In the last few years, there’s been a lot of progress in understanding what drives the development of eating disorders. And there will be an even stronger focus on understanding eating disorders between February 26 and March 3, 2012, as we recognize National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Understanding eating disorder sufferers—the person with the disorder—is often based on misleading information, media fed notions or perceptions and fantasies of the general public. So, perhaps what is fitting for this upcoming Week of Awareness is to shed some light on empathy, a concept that is part of the healing process for those affected by eating disorders.
Empathy is the ability to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another, and to feel what it’s like to be in his or her shoes. Most eating disorder sufferers feel pain and fear, and are trapped by ruminating and self-loathing thoughts. Sometimes families, friends and the general public believe that eating disordered behavior is voluntary, or that the sufferer truly feels deep down that he or she is better than others. The reality is that any attempt to “appear” better than others is really a protection against these deep feelings of self-loathing, shame, guilt and loneliness. Once the sufferer is engaged in recovery, they too will acknowledge that the inflated self-worth only works for a short time and is highly dependent upon the number on the scale, or what wasn’t eaten the day before.
The idea of empathy isn’t so that family and friends can experience or take on the sufferer’s emotions; it’s simply an interactive experience shared between two people. Empathy transcends sympathy. Sympathizing with those who are suffering often carries connotations of pity. Those with eating disorders do not want to be pitied and are likely tired of hearing of how he or she should be eating, thinking or feeling. What a sufferer needs to know is that you respect him or her enough to see these individual experiences as valuable; that you can resonate with them, and that they make sense to you even if you can’t fully understand or experience them.
When you are a parent or have a loved one suffering, it can be extremely hard to be empathic without being sympathetic. On the surface, a sufferer’s behaviors don’t make sense. It probably looks like he or she is intentionally mistreating his or her own body. And even if you know better, it’s hard to remain aware of the fact that the eating disorder is not something he or she wants any more than you want him or her to have it. To get past this kind of thinking, keep in mind this crucial question: “What purpose does the eating disorder serve in my loved one’s life?”
Remember, the eating disorder didn’t just appear. Your loved one didn’t start starving, bingeing, purging or eating compulsively on a whim. And he or she isn’t just doing it to be thin. These behaviors are a response to deeper emotional pain, depression, anxiety and other interpersonal experiences. Once you are able to empathize with these feelings, you have taken a major step toward connecting with your loved one and helping him or her to trust in something other than the eating disorder. If you can suspend prejudices and become a person that will not judge, shame, control or criticize, then you offer the opportunity to trust. This can ultimately set the stage for recovery so that food or body image obsession will no longer be the only reliable “object” in his or her life.