Trigger warning: This article mentions specific details of compulsions and emotions relating to eating disorders.
Mental health awareness has improved considerably in the last five years, which has been so encouraging. However, we still have a long way to go, especially in terms of funding and resources for public support services.
One mental illness that I think is still highly stigmatized, significantly under-supported, and poorly dealt with, is eating disorders. We can sit around and complain about this as much as we like, but that will achieve nothing. So, recently I have been trying to figure out why eating disorders are so often swept under the rug.
One large reason, I think, is lack of knowledge of the actual psychology behind eating disorders. Research shows that the main way to reduce stigma, as well as dissolve societal issues, is to establish an increase in knowledge of the issue.
Maybe that is what we need to do here.
Have you ever wondered what actually goes on inside the mind of someone with an eating disorder?
If so, read on.
I am going to share with you some of the compulsions that have been a part of my life from a psychological perspective, in the hope that understanding will be gained, and stigma will be eased.
*please note: I am speaking purely from my own perspective and experience. It is near impossible for me to cover the experience of everyone with an eating disorder. It is important to understand that although there are similar and recognisable signs and symptoms, everybody’s experience is different.
What it looks like: Not eating with others, constantly looking at and/or commenting on others’ food, leaving the table early, not turning up to social events that involve food, keeping a large distance from the food table, avoiding conversations linked to food/body image/exercise.
The psychology: Eating disorder suffers feel very insecure about their relationship to food, and often about their body image too. They are so insecure, that they experience an extreme sense of self-consciousness about their behaviours around food. There is often an overpowering voice in their mind that convinces them that everybody is judging them. This voices seems uncontrollable, and the feeling of relentless judgement of our eating habits is terrifying. As humans, we try to avoid things that terrify us. Therefore, it seems easier to avoid eating socially, rather than fight that intense self-conscious voice.
For people with eating disorders, there is a constant war going on in the mind. A war between the logical, healthy voice, and the toxic eating disorder voice. When we feel controlled by eating disorder voices, there is still part of us that knows deep down that what we are doing is wrong and unhealthy. A large part of my disordered eating journey was trying to navigate what is right and what is wrong, because the mind-war threw me off and I found myself feeling very confused about things that had once seemed so simple and automatic.
A large part of this navigation involved obsessive comparison of myself to others. My intention behind this relentless comparison was to try to relieve my confusion and regain my grasp on realistic thinking. It didn’t work. It just made me more anxious and more obsessed. When there is a controlling monster inside of you that wants to convince you that it is your friend and your conscience, and you are trying to function normally as if everything is fine, comparison seems the only way to try to grip on to reality as it slips further and further away from your grasp.
Restriction of food is common for people with eating disorders, and is normally the behaviour that is noticed first. The psychology behind this is very varied, so I am only going to speak from my own experience.
What it looks like: Skipping meals, being dramatic and stubborn, being ungrateful for what has been made and prepared, being fussy, “playing” with food more than eating it.
The psychology: Restriction normally became a problem for me when I was already feeling fragile about something else, or when I was tired or stressed. I lost the energy to fight off the monster voice, and so it came in strong. As a meal time was approaching, there was a powerful, unidentifiable force preventing me from eating normally. It’s like there is someone holding a knife to my throat, telling me that if I eat, something very bad will happen. If someone actually did this to you in real life, you obviously wouldn’t eat, would you? It’s that terrifying.
It is not as simple as just not eating, either. Sometimes the ED monster tells me that I’m not allowed to eat certain foods, or I’m only allowed to eat certain foods, or that I’m only allowed to eat a certain amount.
Sometimes the voice gives reasons. These reasons include that I don’t deserve to eat, I deserve to be sick and tired, a certain food is poison to my body, or that eating properly will make me weaker and more worthless than I already am. Of course, these are all utter, evil lies. But when these lies are so strong and manipulative, it is easier than it seems to let them control your life.
For me, if I did manage to ignore the evil ED voice and eat properly, I would experience a sickening sense of anxiety, guilt, and insecurity. In my most fragile times I didn’t know who I was without the ED compulsions, and choosing to do the right thing and fight the voices seemed scary and confusing.
This is something I find very hard to talk about because I am so ashamed, hence why bulimic behaviours often go unnoticed.
What it looks like: Throwing up to be dramatic or to gain attention, a failed attempt at weight-loss, wanting the taste without the calories, “being gross”.
The psychology: Again, I can only speak from my experience. For me, purging was never about trying to rid my body of calories. It began as a way to let out strong and distressing emotions in a way that wasn’t harmful to anyone else. However, over time this led on to yet another powerful voice. After a meal this potent urge to throw up would emerge from nowhere and conquer my mind, and I could think of nothing else until I had done what the ED monster required. If I managed not to listen to the voice, I would feel a confusing mixture of guilt for keeping the food in, and confidence for doing the right thing.
What it looks like: Always thinking they’re “fat”, making negative comments about themselves to gain attention, constantly looking in the mirror and weighing themselves, always comparing their body image to others.
The psychology: People with body dysmorphia have an actual skewed view of what they look like. What they see when they look in the mirror does not match up to what everyone else sees. We are not just being dramatic and self-conscious- we actually have a dysmorphed perception of ourselves. It is basically a “you are your worst critic” scenario to the extreme.
What I hate most about body dysmorphia is how selfish it made me. I became so self-conscious that all I could think about was myself, even though I hated myself. This was uncomfortable and shameful.
*I am well aware that I haven’t covered all of the components of eating disorders, and I acknowledge those sufferers who have struggled with compulsions not mentioned here. Since I am not a professional, I feel I can only speak from my own experience.*
I have only recently started opening up about my struggle with disordered eating. I have managed to keep the most part of it secret for years. This secrecy was all out of shame. I have been stigmatizing my own illness.
Is this, perhaps, at least partly because of the social stigma around me?
And I have been one of the lucky ones. One that has only been noticeably physically sick once, and for a relatively short period of time. One that was provided with support and advice at an early stage. One that, for the most part of the journey, has managed to make it through the daily battles with ED voices, and not be fully conquered by them.
And yet it has still been awful.
So I hope that by reading this, you will understand that eating disorder sufferers are not dramatic, selfish, and image-obsessed teenage girls. They are rational human beings who, because of their disease, are caused to act irrationally. Their weight and body function aren’t everything, in fact this is a very small component of a much larger, mental/emotional issue.
They are unwell,
they wouldn’t wish this illness on anyone,
and they need your support for their recovery.