Have you ever stopped to think that constantly taking care of other people might be feeding your eating disorder? Until very recently, I did not think so either…
It’s In Our DNA…
There is an implicit expectation in our culture that women are the caretakers of their husbands, children, and friends. Consequently, this assumption has become a part of many women’s narratives of identity and self-worth. Of course this is not a universal truth, but I have noticed that women with eating disorders have almost obsessive care-taking qualities.
I remember during one session with my therapist he asked me why I was so driven to help others. I answered: “Because helping people is something I know that other people value about me. It’s something that I know I am good at.” It has taken me a year to realize how destructive it is to believe that serving others is the only thing that gives me worth as a person. But care-taking is a socially reinforced value as it is seen as “selflessness”, and this is just not accurate.
My destructive care-taking qualities landed me in an extremely emotionally-abusive relationship during my last semester in college. I started seeing a boy who had borderline personality disorder, and who was also heroin addict. I spent months taking care of him and spent many sleepless nights worrying about him. I slowly became cut off from my friends; every time I tried to separate, he would threaten to hurt himself or verbally abuse me. During one of my last attempts to break up with him, he attempted suicide. Right before he did it, he called me and told me that he was going to take his life.
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Everyone in my life was shocked that I stood by this boy for so long. In truth, I was trapped in an abusive, codependent cycle that felt impossible to escape. It would be convenient for me to blame him for everything, but I played a huge part in this dysfunctional relationship.
The Truth Is…
For me, it was easier to put all my energy into caring for someone else than to focus on my own struggles. I was not ready to face my eating disorder, my drug dependencies, or my depression. It felt more comfortable to make myself disappear, put on my own needs aside, and completely focus on someone else.
A month after his suicide attempt, I couldn’t sleep, eat, or get out of bed. I had been isolated from my friends and family, and no longer recognized myself. The trauma I experienced ate away at me everyday. It took me reaching this rock bottom to decide it was time to break up with my boyfriend and admit myself to an eating disorder treatment center.
Care-taking Verses Care-giving: There is a Difference
I learned a lot during my time in treatment, but one of the biggest takeaways for me was learning the difference between care-giving and care-taking. When you look at these two words, you can notice the opposites of “giving” and “taking”. What differentiates these terms is the intention behind them. Care-taking is when someone is trying to help another person in a way that may actually enable them. For example, by making myself available to my ex-boyfriend’s every need, I fueled his addiction and personality disorder by not letting him reach rock bottom on his own. So I was “taking” from him in a sense to provide myself with a distraction and a purpose in life.
Care-giving on the other hand is being supportive to someone, while also maintaining boundaries and accepting you cannot control their actions. Sometimes that means letting that person hit rock bottom, as much as it may break your heart. Most of all it means trusting that people have the ability to take care of themselves.
Care-taking is another form of control, much like an eating disorder.
By jumping to the rescue when someone is need, you are in some way trying to control their actions. It makes you feel better to be “in the know”, and allows you to have a small degree of regulation over others thoughts and behaviors. It also allows you to “disappear” in a sense, as you never focus on yourself and your sense of identity slips away. Eating disorders are also often about wanting to disappear; you may feel undeserving of taking up space in the world.
What Does This Mean?
Well, in short care-taking feeds the eating disorder and vice versa. It reinforces the idea that you are undeserving of taking care of yourself. Eating disorders prey on the false ideal of the women with no needs: she doesn’t have to eat and she has the perfect body. If you yourself have struggled with an eating disorder, or know someone who has, you know that this is not at as glamorous as it sounds. In fact, its actually impossible.
Recovery for me has been about finding my voice, asking for what I need, and setting boundaries with people. In other words, it has been me finding my own identity; one outside of helping other people and heal my eating disorder.
I have had to think about my values, what I want, and who I am.
I think that this can be one of the most challenging steps in eating disorder recovery because often we don’t know who we are outside of these unhealthy coping mechanisms.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder right now, and also find yourself being the designated “support” person to many of the people in your life, I urge you to save your resources and time for yourself. You already have all the tools within you to start healing, and if you don’t take care of yourself, who will?