The following article is an excerpt from Anna Palmer’s book, Coming Home: Healing From an Eating Disorder by Finding Beauty in Imperfection. May the words here grant you deeper permission to come home to the fullness of yourself, humanness, divinity, and all. Welcome home.
Chapter 12. The Body Holds the Key: We Heal as We Feel
Talk therapy, otherwise known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is probably the most well-known image of therapy we think of when we hear the word “therapy.” We imagine a client lying on a couch or sitting in a chair spilling their guts to a studious looking therapist who is nodding along while taking notes in a notebook or journal.
CBT is focused on the cognitive processes (the thinking mind) and the behavior that follows. It attempts to connect the mode of thought to the mode of behavior. In most sessions, a therapist serves as a guide, asking inquisitive questions to probe the client’s thinking, analyzing mind.
As the name implies, CBT is a very mind-behavior oriented type of therapy, which serves a purpose for many. It certainly served a purpose early on in my many years of therapy. As a psychology student myself, it was a no-brainer for me to talk about and psychoanalyze my own nature. I became fascinated with the why behind everything, such as, “Why was I acting out these bulimic behaviors when the other side of the Eating Disorder (ED) was so controlling and restrictive? Was I just that self-destructive?”
I became so fixated on “figuring” out the why through the lens of my cognitive, thinking mind. By the time I exited traditional therapy, I was so damn good at talking about my issues. I could talk in circles to anyone and everyone about the anxiety/depression, anorexia/bulimic cycles, and their intricate nuances.
Telling our story is a necessary part of the therapeutic process, but in the end, it is limited to simply focusing on the conscious mind. It touches little on the bigger part of the iceberg below the surface: the unconscious mind. It keeps you circling around and around, not really getting deeper into the unconscious mind, the body, or the nervous system patterns, where much more profound and impactful information is held.
Naming your feelings is a key component, but it doesn’t stop there. Feeling the feelings, not just talking about them, is even more important. And, being a kind and compassionate witness to the feelings, even more so.
After nearly 10 years of on and off again therapy with many different therapists and modalities, I still wasn’t getting anywhere close to being recovered. I went through periods of recovery (a few months maybe) and then would circle back around to the behaviors. I was still caught up in the loop of the ED, no matter how much therapy I did, how many self-help books I read, or how “capable” I was of psychoanalyzing myself.
I continued to think that binging was the problem that needed intervention. I would track my emotions and desperately try and fail at “urge surfing” in those moments of emotional overwhelm.
I couldn’t understand that my restrictive diet was a setup from the start. My depriving, “clean,” and controlled diet was, in fact, a huge culprit and big catalyst of my bulimic episodes. I thought I just needed to get better at handling my emotions and all would be well. This was important and necessary work, but I couldn’t even begin to address the emotions while simultaneously trying to starve and deprive myself. The food control took up so much brain space and power, not to mention the physiological hormonal mood swings from not eating enough.
I was desperately trying to recover from bulimia by dieting more. Of course, now I know that makes little sense. I was only feeding and encouraging the Eating Disorder by depriving myself and sticking to rigid food rules. The beliefs underneath this deprivation were of course rooted in the belief that I was “bad,” unworthy of nourishment and care, and that my needs didn’t matter.
My mind and body were desperately trying to find balance. The bulimic episodes were trying to get my attention to see my diet mentality and my emotional undercurrent driving it all. But instead of addressing the diet mentality, I would lean into the comfort and known territory in these restrictive behaviors to get “back on track” with my made-up diet. I continued to deem foods as either “good” or “bad.”
Many of us are told there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to eat. More than that, we believe that our food choices dictate our moral value and worth. I thought I was being a disciplined person and showing the world how much will power and control I had by restricting my diet. By depriving myself of pleasure or enjoyment in food, I thought I was being tough and keeping my emotions under wraps. I was convinced my insatiable hunger was the problem and I needed to do everything in my power to deny the hunger.
How strange is that, though? If hunger is as natural as the urge to relieve ourselves, why do we deny one and not the other? When we have to use the bathroom, we don’t try to convince ourselves otherwise (unless of course we are traveling or don’t have a means to relieve ourselves at that moment). If relieving ourselves is just as natural of a process as hunger is, why is hunger treated any differently? With an ED, hunger becomes a reflection of our moral value and willpower.
