This month we’re talking about Sex, Intimacy and Relationships in Recovery. As social animals, we are all impacted by these things, yet for various reasons the topics are rarely discussed in treatment settings.
At Orri, one of our company values is ‘authenticity’. Within this context, it means adopting a holistic view of what makes us who we are, and therefore what we might bring with us into therapy for exploration.
Today, we start by discussing how eating disorders impact relationships.
If you’re reading this and currently living with an eating disorder, it may be that you’ve noticed a shift in how you relate to others and engage in social activities.
Perhaps you’ve gradually distanced yourself from friends and family, stopped attending so many social events, and are perhaps spending increasingly more time at home, in your bedroom.
If this is the case, you are not alone. And, despite how you might feel about it, it is not your fault.
Many of our clients start treatment in a similar situation. Their eating disorder has distanced them from the people they care about, and many find a sense of comfort in this distance. There’s something about it that feels safe and predictable – and these two things are really important when you’re living with an eating disorder.
The isolation serves a purpose
Eating disorders thrive in isolation. You might have noticed that when you’re alone, the ‘voice’ of the eating disorder is amplified. It actively drives people away from you as a means of limiting the opportunity for it to be challenged – for food behaviours to be challenged.
And this act of cutting yourself off serves a purpose, and can often be linked to why the eating disorder developed in the first place.
An eating disorder typically develops after something or someone has taught us that the world is not as safe as we once thought it was. “Safety” here doesn’t have to refer to just physical safety, but also to a sense of feeling safe in who you are and the world around you.
Prior to your eating disorder, you might have experienced something that was too much, too soon, or too fast, or been neglected, rejected, or taught that you are not worthy of love or kindness (when you really, truly, are).
An eating disorder numbs the overwhelming feelings that arise in association with such challenge. It channels the hypervigilance that can often come with intense emotions, like anxiety or stress, into controlling food and body weight. Narrowing our attention and focus to specific things gives us a sense of control and security: I can’t control those people, but I can control myself and how I behave with food. This numbness, in effect, creates a protective ‘shield’ around you.
Take a moment to recognise the underlying intention beneath the eating disorder. Whilst it is extremely harmful, it often develops as a means of protecting yourself, keeping you going when otherwise you wouldn’t feel able to. You are not a “failure” or “wrong” for struggling, you’ve just landed on a maladaptive means of coping in the midst of challenge.
Relationships require vulnerability
Eating disorders are the antithesis of relationships because authentic relationships require you to relinquish some degree of power, and as a result, share a degree of vulnerability.
It might be that vulnerability feels intolerable. Perhaps it reminds you of a past experience, and is therefore associated with risk, pain or hurt.
However, you deserve loving and authentic relationships. No one should feel the loneliness and isolation that so often comes with an eating disorder, and a lot of the work we do with our clients is to help them to realise this and take steps to bringing the wall down between them and others.
Reconnecting once more, in recovery
We help clients to explore patterns they’ve identified in their relationships, heal the negative experiences they’ve been through that has taught them a way to think about themselves or others, and investigate the natural vulnerability that comes with allowing someone to see us and care for us as we are.
We all deserve to love ourselves so much that we can allow others to love us too.
A way over overcoming the barrier of an eating disorder is to allow yourself to have relationships and give yourself permission to authentically enjoy them. This also means granting yourself permission to explore different kinds of relationships and to be curious of who and what you are drawn to.
Notice how you feel around others; whether you feel comfortable or uncomfortable, what you like to do with certain people and how much time you genuinely want to spend with them. Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to have the friendships and relationships that you want to have – as long as they are true to you.
This process may come easily – or it may take time. Either way, be kind to yourself. You’re on your journey and it’ll take time to figure things out, but that is okay.