Vulnerability in Eating Disorders: Cause or Cure?

Posted by on Jul 16, 2014

To feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.
– Brené Brown

Your responses to my post on Monday floored me. I admit, my inner critic was on the rampage as I wrote it, given that it was much more personal than any of my previous posts. Words like “dramatic,” “indulgent,” and “awkward,” were being hurled about.

So you can imagine my shock when encouraging comments flooded in. When I told my therapist about it the next day (that persistent, vocal one I’ve mentioned), she immediately said, “You were being vulnerable.”

She pointed me toward a TED Talk that Brené Brown gave in June of 2010. (Thank you for that. You know who you are.) Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has spent her much of her academic life studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She explains that all of us have an innate need and desire for human connection. Shame is born out of our fear that we are unworthy of that connection—that if others see who we really are, they will shun us.

Many of us struggle with that constant fear of being “not good enough.” Yet there are some, Brown says, who live with an unshakeable sense of their own worthiness. She set out to understand what defines this group, and discovered a commonality: People who possess self-worth live authentically—albeit imperfectly—and embrace their vulnerability.

“They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful,” Brown said.

Vulnerability and beauty. Two things that people with eating disorders find particularly difficult to embrace within themselves.

Therapist Jodie Barley writes that many people who suffer from eating disorders crave a sense of control amid the chaos and unpredictability of life. Controlling food intake—reducing it, increasing it, getting rid of what’s been eaten—becomes a way to feel more in control. Vulnerability, as the state of being susceptible to physical or emotional harm, is precisely the opposite. When you are vulnerable, you cannot control outcomes. You must put yourself out there and allow the consequences to happen as they will. For me, the most intolerable instances of vulnerability involve exposing something about my deep-down core self, whether that is being the one to pick which movie to watch (because heaven forbid it reveal something about my taste in film) or having to admit that I am in pain and need help (WEAK, my inner critic shouts back).

Brown points out that vulnerability is tough for many people—not just those with eating disorders. A lot of us attempt to numb ourselves to those messy vulnerabilities by drowning them in alcohol, or becoming unremitting überworkers, or escaping them through food.

vulnerability

© 2014 Joanna Kay

Unfortunately, Brown says, that’ll never work, because we can’t selectively numb emotions. If we shut out the bad, then we shut out the good as well. The only way to feel joy, contentment, and a sense of meaning is to allow ourselves to experience the full spectrum of human emotion—delightful, distressing, and everything in between.

(I know—I don’t like it either.)

But thinking about all of this helped me understand my queasiness about publishing my post Monday. For a quarter century, I’ve avoided vulnerability, treating it like a contagion. There are, of course, several problems with that, the most obvious being that vulnerability is inescapable. In addition, I am actually a very sensitive person. So the combination of feeling very deeply, and then immediately quashing anything that might expose me to pain or rejection, led to a full-on war within myself.

Part of this comes from being raised on the message that my problems are nobody else’s businesses. That sentiment often meant having to keep silent about problems at home. It wasn’t hard for my younger self to conclude from that message that having problems or vulnerability (at all) was shameful. If others heard about them, they would judge me and reject me, thus I should never share my problems. (Pretty fertile breeding ground for an eating disorder, yes?)

I shouldered this belief for decades—that is, until Monday, when I wrote about one of the most vulnerable moments of my entire life. And instead of being ostracized for it, I was embraced. One vulnerable leap found more connections than I ever could have anticipated. People connected with my experience, which led me to connect with them.

Slowly, painstakingly, I’m working to allow myself to be vulnerable. And to my pleasant surprise, nine times out of ten this is handled gently and empathetically by the people I entrust myself to. And the more I do this, the more I become comfortable with having vulnerabilities. That alone has allowed me to glimpse self-acceptance, self-love, and a true belief in my own worthiness.

Not a bad return for the cost of a bit of vulnerability.

Anyway, all of that is simply meant to say thank you, readers. You’re teaching me a lot about eating disorders and recovery. And you’re teaching me about myself as well.


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