Why are we told to “just drink some water” if we feel hungry? It’s this underlying message that hunger isn’t a valid enough reason to eat, and in fact, it’s something to ignore and get over. And, this belief convinces you that you may not actually be feeling hungry after all. Maybe, you are thirsty. Please, let’s all stop listening to the message that our hunger needs to be denied.
Diets encourage this belief about hunger. Diets say that the body and its messages aren’t to be trusted. In reality, it’s the mind that isn’t always trustworthy. We make up all these rules based on diet culture, which only further separate us from our body’s wisdom. We learn to ignore the body and instead listen to the mind. We learn to “think” our way to eating, instead of intuitively feeling and sensing our way to eating by being in tune with our bodies and its needs.
Even if we do eat emotionally, that is so human and understandable. We don’t have to ever be perfect around food. We can release ourselves from the fear of never emotionally eating again, because for many of us, food can be the easiest, most accessible source of comfort. Food can be comforting, and it isn’t wrong to eat for comfort occasionally.
We will only know when we are doing it to avoid feelings if we resort to emotional eating consistently, and over longer stretches of time. Also, we can begin to look at mental and emotional hunger from that lens too.
Diet culture is in full force from the day we enter this world in human, and mostly, female bodies. Especially as women, we are told what our bodies need to look like for us to be deemed lovable and attractive. Our bodies become an exchange for a felt sense of belonging.
The “ideal” body is promoted by diet culture. We are bullied into eating less and moving more. In order to do so, you have to stop listening to your body’s wisdom and listen to diet “wisdom” instead.
The body is the access point to navigating our hunger, though, not the mind. The mind has mazes, traps, and endless spirals of thought, obsession, fear, and diet culture conditioning. It isn’t to say the mind is “bad,” but it may not be our kindest friend or way to connect to something more trustworthy and reliable.
With the practice of yoga, I began to touch upon the grief and trauma held in my body. With slow, intentional movement of breath and focus, we can access parts of the somatic field of the body, where emotions have been “held.” The body remembers what we may not consciously have seen or processed.
With an eating disorder (ED), you cut yourself off from feeling and honoring your hunger or fullness or your body’s basic needs for rest. Often, because of the trauma or pain, the body becomes a perceived unsafe landscape to navigate. The mind steps in to protect you from pain. You cut yourself off from your feelings, but also from your own feeling of safety in your body.
For so long, I felt dissociated. Dissociation is a common symptom of trauma. I felt as though my trauma now was self-induced. I would starve my body, punish it with rigorous exercise, and binge and purge my pain deeper into it. In so many ways, I carried so much shame around how awful I was to my body. So it was safer to disconnect and dissociate. Feeling spacey, checked out, almost as if my head was floating above my body were common feelings I experienced.
Dissociation is not bad; it is protective. When we dissociate from our bodies or from feeling, we don’t need to judge or shame ourselves. It’s the mind trying to protect us from pain, emotional, real or otherwise. Compassion is hugely important to cultivate, to understand that this pattern came in for very good reason, and we aren’t wrong or bad for engaging in it.
To feel grounded, rooted, and embodied can at first feel terrifying because it is so foreign. It means we have to start feeling, and that means feeling the sh*t, too.
Read part one of this series: Coming Home: On Healing from an Eating Disorder.
Read part two of this series: How Eating Disorders are a way of Coping with Emotions & the Effects of Traumatic Events.
Read part three of this series: Hello Bulimia, My Secret Friend: When Food Becomes Survival & the Body the Enemy.
Read part four of this series: The Real Toxin: The Harm of our Fat-Phobic Culture.
Read part five of this series: How Eating Disorders Feed on the Insecure Self.
Read part six of this series: What Sparked my Healing Journey from an Eating Disorder.
Read part seven of this series: The Dark Side of Religion: On Religious Trauma & Body Shame.
Read part eight of this series: When Lines Blur: Journey into the Heart of an Empath.
Read part nine of this series: Spiritual Bypassing Won’t Heal You—but This Will.
Read part ten of this series: Shadow Work, the Unintegrated Ego & How to Reclaim our Wholeness.
Read part eleven of this series: The Seat of Addiction: Trauma, Emotions & the “I am not Enough” Club.