If you or a loved one struggles with disordered eating, an eating disorder, or food compulsion like binge eating, overeating, or food addiction, I’d love to share my approach to healing so you can see if what I offer is a good fit for you.
Rather than embracing a disease model, I believe eating disorders and disordered eating are emotionally based coping strategies, shaped by early development and some form of loss. At their heart, they’re an intelligent attempt – grounded in a deep, if misunderstood love of the self – to soothe and care for spiritual, psychological and emotional pain.
It is this spiritual and emotional pain that is the true cause of the eating disorder, what comes out sideways in food.
From this point of view, the pain and trauma can be healed, the loss can be grieved and let go, and the eating disorder can be outgrown, rather than something to manage, cope with, or control for the rest of your life.
The core wound of eating disorders
What is this loss?
Sometimes it’s a physical loss. But more often, these are the losses of childhood – the emotional losses, the intangible losses that leave marks on the psyche: the losses where a child felt a lack of belonging, of love, of mattering, of significance, of feeling known and understood. The losses of abandonment, of parental rejection, of feeling uninvited by those who matter most – a child’s caregivers.
The loss can be misplaced blame. When things didn’t work, the child may have taken it on themselves – “It’s all my fault (guilt and blame) or “I’m bad” (shame.)
The loss could have been interpreted by the child as, “I’m too much” or “I’m not enough.”
These losses can be perceived or real. What matters is how they impact the child.
These losses live in the body. They shape and influence present day beliefs, thoughts, emotions and ways of responding to your internal and external environment.
(When I say that loss and the early environment can influence the onset of an eating disorder, I am not blaming or judging parents. I am merely pointing out the impact of the early emotional environment.)
How loss leads to developmental arrest
When there is too much loss, too much wounding, or when there is too much felt vulnerability, a child’s brain will erect defenses to protect the child and to preserve functioning. It works – it preserves functioning. But the cost is the development of the child. (Learn more about the losses that lead to eating disorders here.)
We see this cost in development in the eating disorder behavior.
This is not to say that genetics or inborn temperament don’t play a part: they do, and they certainly interact with the environment to shape how we act, what we perceive, and what we believe to be true. In looking at genetic variations and variations in temperament, what I see in common among men and women who struggle with eating disorders is:
- high sensitivity
- high empathy
- high intuition
By themselves, these characteristics don’t lead to or even cause an eating disorder. But they do impact how you’re shaped by your environment – what you take in, what you take in as “yours,” your energetic, emotional and physical boundaries, how you respond to stress, how you cope with trauma, and how you respond to the emotions and reactions of those around you.
The more sensitive, empathic and empathetic you are, the more deeply you’re attuned to your emotional environment. You may be more inherently vulnerable, more susceptible to loss, wounding or trauma than someone less sensitive or intense, especially to wounding in the early emotional environment.
The emergence of the eating disorder
When there is too much felt vulnerability, too much loss, and too much wounding, the attachment relationship can be affected. This can hinder and skew development.
These attachment relationships can be transferred from people – from parents and other caregivers – to substitute forms of attachment that are less vulnerable and less wounding. These include an attachment to food, an attachment to obtaining a certain body (which can fuel a quest for thinness or physical perfection), or an attachment to a certain way of eating.
The pursuit of a perfect body, the pursuit of a perfect diet, the pursuit of sugar, the pursuit of food – as in overeating or binge eating – are forms of attachment pursuit. What you are truly hungry for is attachment – emotional, relational and spiritual closeness. The food, sugar, or perfect diet is just a less vulnerable attempt to satiate this hunger, to meet these needs: your deepest needs as a human being.
In the face of too much wounding, the attachment instincts can also reverse, where the brain defends itself against attachment – where you don’t allow yourself to depend, connect or attach. These are some of the internal dynamics that underlie anorexia and orthorexia.
These dynamics can then be carried forward into adulthood, leading to ingrained patterns of behavior.
Healing the internal dynamics of eating disorders
With this understanding of the emotional dynamics that feed eating disorders and food compulsion, you need a very different map for healing than simply “cutting out” or controlling the eating disorder behavior. You also need to go beyond even helpful strategies like managing stress, softening triggers, or soothing cravings. You need to:
- heal the emotional and spiritual pain that feeds the eating disorder
- foster loving connection with self, others and Love itself, the container of growth
- grieve the losses that are underneath the eating disorder
- and support the development that had gotten stuck
This is what leads to organic changes in the eating disorder behavior. Rather than coping with the chronic pain of spiritual and emotional hunger, or coping with the frustration of trying to manage what or how you eat, by healing the wounds that are at the root, you heal the source of the pain itself.
So there is hope: eating disorders and food compulsions can be outgrown, rather than managed, controlled or viewed as a lifelong disease. Neuroplasticity is a form of Grace, offering faith and hope that we can grow and heal at any age, no matter how much we feel that we’ve gone awry.
