Emotional Anorexia

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by Randall S. Frederick

Q: “So, have you encountered many people who struggle with emotional anorexia? Just throwing that out there because I think I see some of this in myself, especially lately, and wondered if you had any thoughts on the topic. I mean that if I am not careful, I will do things to sabotage or deny myself from forming or fully enjoying relationships. This, on top of finding it challenging to relate to others in general. I’m a pretty complicated human, as I’m sure you know. I have a lot of miles on me you might say…which seems to often make relating to people my age difficult if not impossible unless they have experienced emotional trauma on par with my own.”

A: That makes sense, given all that you’ve said (in previous conversation) about your family. The most consistent, longest, and primary relationship we see modeled to/for us is the one between our parents, and you’ve said your dad withdraws emotionally at times to protect himself.

Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous defines emotional anorexia this way:

As an eating disorder, anorexia is defined as the compulsive avoidance of food. In the area of sex and love, anorexia has a similar definition: Anorexia is the compulsive avoidance of giving or receiving social, sexual or emotional nourishment… it consists of not doing something, and not doing something, and not doing something. Not trusting, not committing, not surrendering. Here, unlike picking up a drink or shooting up a drug, anorexia’s symptoms are obscure, uneventful. Here anorectic’s don’t act-out, they act-in, by refusing to act. For anorexia maintains itself by industriously declining to allow movement: outwardly the anorectic may appear to be quite still; inwardly the anorectic may feel quite still also. And so the anorectic pattern may remain invisible. Numbness to itself may make anorexia additionally difficult to notice as well.

I think the literature of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous is a great initial resource, a first step, to understanding and getting some words for better understanding this experience. However, I want to point out that SLAA considers these behaviors “an addiction.” More on that in a second.

Emotional anorexia, to me, means you are withholding or avoiding attachment (though you still want attachment) because you don’t want to get hurt. You don’t want to have the love you’ve seen modeled to you (ex: your parents), but that’s the only love you know/have seen. But I would also add that emotional anorexia takes many forms. In many instances, it means you would rather “starve” emotionally than abandon a bad relationship (or be abandoned). In many instances, it means withholding emotional, social, physical, mental, spiritual, and/or sexual intimacy. Who is truly “in control” is up for discussion, but make no mistake: anorexia of any kind is an effort to control what you perceive to be an unstable condition. You see this with people who have anorexia nervosa, so let’s pause here too and see some parallels. The Mayo Clinic describes anorexia as:

Anorexia (an-o-REK-see-uh) nervosa — often simply called anorexia — is an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of body weight. People with anorexia place a high value on controlling their weight and shape, using extreme efforts that tend to significantly interfere with activities in their lives.

To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, people with anorexia usually severely restrict the amount of food they eat. They may control calorie intake by vomiting after eating or by misusing laxatives, diet aids, diuretics or enemas. They may also try to lose weight by exercising excessively.

Some people with anorexia binge and purge, similar to individuals with bulimia nervosa. However, people with anorexia generally struggle with an abnormally low body weight, while individuals with bulimia typically are normal to above normal weight. No matter how weight loss is achieved, the person with anorexia has an intense fear of gaining weight.

Anorexia isn’t really about food. It’s an unhealthy way to try to cope with emotional problems. When you have anorexia, you often equate thinness with self-worth.

Notice that, unlike SLAA which considers emotional anorexia “an addiction,” food and health related anorexia is a “disorder.” I would argue emotional anorexia is a disorder as well – not an addiction. It can be addictive, and you can be addicted, but all variations are at their core a form of dysfunction and disorder. The recovery period is not something that can be done in a year, or even two, but a dysfunction that requires re-learning behaviors and remaining mindful of the small ways the disorder can manifest in current and future relationships. Remember: just because it is emotional does not make it less legitimate. When your addiction begins to affect your relationships and mental or emotional health, it is really a disorder.

There’s a lot to take away from the Mayo Clinic’s definition of food and health related anorexia, so please re-read it. Make a note of the ways that it applies to your emotions. What are you afraid of? What is your definition of self-worth?

That question of self-worth goes much deeper, though. The anorexic person has a distorted vision of themselves. They are emaciated and often look sick, but when they look in the mirror, they believe they are too healthy, too fat, too much. The same is true for the emotionally anorexic person. Their friends and family will say things like, “You need to settle down!” or “You need to find someone! Can I set you up with someone I know?” and, for the emotional anorexic, they believe their lives are full or “too much”/too chaotic, whatever. They come up with all kinds of excuses to avoid or abandon romantic opportunities or avoid relationships because when they look in the mirror, their vision of themselves (and of reality, really) is somehow distorted.

Emotional anorexia, for me, means I actively resist my hunger and appetite for emotional connection. There have been times – and there still are times – when I will see a happy couple in public, and I become very negative. “They are so stupid, acting that way. That happiness will never last. They don’t know what love means. Love means getting hurt and never recovering.” And so, when I hear those thoughts, I stop and realize – Wow. That’s messed up. That’s a really unhealthy reaction to someone else’s happiness. But it’s a complex thing, isn’t it? Because the hunger I have for emotional connection, when I think that way, becomes this dark energy within me and if I don’t stop it, it will continue to grow and affect other relationships, friendships, and conversations.

