One thing that really confused me when I was in the depths of, as well as in recovery from, my eating disorder, and what I see clients wrestle with as well, is how the eating disorder does not always sound like the belittling, bullying inner voice that we’re often told that it is, or that it often is. Sometimes, it really does seem like it’s on our side, trying its best to genuinely help us to cope with life, yet at the same time it could kill us, and doesn’t seem to mind this outcome. I remember feeling so confused by this.
From reading about Parts Work and Internal Family Systems (I love this book in particular) and doing this type of therapy, I came to see my eating disorder as a part of me that was trying to help me escape a greater pain - for me, that of feeling not good enough, not worthy, unlovable - and it was willing to risk everything to do this, to escape the immediate pain of these feelings for the risk of whatever might lie in the future. However, it’s not like I was aware of these inner vulnerable pains and fears bubbling beneath the surface when I did something to disobey my eating disorder's rules. Rather, all that I was aware of, and all clients report being aware of, is acute anxiety, fear, and a very negative or fear-mongering voice in their heads. Some, including myself, weren’t even aware of what the deeper feelings and fears were until after years of therapy.
Recently though, I was reading this wonderful book on complex trauma that I want to recommend to everyone I know, and the author, Pete Walker, put into words exactly what I’d been trying to understand so many years ago when I was trying to make sense of how my eating disorder could seem helpful sometimes, a bully at others, and what the heck was its relationship with my inner critic? Were they on the same side against me as it often seemed, or was the eating disorder trying to save me from my inner critic?
“All the layered reactions in the cycle of reactivity are defenses against the abandonment depression. Each layer is also a defense against all of the other layers beneath it. As such, each layer is a type of dissociation. When we are triggered and lost in a 4F response, we fight, flee, freeze or fawn to disassociate ourselves from the painful voice of the critic. On a deeper layer, the critic is also distracting and disassociating us from our emotional pain. Moreover, fear and shame dis-associate us from the bottom layer - the terrible abandonment depression itself. Dissociation.…then, is the process of rendering all these levels less conscious or totally unconscious.”
This explained to me why it’s so hard to be aware of the deepest, most vulnerable pains that our eating disorder seems to ultimately be trying to protect us from, why we run into the inner critic so much along the way, and how the eating disorder does often seem to be protecting us from the inner critic - it is a layer of dissociation above it.
Moreover, I view the eating disorder as the very highest layer of dissociation for most people struggling with an active eating disorder: It is a layer of protection even above our need to people please (Fawn type according to Walker’s 4F types) or to be constantly busy striving for some sort of perfection (Flight type according to Walker. Many people take on more than one type and I definitely identify with both of these types). For me, the eating disorder was my last stand, my last relief. Didn’t do as well as I wanted to on a test? (perfectionism trying to protect me from my inner critic) - ED and its rules and fought-for praises could make me feel better. Someone doesn’t like me despite me abandoning myself to win their praises? (fawning/people-pleasing trying to protect me from my inner critic)? - at least I have my eating disorder, something I can control and excel at so that I don’t have to feel the ensuing hurt and shame.
So, the eating disorder seems to be offering us a path to salvation, a path away from hurt and anxiety and just all of the bad, hard to name feelings that are stirred up when we try to disobey…. And when it’s being hard on us, berating us, belittling us, causing us great fear and anxiety when we stray, I believe this is just it panicking and using everything that could possibly work to keep us in line, to protect us from the deeper pain it knows is lying just beneath.
And sometimes, during the recovery process, when we are challenging the very rules that have kept us safe from anxiety and pain and fear for so long, and we’ve perhaps done some self-compassion work to soften the layer below the eating disorder, our inner critic, I think we can then start to bump up against the deeper, more vulnerable feelings….. fears or feelings of worthlessness, shame, unlovability, and eventually what Walker calls the abandonment depression….. And we can begin to grieve all that was lost so long ago, all that we needed and weren’t able to get. All of the hurt and pain that then caused layer upon layer of dissociating coping strategies to form on top of each other to protect us from pain after pain…..
And when we can do this, I believe that true inner freedom can finally begin to form….
I wish each of you so much guidance and support on this healing journey. I can't think of any journey more worthwhile, or more demanding.
In love and unconditional hope,
Support For Your Journey
If you feel you could use more support on your eating disorder recovery journey I would love to connect with you. Contact me to book a free video discovery call so that we can explore if working together would be a good fit. I would love to hear from you.