Perhaps it is finally the change in temperature here in LA, the leaves beginning to change color, and the holidays upon us, that there has been a noticeable shift in our conversations at Reasons on the topic of isolation.
For most, this time of year sparks excitement and feelings of comfort at the thought of being with family and friends. However, for those struggling with eating disorders or who are in recovery, this time of year can be quite difficult. At a time when there is a gathering focus on togetherness, (and let’s not forget food) it can really go against ingrained patterns to isolate that have been in play for as long as one can remember. Understanding the role of isolation in the life of an eating disorder is important in developing ways to combat its allure.
While isolation may feel good in the first few moments, it does not take long to become aware of the silence, the thoughts that drive anxiety, and the disconnection from others. In these moments it seems impossible to believe that the answer is lies in connection, the very thing we are avoiding.
What is Isolation?
Imagine for a moment a world that is focused on one solitary belief. A remarkable shared belief that is held by nearly every client I have had the honor to work with is some version of “something is wrong with me”. If you live your life according to that one belief, your world becomes so small there is nothing else. What does it feel like to live your life through the lens that you are wrong, period? Some of the answers I have heard from clients have been: shameful, humiliated, and embarrassed. If you walk through the world in this way, isolating seems a logical response to that answer. Who wants to be seen or experienced in that way? It is with this level of intense emotional pain that isolation becomes a welcomed disconnection from self and others. The focus on eating disorder behaviors can provide a sense of belonging, perhaps to a mission or in the service of making one less thing wrong with you.
Loneliness and Isolation
Loneliness is perceived social isolation: it is the distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one’s social relationships (Heinrich & Gullone, 2006). Eating Disorders provide the sense that social needs are being met due to comments on weight loss and support around perceived “wellness” or “sickness”. In the development of an Eating Disorder, loneliness comes before isolation, stemming from experiences in life that make one feel different from others. This is the birthplace of the idea “something is wrong with or about me”. This idea can come as a whisper from within that is reinforced by environment and external relationships.
Isolation is the experience of being separate from others, either by choice or circumstance. Emotional isolation occurs when people keep their feelings to themselves, do not allow themselves to receive emotional support from others, and lack willingness to share their feelings and experiences with others.
This often leads to a disconnection that allows for the continued focus on food and weight. While isolation can be a healthy and revitalizing experience for those who need space to reconnect with themselves, for those that struggle with shame and the self-hate found in the fabric of dysregulated eating behaviors, choosing to be alone is often a choice that serves to validate worthlessness.
Isolation is deeply connected to the development of an eating disorder in that perceiving oneself to be alone in the world is painful and frightening. Isolating oneself socially exacerbates beliefs of shame, self-hate and increases the likelihood of compensatory eating disorder behaviors.
Circling back to my opening remarks, the challenge of the holiday season is the demand to be in social settings, which goes against the very nature of the isolation with an eating disorder.
Furthermore, the answer to surviving and even thriving at this time of year seems to be multiple sources of support and tolerating socialization. A necessary reminder that people who live with an eating disorder have been disconnected from people in very fundamental ways and have not had the experience of being held in their worst moments by others.
The work of healing from an eating disorder is allowing yourself to be seen again with all your fear and shame and allowing what can feel like unbearable vulnerability to be present and connected to others.
Understanding the role of Isolation in Eating Disorders
For the person in the healing process the following can be important reminders when the drive to avoid connection arises.
- Isolation allows for distancing oneself from pain and fear of being present in life, this can be related to people or locations
- Isolating oneself comes from lived experiences of being shamed or humiliated and not wanting to return to that place
- Isolation maintains the theory of “something is wrong with me”
- Isolation does not allow for other contradictory ideas of “something is right with me”
- Maintains privacy and shame around lack of self-worth
- Helps cope with fear, anxiety and loneliness
- A basic lack of trust and fear of rejection maintain the isolation
Reconnecting with family and friends can be challenging and painful, particularly if there is a history of lack of support or lack of reaching out for support. Although it is challenging to remind ourselves of this, it is critical that we push ourselves to “get off the island” that is comprised of deep loneliness and suffering.
Healing and connection come from establishing productive communication with supportive people, utilizing limit-setting skills with ourselves and those who are not able to support you in the changes you are making, and developing a network of people, something we call creating a family.
- Creating a family for yourself of people that you have chosen to trust and support you can happen anywhere at anytime. Sharing the ideas one holds about themselves that involve shame and fear of rejection allow for a new experience of self and connection to others. Only by challenging yourself to step out of the confines of fear and shame can you consider any other possibility.
- Learning that you are not alone and not uniquely flawed is a powerful experience. Sitting with another person and realizing that you are not in fact as alone as you believe can bring not only relief but create space for new ideas about who you are and what you can do.
- Sharing pain and fear with others aloud directly challenges isolation and opens a new narrative about oneself. Although the idea can be terrifying, allowing yourself to exist openly as your own complex and nuanced self is the prescription for the illness of isolation.
Ways to Connect
Here are some thoughts about ways to connect during the holidays.
- As you prepare your plans for the holiday season, take some time the think about what you will need to take care of yourself: plan meals, take breaks from large groups, down time, and being in the present.
- Think through your plans in detail and note if there are parts that make your heart flutter or stomach sink. Spend time thinking, journaling or talking to a trusted friend about the excitement or worry you have, get a little perspective and talk through ways to take care of yourself (connecting!).
- Explore your values with the holidays, what would make you feel more connected to others within your values?
- Reviewing your plans and ask yourself what you can do to be connected to others, be less of a “doer” and be present in the company of others.
Lastly, I hope you take time. Take a time in instead of out. Time out has been perhaps the way you have taken time for yourself but I wish for you this year, that you can take time in to be present with people you love and be open to the power of connection.
Heinrich, L.A., & Gullone, E. (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26, 695-718.