“You’re Too Sensitive” and Other Lies Your Eating Disorder Tells You
Dr. Linda Shanti
Here is something I hear on a weekly basis in my therapy practice working with recovering women:
1. “I’m too sensitive.”
They say this as if it were a curse or something that needs to be gotten rid of in the recovery process. Often, they received this “too sensitive” message as children. Maybe when they cried, felt things deeply, were highly intuitive, or were sensitive to stimuli such as noise, textures, or smells, they were told: “Get over it,” Don’t be a crybaby,” “If you feel scared or ashamed don’t show it” or (covertly) "Don’t talk about feelings. They are weak, and we don’t have room for them here.” Sometimes they were told to “Just relax” when they were being “perfectionistic,” or feeling anxious. Research has also shown that many of the temperament traits of people who develop eating disorders are genetically determined. People who develop eating disorders tend to have inherited traits such as: perfectionism, harm avoidance, cognitive inflexibility, and decreased interoceptive awareness, among others. (Hill, L., Kaye, W., Wierenga, C., Peck, S., 2016). (Note: The key here is not to pathologize yourself, but to realize that by accepting who you are, you can have a more compassionate relationship with yourself.)
Your Eating Disorder (ED voice) is the one that judges (and then tries to hide, numb or cut off from) your sensitivities because they were not embraced and/or too painful to experience as a child. I tell these adults that, even though it may be the opposite to what they want to hear,
Recovery is an invitation to embrace what wisdom your sensitivity has to offer.
Being sensitive means that you are strongly in touch with the part of you that knows, intuitively, what is right for you and what isn’t. It is the part of you that gets, on a gut level and often immediately, (even if it’s not what you want to know) whether someone is a good or bad fit for you in dating. It is the part of you that senses when a friend is feeling sad or mad, even when they try to mask it. It is the part of you that easily connects with nature or animals or young children being themselves. It is the part of you that knows when someone needs help or is not being treated fairly and feels a protective and empathic response toward them. People who struggle with disordered eating often are highly attuned to other’s feelings. However, they can be insensitive toward their own feelings, judging them as “bad” or “wrong.”
2. If I’m having a feeling, it is bad, and I should make it go away.
Closely related to being sensitive is having feelings. The voice of the Eating Disorder (ED) does not like to have feelings. It really doesn’t matter which feeling – sadness, anger, shame, joy, happiness - ED doesn’t like it. However, as Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, states:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
We have to go toward the feelings we’ve left behind in childhood in order to reclaim those parts of ourselves and become full human beings. We have to go toward the feelings that scare us. I often give clients a rainbow feeling wheel to look at and identify which areas they are comfortable and which areas they are not. Some people like to hang out in “purple,” some in “red,” some in “yellow.” You may be very comfortable with sadness, but terrified of anger – or vice versa. Instead of judging this, recovery involves getting curious about it and learning to inhabit all the different colors. It is learning to live in the rainbow in between black and white.
3. Needs are bad/weak/not okay unless you are taking care of someone else’s.
It’s so interesting how sensitive people can be fabulous caretakers but – how shall I say this – absolutely and completely suck at identifying, asking for support, and receiving care for their own needs. The underlying unconscious assumption is: If I take care of you, you won’t be uncomfortable. And then I’ll be okay, because I’ll just match all of my needs to yours! But people have different needs.
Being a chameleon pretending you don’t have any of your own needs certainly has some benefits: you can blend into many environments and “fit in,” you are not going to be singled out as “the scapegoat,” you can get along with many different kinds of people and work environments without being offensive.
However, at some point, a person recovering from an eating disorder will need to start risking the vulnerability of identifying their own needs. And this can be uncomfortable because, as a wise friend of mine says, “When you stop people pleasing, people aren’t pleased.” However, you WILL most likely, as you identify and start risking having some of your needs seen and met, feel less anxious, more at peace, and less concerned with the necessity of pleasing others.
4. If I just get the RIGHT food plan then I won’t have these uncomfortable feelings or needs anymore.
Even after you are in recovery, this eating disorder belief morphs and becomes clever, saying things like “I’m just trying to help you be healthy. You felt so much better when you were eating (fill in your own ED’s version of no sugar/whole grain/not wholegrain/gluten/fat-free/high-or-low protein obsession here).”
You are most likely to need a food plan in the beginning of your recovery. That is appropriate. If you have been skipping breakfast and lunch and bingeing on ice-cream for dinner, you are going to need to add the first two meals back into your day as well as get some vegetables, protein, fat, and carbs in there. If you have been avoiding “fear foods” such as cookies, dessert, bread, or salad dressing (the full-fat kind and on the salad, not the side), then you will need to practice having salad dressing, in order to know you can tolerate the anxiety and be okay. Your food plan may be more structured or less structured during different parts of your recovery. It will change, just as you will. But finding the exact “right” food plan in order to not have uncomfortable feelings is a lie. Your food plan should support you having feelings rather than restricting or numbing them.
If you are sensitive, you are going to feel. Therefore, you are going to feel the food you eat. If you have an allergy, are celiac, have a functional gut disorder, or have another medically related issue regarding food choices, then you need to tend to this with your treatment team. However, there is no food plan that will prevent you from having uncomfortable feelings. The feelings are what your ED is trying to avoid by obsessing on whatever food plan you are convinced will make you “right” or “better.” Here is one of my favorite quotes from Cheri Huber, a Zen writer and teacher:
“There is nothing wrong with you.”
Really. There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing to fix around you being you. Be YOU and consider there is nothing wrong with that. That is the work of a lifetime and not fixed with any food plan.
5. And the number one lie I hear from ED in my office every week is:
“Once I’m recovered, I will be ‘thin’ (which means…)”
And then we work on filling in the dots for the associations with what this illusory “thin” symbolizes. Some of them include:
I will fit into (or feel confident in) my wedding dress.
I will feel comfortable in my skin.
I can dance, wear a bathing suit, or do the-thing-I-won’t-let-myself-do-at-this-size.
I will be worthy of a romantic relationship.
I will be worthy.
I can go back to work (postpartum).
I can get or go after the job that I really want.
People will love me.
People I love won’t leave.
People I love won’t die.
I won’t have to feel grief, sadness, anger or shame.
I won’t be sensitive anymore.
The list can go on, but the important piece here is calling ED out on the lie: if you are human, you are not always going to feel confident, you are going to be imperfect, regardless of the size of your body. You are going to experience loss. You are going to lose loved ones and you yourself are going to die. What are you going to do before that? As the poet Mary Oliver urges:
“Tell me. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Because that is what ED is doing its darndest: to prevent you from experiencing and engaging in: your LIFE. Stop believing the lies and keep taking tiny (or huge, this can change day-to-day, moment to moment) steps toward fear. Your recovery is in those steps, as is your life. Because FEAR can mean many things:
F*ck Everything And Run (in the land of ED);
Face Everything And Recover; or
False Evidence Appearing Real.
I hope you choose to walk right into and through that false evidence that appears real according to ED. It is worth it. Love is on the other side of this false evidence. You are worth it. You always were.
- Originally published on Recoverymama.com
Dr. Linda Shanti McCabe is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice and the author of The Recovery Mama's Guide to Maintaining Your Eating Disorder Recovery in Pregnancy and Postpartum (forthcoming, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, November 2018). She knows the terrain of recovery because, prior to training as a Psychologist twenty years ago, she travelled it herself. She believes "you can't give it away unless you have it, and you can't keep it unless you give it away." Visit her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.