Separation and loss are an inevitable process in life, and really all relationships. By being attached to someone, we are essentially setting ourselves up to experience the pain of loss and separation. Though normal, these are very difficult emotions to navigate through. And with the coming holidays, when there is so much focus on families, togetherness, and being with those you love, this can be even more difficult when you have experienced pain and loss. But for those suffering from an eating disorder, feelings of separation and loss can sometimes be a catalyst for damaging eating behaviors.
To understand loss’s impact, it is important to understand its roots. There are several types of loss that are prevalent, especially in the lives of children. The first is physical loss. This occurs when caregivers are not physically present in the child’s life. This typically happens through abandonment or death. However, physical loss, in doses, can have a positive effect as well. The caregiver’s temporary absence (such as leaving the room, going to work, leaving a child at a daycare or nursery school) and the sense of loss that ensues is a critical part of a child’s developing self-awareness. It gives the child the opportunity to develop rational thought, such as “mommy comes back,” and it provides an opportunity for the child to learn to how to self-soothe. Temporary physical loss is strengthening, but on the other end of the spectrum, the absence of it can leave the child vulnerable to anxiety, inappropriate dependency on others and instill a lack of self -trust and self-awareness.
Symbolic loss is just as inevitable as physical loss in interpersonal relationships, and is no less important. This type of loss occurs when we feel or become emotionally disconnected from one another. We may feel let down, disappointed, betrayed, criticized, misunderstood, hurt or misrepresented. If these losses occur repeatedly in a person’s life, empathy, trust and safety in relationships become compromised. The feelings that accompany loss such as hurt, anger, sadness, loneliness, despair and fear are an essential part of the healing process.
At some point in our lives, we all feel misunderstood or misrepresented, but people with eating disorders seem to have an extraordinary degree of experienced or perceived loss in their life, and regularly experience emotional disconnection from others. Therefore the emotions that accompany feeling emotionally injured are then expressed, denied or avoided through an eating disorder. A relationship with food could develop and even seems preferable to a person who may be experiencing deep feelings of loss or abandonment.
Prior to the development of an eating disorder, these individuals often experience an abundance of loss, and learn to fear it. In fact, they try to do whatever they can to avoid it, control it or demand constant attention so they don’t have to feel it. For this reason, it’s important to keep this in mind especially during the holiday season, when these feelings and memories are often more prevalent and can be difficult to face. By helping someone suffering from an eating disorder to share what they are feeling could go a long way to offering some relief from feelings of pain or loss during the holidays.