gorgeous and completely lovable. But for years, she didn’t think so. And that was all that counted.
So how do you learn to love yourself and accept that you are lovable? I’m sure for some people that word even hurts.
And for those who have suffered more deeply with abuse – this is even more deeply, profoundly difficult. How can it not be nearly impossible to climb out of an eating disorder that gives you a feeling of love when you stuff fat and sugar loaded food into you, even for a brief moment?
That is why women and men are out there in their 3rd decade of suffering. Possibly more.
How do you change the way you look at yourself? Is it impossible?
It’s about forgiveness, empathy, letting go of a need for approval, but also, intriguingly, creating a self-habit that means you can be kind to yourself (when the person you most want to look you in the eyes and just love you, won’t or can’t).
Let them go and focus on you.
The habit of putting food in your mouth and then disgusting yourself by purging when you feel anxious, unloved, stressed or bored is simply that. A habit. It’s simply a habit that the brain, who loves to control stuff, is controlling really, really well.
How do you teach your brain to change a habit that could be decades old?
How do you change your habits of mind to fulfil your basic need to be loved? Because it is a tricky, unknown thing this link between health, love and a happy soul. Doctors and psychologists still don’t have all the answers. (Some do, but they are really hard to find).
Little by little, but emphatically. Determinedly. Sneak up on your addiction. Trick it. ‘Logic’ yourself into a new life. Be mindful. In little ways every day. Laugh at how mean you have been to yourself. Because you deserve more.
It’s powerful – change your words and then change your brain – for example replace the negative word ‘stubborn’ to ‘determined’ and then pick out the word ‘grit’. Then go and look on the internet for the words ‘success and grit’ and you’ll see what I mean.
I have friends suffering, that barely mention their ED, bulimia, so great is their shame and guilt and self-disgust. But it isn’t just me loving them that can stop their habit. It helps, but it is not the key. It is them learning to love themselves. My hands are tied.
Whether it is anxiety that pushes the button into comfort eating, guilt or low self esteem – dieting is simply a trigger that leads to a heart breaking obsession with food, rather than the original cause. Fixing your food intake can never be the answer. I truly believe there is a back story behind every sufferer of this tragic life style. This story has to be examined, understood and let go, for change to happen to make the world of so many people we love, healthier and happier.
Do we really understand quite how much this struggle to escape the prison that is an ED, is about creating the empathy and then the brain habits that say: I am loveable, I am a good person, I deserve more? I think it is underestimated in a million ways. How does someone who has detested themselves for years, slowly move from the habitual negative terms of disgust and self-loathing to explaining gently to themselves that they are not a bad person?
Every day, every hour and every minute.
Our brains simply adore a good habit. Computer games, smoking, picking your nose, standing on the bathroom scales. How do you reach beyond your brain into your heart? The solution will never be about physical stuff. It is about the heart, the spirit and self-love. Understanding the heart can help you change the habit. And changing the habit can help you look at your heart, your ‘self’ in new ways.
And it may gradually dawn on you that you don’t deserve self-cruelty. That face looking back at you in the mirror is just fine. Be kind to it.
Love for you must come from inside you. Self-acceptance and self-esteem can’t be separate.
And nothing will completely destroy your habits of binging or purging until you find your own joy, your own meaning, your own happiness.
For every negative thought create a good thought. For every self-hatred try, search insist – on the logic that the people around you know – that you have a good heart and that you deserve more. The things you, do not make you bad. Step out of the noose. Be kind to yourself.
I was watching a fantastic Ted Talk on grit the other day and a phrase stuck (so I did a search and found a link here): ‘growth mindset’. Because your brain changes and grows in response to challenges. It mentioned something powerful: ‘failure is not a permanent condition’.
Learning to love yourself is more than idle navel gazing. It is a combination of hard work for heart and brain. Thinking, reasoning, and knowing that life is too short to be stuck in groundhog day.
The bank balances of big pharmaceuticals in their magical roundabout of drugs and more drugs don’t want you to feed your soul.
Being kind to yourself is a habit every happy person practices. And for a person with anxiety and/or low self-esteem, it is the most powerful thing you can do.
Every day, a kind word for every mean thought. Replace self-disgust with self-empathy. Replace shame with gentle acknowledgement that what you are doing today is not good for you.
Being kind to yourself are the first tiny, mindful steps that can help you get there.
Because, as they say in the classics, you have to get to the heart of the matter.
But I believe you are worth it.
Self love. Kindness. Nurture.
It has to come from within.
Open up your heart to yourself. Accept yourself. Love yourself.
Because that is the magic within happy people.
Imperfect, lumpy, content, happy people.
It is that simple.
Written for a beautiful girl.