While walking in my neighborhood, I saw a young woman jogging by. I often see joggers running along by themselves, with their friends, or with their dogs, but what made this young woman stand out to me was the extreme thinness of her body. I immediately recognized her as one of many in this country struggling with an eating disorder. My first reaction was to want to hug her and tell her to please start eating. And yet, as a therapist who has worked with women with eating disorders, I knew that her road to recovery would be about much more than the food.
The road to recovery is about overcoming perfectionism. Women with eating disorders tend to be overly critical of their performance. There is often an excessive need for approval and a great concern about making mistakes; mistakes are viewed as personal failures.
The road to recovery is about learning to allow, tolerate, and express emotions in a healthy way. Women with eating disorders have a very difficult time identifying and understanding their emotional experiences, and they struggle to cope with both positive and negative emotions. Often they were raised in a household where the expression of emotions was not tolerated or validated.
The road to recovery is about cultivating and embracing your sense of Self. Women with eating disorders have often spent a lot of time denying aspects of themselves to fit into unhealthy environments. Therefore, the question “who am I” is a difficult one to answer.
The road to recovery is about discovering and healing attachment wounds that have to do with our earliest experiences with primary caregivers. Children need to feel that they are safe and that they can trust and be understood by their parents or primary caregivers. When this doesn’t happen, children are left with wounds that affect their ability to trust and feel safe in other relationships.
The road to recovery is about learning and growing into life as a healthy adult. Women with eating disorders are often raised in environments that don’t foster healthy expression of individuality. They approach adulthood poorly equipped to sprout wings and fly.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, the good news is that you can recover. There are many ways to get help, including treatment centers, outpatient psychotherapy, and nutritional counseling. Pain and struggle offer an opportunity to deepen our self-awareness and grow into our authentic Self. Anaïs Nin said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” It takes great courage to leave the security of what you know, but the reward will be living life free of an eating disorder.
Laura J. Pentoney, MA, LPC is a therapist who specializes in helping individual adults overcome histories of trauma, depression and eating disorders. She witnesses the many benefits of counseling through the growth of her courageous clients. She provides counseling services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.