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Eating Disorders and Anxious Attachment – What’s the Relationship?

 

Have you ever been “that girl” who was so in love with “that boy…” the one who you were going to marry and make babies with? You loved him so much that you thought of him all the time.  You couldn’t stop talking about him… you checked your phone constantly to see if he’d texted you. And when he didn’t you became anxious, scared and depressed. You stressed over it with all your friends, analyzing every text, every word he ever said to you, thinking about what you must have done wrong to make him not text you? You knew that his lack of communication was the beginning of the end. You pretended it wasn’t. You kept texting him – asking if you were still on for Friday… what he was up to, thought of excuses to text him or run into him.

 

And finally – you get together with him and he tells you, “this just isn’t working for me…” and you say “what? why? What did I do????”  and he says, “you’re great! I wish I could, but I just don’t feel the same way about you.”

“But you did!” you tell him, “you used to! how did your feelings just change? just like that? you lied to me! feelings can’t just change!” you insist.

“I’m sorry he tells you.” And you cry. You cry a lot. 

“But we’ve only been dating for like 2 months!” he says

“10 weeks!” you tell him.

He leaves and you are sitting by yourself at the restaurant crying hysterically. The food in front of you no longer seems appetizing. You can’t eat and so you don’t eat… for days. And then you become addicted to not eating, sure that if you lose the weight that you think you need to, that then he will love you. Doesn’t matter if you are 18 or 81. This is an anxious attachment style.  

 I don’t want to get much into attachment theory here – but in a few sentences, our attachment style corresponds to how we related to our primary caregivers as children and how we then translate that into our adult relationship patterns. 

For our purposes here, I’ll focus on an anxious attachment style. I will also focus on women. While there certainly are many men who have anxious attachment schema, they do tend to be more on the avoidant spectrum. Avoidants and anxious styles seem to attract each other like gnats to a light in summer, thus creating a deeply charged and often dramatic relationship patterns. Both syles tended to have parents who were highly critical, preoccupied with other things and  inconsistent in their parenting and in the way they showed love. 

*Jessica (not her real name) grew up with a narcissistic father who left her mother when Jessica was 18 months old.  At the age of thirty, when he came into his full trust fund, he decided to move from their home in Massachusetts to Los Angeles for a more fun life.  Jessica’s mother, his college sweetheart,  stayed behind in Massachusetts both angry and bitter. Jessica’s father came to visit her once every few months and when he did, Jessica and he had the most fun together. He would take her into Boston, they’d eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, they’d ride on the Swan Boats, they’d get ice cream in Faneuil Hall, they’d shop in Harvard Square, go to the Children’s Museum! It was a magical escape for 48 hours. And then, he’d  drop her home at her mother’s angry apartment where Jessica’s Mom would yell and scream and get angry at Jessica for being happy and liking her father. She felt that Jessica was being disloyal.  Often she’d even hit her.  Jessica didn’t want her mother to be mean, so she became hyper-compliant, doing everything that she possibly could to keep her mother even and calm. She believed that it was her responsibility to behave in a certain way and anticipate her mother’s moods so that she could keep herself safe. Her father was her savior, swooping in about four times a year to spend a magical weekend with her. She dreamed of her father coming and taking her away from the misery and darkness of her mother’s sad life. When Jessica’s father got remarried, he stopped coming to visit. He’d say that he was coming to visit but then cancel last minute. Jessica remembers spending a whole month excited about her father coming to see her and then, on the day that he was due to arrive, while she was waiting in her room for him to show up, the phone rang. Her mother came in and told her that her Dad wasn’t coming. “Just couldn’t get away!” he told her. “It’s okay Daddy. Will you come again?” “Of course I will,” he told her. Once or twice a year or so, Jessica would board a plane and travel the seven hours all by herself from Logan to LAX to spend a few weeks in the summer with Dad and Katrina, his supermodel wife. Katrina didn’t like Jessica and Jessica didn’t like Katrina.  Her Dad would ignore her unless he was yelling at her to be nice tell to Trina. Trina told Jess’s Dad that Jessica was jealous of her and then Jess’s Dad would yell at her about not being so jealous. Jessica had no idea what she had done wrong. But her life had become sad, lonely and the person who used to save her from her angry mother had abandoned her.  Mostly Jess stayed home with the housekeeper and ate Tamales and beans and ice cream while watching television. Trina told Jessica’s Dad to stop her from eating so much, said that she was getting fat. Asked him how he could have such an ugly daughter. Eventually Katrina became pregnant and once they had their own family,  Jess stopped coming at all and her father stopped visiting.  Jess believed that her father stopped seeing her because she wasn’t good enough and didn’t try hard enough. She was too fat, too ugly, too jealous, too needy. That in order to be loved, Jess had to look like a Katrina. This was validated for her as her father had left Jess’s Mom who looked nothing like a supermodel and discarded Jess who, like her Mom looked nothing like a supermodel.

This set the springboard for Jess’s attachment style. She had the double whammy of both anxious attachment and seeing men as saviors – the only thing that could save her from her terrible life.  Neither her father nor her mother were capable of giving her the sort of mirroring or unconditional love that all children need. Not because she didn’t deserve it, but because they were not able to  due to their own issues.  Her parents had preoccupied attachment patterns – unable to consistently give her the love and support she needed.  It then led to Jess having an insecure/anxious attachment style.

