What I’ve learned about pain, suffering, and disordered eating
The reality of the disordered eater is navigating pain on a daily basis. When we overeat, it hurts. When we undereat, it hurts. And even when we eat in a way that is supportive to our well being, the incessant and obsessive voice within our heads doesn’t let up. Our bodies never seem to be good enough, our eating is never perfect enough.
I watched the Louis Theroux documentary about anorexia. I found that I couldn’t watch it all, it was too painful. One woman talked about the loss of her mother and sister. Her disordered eating was involved deep suffering in body and mind, she survived on tiny morsels of food, and her body was crumbling into nothingness. But the pain of starvation was preferable to the pain of feeling her grief. Her seemingly dysfunctional behaviours were serving a deeper purpose. She kept the feelings of deep loss at a distance, buffered by constant and obsessive thoughts about food, her body, her eating disorder.
In our groups, we have talked about something I call the ‘pain transferral method’. Pain is registered, perhaps on a very subtle, subconscious level, within our system. Perhaps we’re confused about what to do with our lives. Perhaps we feel desperately lonely. Perhaps we feel unloveable, wrong in some way. This emotional pain doesn’t just sit in our heads, or in the ether somewhere. If we stopped, became curious, and chose to feel it, we can experience our emotions as sensations within the body. Sadness could be a heavy feeling within the gut or the chest. Anxiety could be a rising tide of jittery shakiness. In many ways, emotional and physical pain are not separate from each other – they both take hold within our bodies.
And so, what do we do? Our habitual brains search for a safe place, somewhere we know well, for us to reside. Perhaps that’s in pleasure-seeking, maybe we binge, we search for comforting foods that remind us of our childhood. Or perhaps we find solace in restricting, in getting things ‘under control’, in the high of the hunger pang. And we displace the original pain, and wrap ourselves in this, secondary pain. Our bloated belly. The headache from too much stimulating food. The guilt and shame of having, yet again, failed to stay within the boundaries we had defined for ourselves. The pain transferral method: from our original discomfort, we move into the pain of our disordered eating. And this may happen completely unconsciously, the habit rolling out without us making a single conscious choice to participate in this self-abusive cycle.
I think we all know how the cycle works. After the physical and emotional pain – the bloated belly, the deep disappointment – in comes the mental pain. Mental pain is characterised by rumination, obsession, incessant judgements, a chronic sense that we are lacking something. We berate ourselves for being in such a mess. We attack our bodies for being imperfect. The mind is never satisfied with our efforts. There is always the opportunity to do more, be more, have more of something. There is a Buddhist teaching about the two arrows of suffering. The first arrow represents the first noble truth: there is suffering. You fall down, and it hurts. No one remembered your birthday, and it hurts. You lose a loved one, it hurts. A human life is a life which involves hurting, and as much as we might try avoiding and suppressing our pain, or chasing pleasures, that first arrow will reach us, time and again.
The second arrow, according to the Buddha, is optional. The second arrow is about the story we tell ourselves about the original pain we experienced. It is how we respond to the painful events of our lives. Much of our mental pain serves no real purpose, except to send us deeper down into the hole. When we berate ourselves for something we did. When we refuse to forgive ourselves for our dysfunctional relationship with food. When we withhold affection from ourselves because our body does not conform to the narrow and unrealistic beauty standards of modern society. At this point, we must ask ourselves some hard questions.
How am I contributing to the maintenance of my own suffering?
In what ways do I knowingly hurt myself?
The stories we tell about ourselves are limiting and hurtful. One story I used for many years was that I was a capable, strong and independent woman. You’d think that would be empowering, right? The trouble was, as I saw it, being capable, strong and independent didn’t include being honest about my disordered eating. My identity was wrapped up in self-sufficiency, which meant I had to take full responsibility for my struggles and challenges. Accepting help meant weakness. Being honest about my struggles meant failure to uphold this identity I had built for myself. This seemingly empowering identity had turned into a set of limiting beliefs that hurt me: I had to pretend to be fine with family and friends when I wasn’t, and I couldn’t accept that I needed help with these deeply ingrained issues. I had boxed myself into my own little prison of suffering.
And then I watched Brene Brown’s TED talk about the Power of Vulnerability, and everything flipped upside down.
In my quest for answers, I went full-blown spiritual seeker, listening to hours and hours of talks by spiritual teachers about how we cope with pain. If I was going to be more authentically myself, and stop numbing and suppressing the parts of me that didn’t fit my model of ‘Good Emily’, I needed to know how to cope with the intense sensations that were coming my way. I didn’t want to eat my feelings every day. But I didn’t know what to do instead, when I felt so raw, so naked, so exposed to the pain of life.
When we stop using our disordered eating to mask our pain, what do we do instead?
