As an eating disorder specialist, I help people experience a state of being called “recovery”. For many, it’s an ambiguous and foreign way of living. While priming my clients for change, they often ask, “How does being in recovery feel and will I like being in recovery?” The answer is— the process feels a lot worse before it gets better. It’s grueling and terrifying and, it’s so worth it.
On the surface, it may appear that my clients are in the process of recovering from an eating disorder or addiction, but in truth— what they are really in the process of is, “getting back something that was lost or stolen from them”. Self- destructive eating disorder behaviors like starving, binge eating, or purging are designed to do just that— destroy the self.
What is the self? The self is a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others. The self serves as an internal compass that guides you on your journey toward manifesting your potential. The self is the highest expression of who you truly are. Most importantly, the self communicates with us through our emotions to signal which choices are in alignment with our purpose.
The self communicates by whispering, “this feels true for me ” and trusting it allows you to make the right decisions for your life. Most of us have a good and trusting relationship with the self in childhood. As a clinical therapist, I work with my adult clients’ to restore self- trust and self-care, so that they can go on to make the “right” decisions for their lives.
Instinctual feelings that come from the self are dangerous to ignore and yet— that’s exactly what addictions, eating disorders, and other self-destructive behaviors are designed to do. Our addictive behaviors keep us in an anesthetized state. An addiction; whether it be to work, sex, drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, etc. is designed to temporarily numb and distract us from the undeniable truths we want to avoid feeling, emotional pain.
Emotional pain can include feelings of sadness, grief, loneliness, and other unpleasant emotions like stress, anxiety, unexpressed anger, shame, guilt, and worthlessness. These uncomfortable feelings are part of the human experience. The question then becomes— why are some of us more tolerant of these feelings and others of us, rushing to escape the feeling by using a self-destructive behavior?
If you were lucky, you learned in childhood that your feelings matter. You had a caregiver who actively listened to your feelings and responded to your emotional states with sensitivity, non-judgement and care. You were validated. As a result, you learned to trust and understand your feelings because your caregivers did.
Growing up with your emotions ignored or invalidated leads to feeling lonely, even when you’re not alone. Loving parents may unknowingly invalidate their children’s emotions due to a lack of knowledge, not a lack of love. If we grew up perceiving that our feelings don’t matter, we learn to suppress and avoid feeling them. Eventually, we start lying about our true feelings and needs for fear that we are wrong for having them.
For many of my clients, psychotherapy as an adult in recovery is the first time they comprehend what it means to be validated and deeply understood. The therapeutic relationship is designed to create emotional safety for the client. Without it, we can’t recover. Emotional safety is the ability to notice what we are feeling and then, take the risk to feel it. In the absence of a safe place to reveal our true emotions, we have no choice but to destroy the source of our authentic emotions— the self.
No one is born with a debilitating eating disorder or an addiction, we develop our bad habits over time. We are however born with emotions and the urge to share them with others as a way of connecting. All of our emotions are involuntary when authentic. Research shows we have 27 distinct emotions; the basic six being happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. Emotions are created and refuse to be ignored, instead they patiently wait to be noticed and addressed. If we are not taught how to express and cope with our feelings, we eventually feel so much existential pain that we yearn for relief.
Our bad habits, like smoking or drinking, develop as a quick solution to neglected and painful feelings. These go- to, stress- relieving behaviors temporarily keep the emotional pain at bay, until it eventually resurfaces and requires a stronger dose of the addiction to suppress it again. You can’t ignore your feelings, even if the people around you did.
If we are lucky, the greatest emotional asset we develop in childhood is a powerful internal compass that is calibrated to align us with our full potential. To strengthen our sense of self, we need to validate our feelings as often possible. Recovery is about telling your truth, no matter how painful it is to share. It is about learning to listen to a part of you that has been there since you were created and will be within you until you pass.
I believe that anyone can recover from an addiction or an eating disorder, no matter how long they have struggled because the self can never be fully destroyed. It can be buried, suppressed, hidden, muted, pushed aside— but not destroyed. We cannot destroy the highest expression of who we truly are. Even the strongest drug cannot erase the powerful urge to become who we genuinely are and express the truth of what we authentically feel.