Eating disorders, longing, and angst

“We create drama by lying, suffering, binging and dieting, by living in midst of perpetual motion, by forever beginning or ending relationships. We create drama by externalizing our pain, by making things hard between ourselves in relationships instead of being honest about how hard it is inside ourselves. When we are not honest about internal conflict, we stage an external one.”

“We are suspicious of things that are easy or fluid or comfortable. Without theatre, we feel as if we are missing the essentials of being alive. And in fact we are. We are missing the drama that defined being alive in our families. We don’t how to be alive without it. To us suffering dignifies an experience. When something is hard we know it is worth doing. If we have to struggle, we have a purpose and winning the struggle gives us a feeling of accomplishment.”

– Geneen Roth from When Food is Love

Geneen Roth is an author who writes predominantly, if not entirely, on the topic of eating disorders. This particular book was based on the premise that people with eating disorders are part of families where there exists an unfulfilled longing  for love and approval. The above statements really stood out to me because of the deep rooted psychological dynamics that is suggested by eating disorders… that whatever the context is, it is one’s inability to allow oneself to be happy. Drawing from a previous post about neurobiology, it is arguable that an individual with an eating disorder may possess a neural map (a.k.a. schema, history) where struggling with something (some “thing”) is a part of life. A person may have had to cope with so much in their past that no matter what is happening in their lives, they will always be in a relationship with struggle… as though struggle is an entity in and of itself.

While I can see how this may be true for some, I also think that people with eating disorders can also come from families where longing for approval and love wasn’t the issue. Perhaps it was the desire for perfection.  Perhaps it was the strong desire to belong. I do think that society (yes played out but still true) is partly responsible for instigating a sense of longing in an individual. We make a business out of it. If longing didn’t exist, then we wouldn’t buy trendy clothes, engage in cosmetic upkeep, train with physical trainers, go to tanning salons, etc. No matter where in the world you reside, there is a standard of beauty. Depending on where you are, the standard may be fair skin, tanned skin, a curvaceous figure, a waif-like figure, tall, short, long, blonde, curly, straight hair, big muscles and so on. And it appears that as long as these images are glorified, it can leave those who do not fit the image with a sense of longing. And it really isn’t limited to images we see in magazines or on TV but any image representing a specific subculture of which we want to be a part (i.e. dancers = thin, football player = big). That being said, the issue is so much more complex than what meets the eye. The desire is to be something other than what or who we are.  Now the tendency is to demonize the issue (longing) and strive toward its resolution (being comfortable in our own skin). But the tricky thing is that longing is necessary and natural – longing is needed in order for people to desire to achieve, to be educated, to discover or create change. Without longing there would be no creation. However, longing in excess can lead to obsession and insatiability – a perpetual chase for the elusive and a lack of appreciation for the realistic present. In short, longing can create and it can also destroy.

With any psychological symptomatic behavior (addiction, eating disorders) there is an underlying angst.  This angst is a human condition and it is what we do with this angst that decides our mental health for the moment.

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