Creating the map, growinghuman(kind)ness
This understanding led me to create a new approach for healing food compulsion, growing human(kind)ness. This gentle approach heals the roots of food compulsion by replacing the refuge of food – what never really satisfies – with true refuge. True refuge is found by creating an inner refuge – a source of love and nourishment inside yourself – and outer refuge. You find outer refuge in your relationships with trusted, loving others, and in a connection to the source of Love itself, the Divine, however you define this for yourself.
Loving relationship supports your growth out of eating disorders in two primary ways. First, attachment heals your deepest suffering – the suffering of separation – and meets your deepest needs for love, connection and belonging. In the embrace of true refuge – the belonging, acceptance, and unconditional love that is the essence of secure attachment – you can let go of the false refuge of the eating disorder.
Attachment is also the container for growth itself. Secure, loving attachment fosters the maturation and development that had gotten stuck. This maturation is what leads to healthier and more empowered ways of responding and relating to your internal environment – your needs, emotions, feelings, and thoughts – as well as your external environment – your relationships with others, external stressors, and triggers. This includes new ways of responding to the impulse to binge, purge, overeat, numb out on sugar, comfort eat, fixate on food, or fixate on the body.
How the food compulsion gets pruned out
Here’s more about how this letting go unfolds. According to my mentor in developmental science, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, the letting go process is one of adaptation. In order to adapt – to stop doing what doesn’t work – you need to fully feel the futility of the food compulsion – that it doesn’t work, that it won’t work, that it will never work.
In feeling the futility, you’re feeling, accepting and integrating the inherent emptiness of the food compulsion, recognizing that it never satisfies. This brings the food compulsion, eating disorder or addictive behavior to rest. In the wake of this futility, you’re able to make a new choice, respond in a new way, and do something different.
On a spiritual level, letting go is the practice of surrender – of cal. In 12 step programs, this is what is meant by accepting our powerlessness over our addiction. In surrendering, we’re accepting that we’re stuck, recognizing our need for help, and opening our heart to be healed. Rather than trying to heal ourselves through sheer force of will – which hasn’t worked – we call on something greater than our own ego or personality. At the deepest level, it’s a surrender to and a turning towards Love, of bowing the head to the wisdom of the heart.
Resting in the growth process
Everything in us longs to heal and grow. Just as an acorn longs to be the fullest expression of what it is – to become an oak tree – there is something in the human being, in the human heart and soul and psyche – that longs to be all that we are. This longing is your ally in the growth process.
The good news about healing, growth and change is that it isn’t something that you have to force or “do.” In fact, you can’t force it, and it isn’t your job to do so. What a relief: you don’t have to fix yourself, twist yourself into knots, or exhaust yourself, working really, really hard on yourself to heal.
No matter your age, no matter how stuck you feel in food, healing is possible. You can support your growth and development. You can prime it. But in this role, you are the midwife, not the giver of life. The growth itself – how and when it unfolds – is in the hands of Love. Healing is a gift from the Divine, something that moves through you.
There is tremendous mercy and relief in this gift. Rather than carrying the burden for healing, you can breathe, let go, surrender and place yourself in the hands of Love. Oh, the relief – you have the rest and room to grow. This surrender begins a healing process that can be hard to explain, as step by step you feel yourself being carried along the healing journey, receiving just what you need to move forward and shedding what is no longer yours to carry.
Beholding this process is like watching a child grow, a flower bloom, a tree give fruit. It is the very Mystery of life, a circle in which you belong.
And what mercy. Healing is an expression of a deeper truth, that Life, at its center, is whole. It always longs to return to itself, to this wholeness.
Your wounds are not proof of your badness.
Your wounds are proof of your tender, vulnerable humanity.
Overeating, binge eating, food addiction – they are not character flaws; a symptom of poor will power or self discipline.
They are based in kindness – “a sign of the love you bear for yourself,” as Sri Nisargadatta put it. They arise from your very vulnerability – your tender human heart.
The Mystery of this journey is that something wise, good and kind inside loves you so much that it will do anything in its power to help you heal; it will do all it can to bring these wounds up to the surface so they can be resolved. I believe this is the work of the Divine.
Your pain isn’t there to punish, but to heal. Yes, it hurts – we all hurt in death (the falling away), birth (the emerging new life), and growth (transformation.)
It hurts and there’s an inherent kindness, a grace at work, in this untangling. Pema Chödrön says, “It does seem that the same things keep coming back to trigger the same feelings in us until we’ve made friends with them.”
Your food suffering is kind. It is not your enemy. It’s an invitation from your deepest heart to heal what most ails you. It is you calling yourself home.
Your deepest longing is crying out: I long to be whole. I long to be held. I long to be loved.
I invite you: dive in.