Adults who have this attachment style  tend to be highly self-critical and insecure. They believe that they need constant approval from the people around them and will do whatever they can to seek out that reassurance from people around them. However, no matter how much reassurance they get, they never seem to be able to feel steady and safe. Their self-doubt is alleviated only briefly and then they become anxious for more reassurance.  They deeply believe that they will be rejected and thus they do what they can do avoid that sort of abandonment. , yet this never relieves their self-doubt. They then become extremely clingy with their partners which in turn creates the opposite of the desired effect and drives their partners away. They then have the reinforcement that they are worthless. Often, they then take up the role of the pursuer in their relationship believing that the people around them are somehow “better” than they are.  Often, they then do things to change themselves in order to increase their sense of self-worth or in order to look or seem formidable in the eyes of the person they are pursuing.

Our friend Jessica in this case became obsessed with her weight and obsessed with achievement. She wanted to be seen by her father as acceptable and seen by boyfriends as worthy of love. She exercised obsessively, ran marathons, rose to the top ranks of her law firm before the age of 30 and yet… she would still be that girl who was getting drunk and blowing up the phone of the boy she had just met slept with the night before. When she came to me she told me that she was having trouble getting over a guy and that she couldn’t make sense of it. She started dating Richard a few months prior. Richard was a “painter” who lived off his parents trust fund and mostly spent his days getting high and playing video games and possibly painting.  She thought that she had found “the one.”  She described him as a brilliant artist and showered him with love, attention, gifts – so many gifts… she cleaned his house while he was playing video games, did his laundry, cooked him meals and expected that he would think that she was the most irresistible wife ever. I mean, she could bring home the bacon AND fry it up in a pan. But he started pulling away after awhile and then one day, after not seeing each other for a week and him dodging her calls and her texts, she asked him if she could come over. He said that he was home sick, bad head cold. So she made homemade bone broth, cookies from scratch and brought them over to his house. When he answered the door, he was in his boxers and there was a woman behind him wearing one of his tee-shirts.  And there was a scene. Jessica cried and screamed, “how could you how could you?”  Richard said, “why are you so upset? It’s not like we were exclusive. We’ve only known each other for what? Two weeks?”  According to Jess, the girl just snickered in the background.

Richard texted her a few weeks later and she went right back to his house for a rendezvous. Then he’d blow her off. This pattern lasted for a few years. Every time he texted her, she was happy and felt great. And then, after a few weeks of not hearing from him, she’d get anxious and on a few occasions she had full blown panic attacks.

In the meantime, she’d do everything she could to be “good enough” for Richard. She’d starve herself for weeks on end, she’d run several miles a day or do back-to-back Soul Cycle classes and then she’d wind up bingeing on foods she had been restricting herself from.  Her eating disorder was a way to manage her anxious attachment. She believed that when she made herself “good enough” that she’d feel better.  The eating disorder behaviors helped to mitigate the anxiety that she was feeling about being rejected and all the beliefs that she had underneath that… those beliefs that told her that she wasn’t good enough, that had she been a better human being, her father wouldn’t have rejected her and her mother wouldn’t have been so angry all the time.

So when we think about this, what do we see as the two over-arching emotions? Love and fear.  Fear of not being loved. The fear then overtakes everything and becomes bigger than the love. Jessica never even stopped to think about how she really felt about Richard. Had she really thought about it, she would have realized that she actually didn’t love him or even really like him and definitely didn’t respect him. She was just afraid that he wouldn’t love her. And she craved love significantly. However, when someone really did love her, it didn’t feel real because as a child, she associated love with rejection and abuse and she lived out those relationships over and over again. Her angry mother and her rejecting father set the stage for how she valued herself and how she believed she was supposed to be treated.

In our work together, we helped Jessica to understand that she was perfect and whole and complete in that moment and that people who were rejecting and avoidant probably weren’t the people she wanted to be with, but the people who felt familiar and thus REAL to her. As her own sense of self love grew, she began to seek out relationships with men who had a more secure attachment style. So there were no texting games or manipulations or playing on her weaknesses, but a less exciting, yet more even-keeled relationship. As she got into these more balanced relationships, her relationship with herself and her relationship with food and exercise began to balance itself out as well.

The most important parts of healing anxious attachment are not putting your own self worth in the hands of someone else. When you define your own values and decide what makes you find another human being valuable to you (is it living off a trust fund and getting high and playing video games all day?) You can then allow yourself to unfold into the person who you really are and really love and respect.

Jessica defined her personal values and kindness, compassion and advocacy. As she allowed herself to be that person (and it was so easy because that’s who she naturally was) she also found someone who loved her for her. She didn’t believe that she had to change for him and he shared her values.

Define your personal values and allow yourself to just be that human being. Not for anyone else, but just for you. Being your authentic self is easy because honestly, it’s all you have ever really known or wanted .  As this happens, you will find that who you really are unfolds beautifully. And then your next relationship is easier. you don’t have to be anything for anyone else, but allowing the person who is most right for you comes naturally.