DEVELOPING A DAILY SOMATIC (body-based) MEDITATION PRACTICE
To move through our pain, we must first get to know the terrain. This means time each day spent breathing, feeling, and noticing the sensations within your body. It really is very simple. Take time, before you get up, and before you go to sleep, to just breathe. Settle into your body. Use the breath to take you inside, down into the internal spaces of your chest, belly and pelvis. Notice what you notice. Feel what you feel. We’re not trying to label, identify, or get rid of any feelings. We’re simply curious about the sensations that arise, move, and then dissipate within the body. Let go of the agenda of being ‘pain-free’ or ‘better’. Just breathe and feel. This gives our bodies permission to soften and settle, release tension, and we may find that our gentle and loving attentions help to release some of the pain we are holding onto through how we tense up against life.
GROWING OUR CAPACITY TO HOLD COMPASSIONATE SPACE FOR OUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS, AS THEY ARISE, MOMENT-TO-MOMENT
When we experience pain, it’s easy to get consumed by the feeling, and to lose ourselves, and our sense of perspective. As we develop our meditation practice, we notice that there is a larger space of awareness in which our experience is constantly manifesting itself. Rather than identifying with the pain (I’m the belly ache! I’m such a bad person for overeating! I hate this belly ache! I want to get rid of it! Argh!), and becoming consumed by it, we lie down, breathe, relax, and notice that there is a larger space available to us. We can learn to hold our belly ache, and our feelings of guilt and disappointment, with a gentle attitude of loving kindness. No one ever changed in any lasting way because they were shamed into changing. We grow when we feel safe, accepted, and loved for who we are, NOW. Meeting ourselves with kindness is a habit we can grow. Notice when you are in self-attack, don’t judge, just drop it, and remind yourself that all human beings, including you, are doing the best they can with the awareness they have right now. All human beings deserve kindness and respect. This includes YOU.
In this way, we also identify the self-created pain within our lives. Rumination, self-attack, perfectionism, obsession with our weight, punitive and punishing thoughts… these thoughts must be noticed, forgiven (we picked them up with our conditioning, it’s not our fault), and released. Notice, and drop. Notice, and drop. A million times. Until compassion becomes a muscle that gets stronger each day.
LEARNING THE PRACTICE OF PENDULATION
Most humans have experienced trauma within their lives – overwhelming situations that were too painful for us to consciously experience at the time they occurred. This ‘unlived experience’ remains buried within the cells of our bodies, waiting for us to bring the light of awareness and presence to them at a later stage. We can’t undertake this journey all at once. PENDULATION is about finding a rhythm of feeling your feelings, and then backing off and witnessing them from a safer distance. Just like a pendulum swinging back and forth, you can breathe, feel the painful feeling, and then move away, perhaps into a place in your body that feels comfortable and safe for you. Pain needs time and space to unfold. Some deep pains take weeks, months or years to move through our systems. Rushing ahead doesn’t seem to help. Take the long view, and give yourself time. Ease up. And remember that life is one strange and bizarre game. Do something light hearted, like watching a silly film, if it all gets too serious and too heavy.
SOUNDING, EXPRESSING, CRYING
How many of us were told that our emotional expression was unacceptable? That crying, wailing, frowning, or shaking were inappropriate, unwanted, and indecent in some way? Our bodies have extremely wise and powerful ways of helping us to move trauma and pain through our systems. Studies have shown that tears carry the stress hormone, cortisol, out of our system. Animals have been documented shaking and trembling after being chased, and then returning to graze, seemingly unfazed by the near death experience. Women in labour are actively encouraged to sound and move with their contractions, as it helps with pain relief. I had a friend who underwent a traumatic operation. Afterwards, for several days, she found she needed to scream each morning on waking. This was very challenging for her family to witness, but she explained to them why she needed to allow herself this expression. Once they understood, she was able to move through her trauma, and her family supported her in this.
Try it for yourself. When you’re in pain, take yourself into a private space. Give yourself permission to wail, moan, see what arises from the depths of your body. I’ve found it to be genuinely transformative, and deeply relieving. And if you’re dealing with pain on the fly, Brene Brown suggests simply naming the pain, by saying ‘pain, pain, pain’ – either out loud or internally. Expressing your hurt, to yourself or a trusted friend, goes a long way. Don’t buy into the suppressive conditioning we’ve received. Suppression hurts us.
Do you have any thoughts about this? How do you cope with the very universal, and very human, experience of suffering? How have you moved away from numbing and suppressing, into staying present to yourself?
Much courage to you as you explore, brave wanderer. It’s a lot to ask someone, in this modern world, to stop chasing and escaping, and stay alongside their own experience. Technology, consumerism, and the crazy pace of life keeps us distracted. So take it gently, and remember that mainstream culture doesn’t exactly support this journey. You may need to look elsewhere if you want support with this.
My wish for you is freedom. May you be free, and well, and may your natural eater awaken.
Want to explore these issues with me and my mum Jan?
We’re doing three events on Feminism and women’s issues – eating, body image, and #metoo. The first event is in Brighton, on 3rd May. Tickets are available through the event on our ‘I eat what I need’ Facebook page.
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-Join our IEWIN groups in Brighton and Colchester
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If in doubt, email Emily@ieatwhatineed.com, or message our Facebook page with any questions about working together.