Think about the pattern of someone with anorexia, though. Isn’t that what they do? Their hunger for food becomes twisted around and they will say things like, “I don’t want to be far like this person,” or “Carbs are like cancer – the more of them inside you, the more dead you are.” All of this is based in reality, then acted upon based on how that reality is perceived.

In my own experience, this has meant never “swallowing” a relationship. Instead, I will slowly “savor the flavor,” then spit them out. If the person keeps pursuing me, I will lash out privately to friends (“Why are they doing this??”) and, if pressed, say to them, “I don’t think I feel the same way that you do.” Later, I might regret it, but it’s more like I want to apologize for being mean (this is about them/emotional distance) rather than how I actually feel (about me/what really needs to happen). It’s a terrible coping mechanism, but it does reappear at times. Unless the people around me – friends, family, etc – know the whole story, it appears I am just “emotionally unavailable.” But the truth is, I am deeply emotionally engaged – just firing on different (maladaptive) cylinders.

You mention there at the end about having “miles on you” and being unable to relate to someone unless they have suffered trauma as well. I get that. More than I let on, I get it. And the issues that come out of that are things I still have to be mindful of and intentionally work on. I’ve told friends, boldly and flagrantly, how “ridiculous” they sound to me because they grew up in a better context and home environment than I did.

But that’s the seduction of a disorder, a dysfunction, isn’t it? It becomes this dark reality where you have to “take of yourself, because no one else will” or “no one will understand.” It reminds me of something the 20th Century author C.S. Lewis once said about masturbation. C.S. Lewis was the author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, but he also was a prolific essayist. In the collection of letters, Yours, Jack, he writes

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sending the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides.

And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifice or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival.

Among these shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification is ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.

In a way, this is what we are doing every time we “starve” ourselves of love and affection from another person – we fill that need by eating away at ourselves and twisting the truth. The truth here being that we want someone else, that we desire another person. Some appetites are greater than others, it’s important to note. But we all need a certain measure of affection and human contact to survive.

Again, speaking personally, my little brother has Autism. When he was diagnosed with Autism, his father abandoned he and my mother – literally abandoning them, walking out on Thanksgiving morning and never coming back. I became a father to my brother, and so I was the one who would drive to his school when the teacher called because “there was an incident on the playground today.” One time, I went to the school in the middle of the day and had to calm my brother down because he had told a girl that he thought she was pretty and she began to ignore him. Sitting there, heartbroken and tears streaming – and I mean streaming – down his eyes, he told me “I just want to love someone and I’ll never get married because of my brain.” Something inside of me just… broke. It broke. And I sat there, doing my best not to cry, but I felt so devastated for him. In fact, even a decade later, I still lay in bed at night and cry –literally – at the memory of that day. Which is why I make it a point to tell my brother “I love you” in every conversation – even if I visit and I’m popping out to grab a burger. I will tell him, “I love you” at the drop of a hat. I make it a point to touch him on the shoulder, shake his hand, play with him, and let him feel human contact, emotional love, and a measure of security. Because, again, we all need a measure of affection and human contact to survive.

I would suggest you take time, maybe 15 minutes a day, maybe one day a week – whatever feels intentional for your life schedule – to talk about all of this with someone. For me, talking to a therapist helped a great deal. That was a very significant thing for me. But sometimes it can be as simple as telling a trusted friend or family member, “I need to talk about this. Will you allow me to talk, and listen without offering advice, judgement, or trying to ‘fix me?” Beyond this, I would of course suggest making an appointment with a counselor or therapist with the intention of seeing them for at least five to ten sessions so you can talk it all out, put the whole story out there, and talk to someone in a judgement-free environment. I suggest this not because “it’s the right thing to do,” but because it is the only thing that worked for me. I told my therapist in the first session, “please just allow me four sessions to talk and tell you the story before we begin to dissect it – you’re going to need to know all the players and see the timeline to really hear me.” Thankfully, she did exactly that and it made a world of difference. So, resist that urge to run away and commit to the process of just verbalizing all of what you are feeling.

Whatever you do, I want to encourage you to say to yourself, “Every day is a struggle.” Because it is. You know that, and it shows in your letter here. People often will say, “be gentle with yourself” but I want to suggest you do the opposite of whatever condition created this problem for you. For me, I grew up in a very chaotic and “loose” social environment with a high degree of punishment when I violated those undefined, poorly articulated “rules” of how I was supposed to behave. I had to be “the adult” in my family at a very early age, and so my natural tendency in adulthood is to be irresponsible at times because that was how adulthood was modeled for me. I have to be very decisive, very structured in my mental attitude (“You have to do this today“) and very gentle with everyone else. You might be the same way, or you might have a different experience altogether but the point here is to live into the advice you would give someone else. If you would tell someone, “Hey, it’s not a big deal; let it go,” then that’s what you should do. If you would tell someone to get it together, then do that.

Keep me posted on how this is going for you – I’m there with you, trying to become a good adult and an even better lover.

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