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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: Toxic Levels of Self Hate ... especially for my eating disorder readers

Monday, January 25, 2010

Toxic Levels of Self Hate ... especially for my eating disorder readers

Once upon a time (okay, I cannot think of a better opener), a person was walking down a street in the rain. The world was sweet and wet and dripping with possibilities. Minding her own business, gazing around at big trees, lush and hovering, barely aware of the sharp chill in the air, she walked without much thought. Her breath could be seen at each exhale.

Walking with intention, but not necessarily with direction on the smooth sidewalk, the person happened to look across the street and notice, there in the gutter, almost parallel to the curb, a rush of rainwater pouring and pooling around her, a child, small and shivering, curled up, fetal, breathing heavily in the damp air, wide eyes, focusing on nothing.

Our person looks, startled for a moment, and then, decidedly, walks over to the small child and stares down and without much thought swings a heavy, boot laden foot back and then forth, kicking the child hard in the stomach. And then turns and walks on.

This is how we treat ourselves sometimes. We do not walk over to the child, crouch down, offer a hand up, offer help, or shelter or sit down even, next to this child and keep her company in her pain. We kick. And we kick hard.

In my office I hear a lot about toxic levels of self hate. I hear it more from my eating disorder clients than most, though. I hear all about how perfectionism is the key to order, to stress relief, to feeling well, potent, effective and in control. I hear about how mistakes are not allowed, how angry people must be right, how what others say, think and feel about us must be what is true. I hear about how yelling around us results in yelling inside us and how instead of screaming we cut and starve, stuff and vomit. We kick ourselves hard, and without much thought.

There are, I think, a thousand possible causes of eating disorders. And there are a thousand cures. There is no one explanation, and no one path to recovery. We can rage at culture, analyze family dynamics, hang our hopes on genetic markers. Each story is uniquely crafted by biology, experience, environment and development. But this much I know to be true, each person that I have ever worked with who has an eating disorder suffers from toxic levels of self hate. Sometimes its obvious, and sometimes its swimming around like a shark just below the surface.

Somehow we think that if we just kick hard enough, we will not have to feel or face the pain. We will not have to sit down in the rain and listen to the small child inside us. We will not have to help her focus, help her up, help her cross the street.

It works two ways, this kicking. I will kick that child because it is better to kick her than to kick who I am really angry with. Or I will kick that child because she must be the cause of all this pain. If I kick her, she will get up and get moving. Or she will forget that she is lying there wet and stuck. Either way, she gets kicked. Over and over and over again.

What does it take to stop kicking the child? To put down the scissors, the food? To feed that child instead of starve her? To soothe her instead of slice at her? We must, at the very least, be willing to learn what that hate is all about. And we must try to imagine what life would be like without it.

That's a start, I think, for anyone who is still kicking.


Shen said...

I didn't see that coming.
Powerful post.
I've done my share of kicking. I never thought of myself as having an eating disorder (does anyone?) until my therapist pointed out that I don't eat unless others are around. It never occurred to me that this was not normal. I felt kind of super-human about it, like "I don't need that stuff, it's for other people".

I've gained twenty pounds since I started eating "normally". I hate it - it doesn't look like me. I've always been really thin and never had to worry about my weight (because I didn't eat- but I didn't see that). I suppose I am much more in the normal range for a fifty year old woman, but I hate it!. Getting dressed is a horrible ordeal every day. I'm assuming this will even out, eventually, and the number on the scale will stop rising, but it's annoying to say the least.

I'm glad I saw this post today. I'm going to change my plans and take a little time to meditate. I was going to jump right into an "anger work-out" protocol - one I've used a couple times before - this morning. I have a lot of anger that I have not been able to express or process or whatever. I know I need to do that, but I also feel as if some part of me is lying in that gutter and i'm not sure the anger workout is what she needs right now.

I can't decide if I am only putting off the anger work-out because I don't want to do it (because I would generally rather do anything than confront anger) or because it isn't what I need right now. Maybe the answer will come to me...

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Hi Shen,

Yes, hard to know what to do with anger. I think its one of the most difficult feelings to bear.
The answers come though...

Thanks as always for your thoughts,

Lily said...

What a visual. I am just now coming around to looking at that girl I've been kicking and thinking about how much I have been hurting her instead of acknowledging the REAL pain.

It's so much easier to be the bad guy sometimes rather than to admit someone else is. To give up that control hurts more than the kicks.

I'm just now starting to look at that girl.

She is in a lot of pain.

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Hi Lily,

thanks for your comments. Its hard to see the pain sometimes, but I think harder not to.


Marilla said...

Wow is right. "What does it take to ...feed that child instead of starve her? To soothe her instead of slice at her?" Learning this scares me. There is great comfort in starving, in slicing. Feeling that hate scares me. Being numb is safe. I'm so glad I read this today. *sigh* More to think about.

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Hi Tiger
Glad you stopped by...yes, numb seems safer sometimes, and sometimes it is...I think we can learn to bear the difficult feelings and lessen the self hate without attacking ourselves...not easy, but I've got a lot of hope...