Our children who have eating disorders are devoted to their disorders in ways we parents can find frustrating and mind-boggling. How can they be in love with a disorder that can kill them? Why can’t they just open their eyes and see that everything would be great if they could just drop their eating disorder? Why can’t they just stop?
One way to understand our children’s obsession with their eating disorders is to see the hole in their lives that the eating disorder is filling. That hole is purpose, hope and strength. This may sound strange, but think about the eating disorder with these concepts in mind:
The purpose may vary depending on the child and the specific eating disorder, but for many of us who have eating disorders, our purpose in life is to achieve a state of well-being and happiness, and we believe the path is through our bodies. We believe that restricting, binging and purging will lead us to achieve a state of happiness. This sense of purpose is a powerful motivator, and can be the reason eating disorder are so hard to let go of.
Our eating disorders provide us with hope. Hope that we can control our bodies. Hope that we can succeed at restriction or a certain weight. Hope that life will be better and more fulfilling if we can achieve a body ideal and/or control our actions, mainly eating and exercise. For many of us, control and success are tightly bound together, and thus we pursue control with the hope of achieving success in life.
We all want to feel strong and powerful in life. For many of us who have eating disorders, we feel somehow different and “less than” others. Our whole lives, we have held a deep belief that there is something wrong with us. Our eating disorders can come in and tell us that we are strong enough to resist eating food. We are strong enough to keep running even when we are exhausted. We are strong enough to force our food out of our bodies after we consumed it.
Purpose, hope and strength are fundamental pillars of happiness. Unfortunately, eating disorders distort these pillars and force our children to hurt their bodies and minds. When we have a child who has an eating disorder, we can help them heal by building four other pillars of a happy, meaningful life.
In her book “The Power of Meaning,” Emily Esfahani Smith describes the four pillars of meaning:
“Belonging comes from being in relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well,” says Smith. Those of us who have eating disorders, like those who struggle with addictions, tend to feel a lack of belonging. We feel adrift in the sea of humanity, and question our role and value. Without a sense of belonging, we build maladaptive coping mechanisms to help us deal with a lonely world.
Sadly, an eating disorder isolates us, driving us even further into loneliness. This is a core reason why parents and families are such an important part of the healing process: we can build a sense of belonging, and help our children identify other opportunities to belong to something meaningful to them.
“Purpose is less about what you want than about what you give,” says Smith. “The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others.” Our children who have eating disorders may be struggling to identify their purpose in life. They may be wondering “is this all there is to life?” Their pain and suffering blinds them to their inherent value as human beings, and they look to food and their bodies as a way to fulfill our need for purpose in life.
Parents can help their children who have eating disorders recover by helping them identify a purpose in life that has nothing to do with restricting, binging or purging. We can help them tap into their strengths and passions, and find ways that they can build self-worth by serving others.
“Transcendent states are those rare moments when you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away, and you feel connected to a higher reality,” says Smith. Another way of thinking of transcendence is getting “in the zone.” For many of us who have eating disorders, our zone is best felt when we are restricting, binging or purging. These behaviors are actually providing us with a transcendent state.
In order to heal, we need to learn other ways of achieving transcendence. Many people in recovery find that writing, creating or observing art or music, working with wood, making slime or even solving math problems can fill the need for transcendence. These are activities that immerse us and make time and space stand still. We can work with our children to explore different options for transcendent experiences.
“Storytelling is the story you tell yourself about yourself,” says Smith. “Creating a narrative from the events of your life brings clarity. It helps you understand how you became you. But we don’t always realize that we’re the authors of our stories and can change the way we’re telling them. Your life isn’t just a list of events. You can edit, interpret and retell your story, even as you’re constrained by the facts.”
Our children who have eating disorders may be stuck in the story that they are sick and somehow broken. We can help them by opening up their story in a way that shows strength and grit. For example, if our child successfully overcomes eating disorder behaviors, that becomes a story of success.
We can gently and gradually help our children reframe the stories they tell about themselves by compassionately listening to their version and then asking questions that tap into strengths rather than weaknesses. We can’t rewrite our children’s stories, but we can help them shape their stories into success stories rather than tales of woe.
You can view Emily Esfahani Smith’s TED talk to learn more: