When You Feel Both Too Much and Not Enough With Anorexia Nervosa
I have always believed that I am simultaneously too much and not enough. Too complicated, too intense, and too needy. Not sufficiently sunny in my outlook or flexible enough in how I meet the world. Most of all, not compelling enough to be inherently lovable.
It took 19 years for this duality to present as an eating disorder.
I don’t know why I held these beliefs as a child as I was raised in a stable, loving family, and my two sisters unquestioningly accepted their place in the world and felt entitled to happiness.
I was never treated cruelly or neglected, but something inside me automatically interpreted even harmless messages as criticism. My mother told everyone I was her “funny little thing,” which I thought meant there was something fundamentally odd about me, something that needed to be fixed.
Even with the pleasant distractions of a comfortable existence, I always wanted more and felt guilty about that. My childhood was about striving to achieve and prove my worthiness, coupled with a process of reduction of what I saw as my excessive expectations of life.
I was clever—not effortlessly so—but enough to realize that working hard was a sure-fire way to get noticed and be validated, something common in anorexics. I toiled away, and when it all got too much, I retreated into my imaginary world.
I dreamed of being a writer and telling stories, but that dream was too big for my little life, too pretentious and ambitious. Better to ask for less, life taught me.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the dueling forces of too much and not enough would collide at some stage, and they did so spectacularly when anorexia nervosa took hold.
Anorexia was the perfect battlefield
Here is a new way to view anorexia: the illness is a dance of too much and not enough.
At its core, anorexia nervosa is about the denial of need. That would be the too much part of the equation.
It is a diminution of the space you take up in the world. This played out not just through the meagre sustenance I allowed myself but through much broader self-punishment, a severing of connection with the world, and most of all, a rejection of love. My illness had surprisingly little to do with food or weight.
Anorexia is also about not being worthy of nourishment, the most basic human need and right. And even while I flirted with death, my disease intensified the perfectionism I had cultivated and fed my craving to prove that I deserved to exist. Never enough.
The negative beliefs I held about myself before my illness only intensified after navigating the medical system. Skinny Clare was unacceptable on every level as I no longer had the currency of beauty or compliance. In seeking to become invisible, I became the object of ridicule and judgment.
Thankfully I won the battle against my body but not the war against my shame; my mental illness is a scar I carry even if others no longer see it.
The focus on achievement did not disappear when I recovered because I still believed it was proof of value. Even with my health restored, I cultivated what the world demanded of me in the most calculated and desperate of ways.
I rebuilt my life—successfully as it turned out–but what others saw as achievement was just an attempt to prove that I deserved the privileged life I had created.
I am not alone
For the most part, my self-destruction was inexplicable to others. However, I have come to believe that the existential struggle that caused my illness is far from uncommon. Many people, I now think, feel too much and not enough.
There is a myriad of causes. Sometimes it is trauma, addiction or disability. Sometimes, unhealthy family dynamics. Often, it is nothing more than my starting point, a fragile sense of self that is battered by life.
While my struggles played out visibly and dramatically, for many people, the push-pull of too much and not enough is just a dull underpinning to their lives.
I see this most frequently in my professional life. It has a name now – imposter syndrome. I know many talented, capable people who live with the fear that their success is fraudulent, that their ineptitude will be discovered at some point, and their careers will unravel. It’s easy to pick these people; they are the ones, like me, who over-deliver every time, no matter the personal cost.
Waiting to be unmasked is a fraught and exhausting way to live that undermines people’s innate talents and courage. A need to repeatedly defend your competency restricts spontaneity, creativity and joy.
Change is achievable (but hard)
Changing the inner narrative upon which you have built your self-image is challenging but necessary for anyone battling an eating disorder.
Neuroscience tells us that the brain’s neuroplasticity allows for such change, but awareness of negative self-beliefs is just the beginning of an arduous journey. In his book, “Hardwiring Happiness,” Dr. Rick Hanson, PhD explains that all brains have a bias to negative thoughts, so it’s challenging for everyone, not just me, to focus on the positive.
The brain’s ability to create new neural pathways is enhanced by the building blocks of good health: a nutrient-rich diet, adequate sleep, and a balanced lifestyle that encompasses reflection and gratitude.
One strategy Dr. Hanson recommends is visualizations that link as many senses and positive emotions to our goals as possible. Mindfulness, paying attention to where your mind is wandering and concentrating on the present, quietens a negative inner voice. Journaling can also be a useful way to identify your triggers.
The starting point for me was accepting that I am an unreliable witness, a poor judge of what I have to offer the world. I am still Mum’s funny little thing in many ways, far more likely to interpret things negatively than positively. I pounce on criticism, hear praise as only the faintest of whispers.
If I am to change my inner narrative, I must embed healthier, more realistic beliefs about myself, which means constantly challenging my internal judgment. I must rigorously draw a distinction between beliefs and the truth.
Unfortunately, my illness resulted in my mind being on autopilot for a long time, running down well-worn pathways that required no effort. And changing thought patterns is never quick. It is estimated that it takes up to 10,000 repetitions to create a new habit and develop the associated neural pathway, so there is no shortcut to replacing negative beliefs with more balanced ones.
What I need to do now is see myself through the gentler eyes of the people around me who treat me with the compassion I have always struggled to extend to myself. They find my complexity interesting rather than problematic, my intensity a rich source of creativity, and my neediness proof of a prodigious capacity to give and receive love.
I suspect that I will always yearn to possess a lightness of spirit and an unquestioning acceptance of life, but I see now that the people I value don’t ask this of me. They not only accept my brokenness but love me for it.
So, this is the task before me; like the small, agonizing mouthfuls of food that I had to swallow to regain weight, I must gradually inhale other people’s acceptance and respect, make it my own.
Image via Chris Ainswoth on Unsplash