“Controlling”, “possessed”, “demon”, “parasite”, “torture”, “toxic”, “trapped”, “war”, “all consuming”. Just a few explanations directly from the minds of Eating Disorders.
The first and most difficult step for anyone suffering from an Eating Disorder is often finding the courage to open up and ask for help. This can be met not with support and empathy, but emotions such as frustration, anger and judgement. If you have never had an ED It can feel almost impossible to understand why someone would be doing this to themselves. This lack of true understanding and empathy can have many consequences on everyone involved:
· Withdrawing and hiding their behaviours more and more
· The ED becomes more severe
· Delays in getting help
· Lack of communication to express how everyone is truly feeling
· Damaging family and friend relationships
· Increasing tension which does not serve for a safe, recovery environment
How to get in the mind of Eating Disorders; Models of the world
From the place of your healthy mind it can be nearly impossible to understand EDs, but what you must bear in mind is that the sufferer is seeing things from an unhealthy, completely different perspective to yours.
Everyone has their own model of the world, which is a collection of beliefs and values. Everyone’s models are completely different because we interpret things differently. We tend to interpret our current environment and events based on experiences that we have had in the past, we filter our actual experiences internally and we will interpret them as good or bad. These are stored as memories and the next time we are in a similar situation we will automatically bring back these memories and they will affect our experience.
For someone who has always had positive, healthy experiences around food and themselves, will create a model of the world where food is just a part of everyday life, for enjoyment and social and they will not tend to worry about their appearance too much or if they overeat from time to time. However, if another person has had a negative experience around food and interpreted this as ‘bad’, then they may begin to create a model of the world based on this, where food is to be feared, they are focused on their weight and what people think of them.
In order to improve your understanding of the eating disorder mind you need to get closer to their model of the world and see things in their eyes rather than imposing your own. It has been shown that 40% of recovery success is down to the therapeutic relationship, including empathy, so just imagine the even bigger impact it could have if this was continued at home!
I spend 5 years scared to admit my ED to my parents because they were so tense, frustrated and angry every time I didn’t eat dinner, lie or try to hide things from them. It made detach myself completely from our family unit. We were once so close, shared literally everything and had so many laughs together. This was one of the hardest things about my ED. I didn’t want to hurt them anymore than I was and all they wanted was for me to get better and yet we were moving further apart. Things started to change when my mum decided to take action for herself. She went to see an Eating Disorder Hypnotherapist and began reading books to try and get in my model of the world. With this came a shift in her emotions, from angry to calm and I gradually began to open up again. I remember the conversation when she actually asked me what it felt like it felt like and listened to what I had to say. She told me all her anger came from her own belief that she had to make me better and she just had to make me see what I was doing to myself no matter what!
Without this I feel like I would still be where I was back then but having lost my family.
Empathy isn’t just being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, it’s being able to forget yourself and to be them as you walk in their shoes.
How to see things from an ED model of the world
1. Spend the next few days and weeks asking a lot more questions and making a lot less statements. Turn your Transmit button off – and turn your Receive button on.
2. Use Open rather than Closed questions. Open questions are those which cannot be answered with a Yes or No and they elicit a lot more information.
3. Listen to the answers you get. And utilise the information from these answer in the conversation.
4. With this information just imagine going through your day with the same thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Step into their shoes.
5. Next time you feel yourself going to tell, advise or react just pause and check-in; “am I coming from my model of the world or theirs?”
If you love the person then it can be the hardest thing not to want to help them and fix their problems. All my mum wanted was for me to stop destroying myself and she blamed herself; “what did I do wrong as your mum”. Heart-breaking! Out of this desperation came all these unhelpful emotions. But strong emotions make you stupid and hold you back from ever being able to empathise and create a safe environment for recovery. I wish I had told my mum sooner; “this is not your fault, it is not your job to fix me and all I need from you is to be there for me and support me without judgement”. This would have brought us closer together as a family, rebuilding trust, hope, love and helping me recover so much faster.
Trying to understand Eating Disorders can be frustrating, sad, tiring and create huge tension between families. Are you trying to understand from your model of the world or the ED model of the world? 40% of successful recovery comes from the therapeutic relationship, which includes empathy, so just imagine the impact this could have if this was carried on at home. You must get closer to the ED model of the world in order to understand it and develop the empathy which is so needed in recovery.
Empathy isn’t just being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, it’s being able to forget yourself and to be them as you walk in their shoes. This strengthens relationships, encourages more open communication, sharing, trust, hope, love and essentially helping a much faster, complete recovery.
Please comment on what it feels like to you to have an Eating Disorder or how you try and understand the ED mind.