LOVE, TO LIVE
January 1, 1970When I give talks to patients and families I’m sometimes asked if there is one piece of advice that I would give to ward off eating disorders. To a point, this question makes me cringe, since these disorders are such complicated beasts and so often entangled with other complex circumstances and conditions. However, there is one common denominator that all eating disorders share, and that is fear.
Fear of being fat. Fear of being imperfect. Fear of being criticized. Fear of being exposed. Fear of being rejected. Fear of being unloved. Fear of being smothered. Fear of being honest. Fear of being at all…
Quite simply, anxiety is the root of all eating disorders. It is far from the only root, and it is hardly unique to these illnesses, but it is a core component that both instigates and feeds anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorders and all the other variations on the spectrum. So fighting anxiety – fear – can go along way toward both preventing and recovering from these disorders.
How do we do that? By cultivating fear’s antidote – love.
I am not talking about love in the romantic sense or necessarily the religious sense. I am talking about internal passion, the experience of feeling engaged and enthusiastic and curious. I am talking about appetite for life.
When I speak to school groups I often begin by asking girls what they, personally, are hungry for that they cannot eat, wear, or buy. Most say love. But I push them, then, to think about love that they do not depend on another person to deliver – love that they hold within themselves. What do they love doing? What do they love studying? What do they love to hear, to see, to feel?
Next, I ask them to consider how many of their decisions are driven by these internal passions. Do they crave straight A’s because they actually love the class or the subject they’re studying? Are they applying to Ivy League colleges because there is something about these colleges that they, personally, love? Do they really love all the things they do, or are they sometimes simply afraid of being rejected by family or friends if they want to do something different? For that matter, do they love how they feel around friends and family, or could they disentangle the parts of these relationships that they love from those they would like to change?
What girls find, all too often, is that most of their choices are driven not by genuine love but by fear – especially by fear of failure in the eyes of others. Instead of learning to direct their own future according to passions of their own, they let the standards and expectations of others shape their future. This fear creates a steady undercurrent of anxiety that is a set-up for problems like eating disorders. It also is a recipe for an inauthentic life.
Women of all ages struggle against pressure to conform to the rules and expectations of others, and because of this, women of all ages tend to let fear, rather than passion, direct their lives. Instead of living from the inside out in a healthily “self-centered” way, we too often center our lives on the demands of others, and end up living outside-in, as if we had no right to our own genuine interests and desires. We all need to reverse this trend not just because it is a recipe for eating disorders but because it is a recipe for existential misery.
I believe that eating disorders physically signal an existential disorder. When sick, we do not feel that we have the right to properly feed our own existence. The best way to prevent and cure this existential disorder is to develop our own internal passions.
Love who you really are, from the inside out, quirks and all, and make the choices that shape your life out of this love instead of fear. Choose work that you love to do. Choose studies that you love to learn. Choose to surround yourself with people you truly love. Choose to make a home that you love. Choose to get to know the teachers and mentors you love. Choose to create a life that you love.
It is impossible to have a perfect body, face, family, or life, but this does not prevent us from loving what we do with these “imperfect” gifts. It does not prevent us from making choices that give us genuine satisfaction and make our existence feel meaningful. Passion is the root of love, and each of us has the power to cultivate a whole host of passions in our lifetime. Love, in this sense, is not the prize of a “good” life; it is the key to life itself.