Negative Body Image, Eating Disorders and Complex Trauma

Keywords: Negative body Image.

Overcoming addiction keeps addiction in place. The more effort you put into trying to overcome addiction—without awareness of the underlying emotional causes of addiction—the more energy you feed the very addiction you are trying to overcome.

When you feel repeatedly overwhelmed, desire, wanting, craving and finally addiction are all ways of attempting to deal with those feelings.

Through the search for satisfaction and release, you attempt to mitigate your emotional stress. Addiction is thus dissociative; something you do in order to survive. It is a coping strategy, never the core issue in and of itself.

Addiction, Eating Disorder and a Negative Body Image

Almost anything can become an addiction. Most of the time, you either gravitate to a behavioral addiction or a substance addiction.

An eating disorder is one form of addiction.

Overcoming addiction keeps addiction in place. The more effort you put into trying to overcome addiction—without awareness of the underlying emotional causes of addiction—the more energy you feed the very addiction you are trying to overcome.

Externally, the addiction and preoccupation are on food. Internally, the addiction is your constant thoughts about your body image. The external expression—craving food—feeds into the internal busyness of “I should or shouldn’t, because of…” and this pattern can loop on itself indefinitely.

Addiction and Dissociation

Trauma—through successive stages—dissociates outwardly.

You fragment from your core emotional wound into a coping emotion and excessive thinking. From excessive thinking, you move into addiction, and from addiction you dissociate further into depression, numbness, and chronic pain.

To heal, you have to reverse your focus and direction.

When you have an addiction with a focus on food—either wanting to eat or restraining yourself from eating—you will have to start there.

Reversing Dissociation to Heal

As an exercise, for a moment, negate trying to solve your addiction. Listen instead to the pull and craving of addiction itself. Feel it as a sensation somewhere in your body. Become familiar with it. Observe it, and hold the judgment you have towards the sensation of craving in abeyance to the extent that you can. In other words, don’t give it too much importance because it will make you dissociate from feeling that body-sensation.

The moment you listen to the sensation of wanting, of craving, you will become aware of the weight and the pain that is within and beneath the craving. Regarding food addiction, you will become more aware of the pain, disgust, or self-hatred you have towards your body image.

See if you can also stay with that; the pain of your self-image regarding your own body. The weight of it in your chest, your throat, your solar plexus.

As you do this, make sure not to collapse into that feeling or start to drown in it, but to contain it, to observe it. Go in and out of it if you have to.

Eating Disorder, Negative Body Image, and Trauma

There is more to it then just the body. A negative body image hardly ever starts with the body itself. A negative self-image starts with some form of trauma that often comes from feelings of insufficiency, lack of validation, not being good enough, and come prior to the projection onto your body image.

Furthermore, the lack of constructive validation, feeling unloved and feeling inadequate, initially comes from your external environment; from your mom, your dad, teachers, siblings, friends, and other family members.

Over time, you internalize your external input of “not feeling good enough.”

Projection of Negative Self-Image onto Body-Image

When you enter into your teens, and all your hormones start to kick in, that “not feeling good enough” starts to get projected onto your body. Hence, you develop a negative body image and you become overly focused on your body.

For your mind, it is more tangible to deal with the external—your body—than your internal landscape—your emotions.

In time, this whole externalization grows more and more out of proportion until you have forgotten that initially your negative body image started with feeling of inadequacy and invalidation.

The Core Emotion of a Negative Body-Image

When you start to reverse that dissociative direction, you will move away from the problem of craving or resisting food to the preoccupation with your body image. From the pain of meeting your negative body image, you can move even further inward to connect with your negative psychological self-image.

Related to that negative self-image will be your feelings of insufficiency, inadequacy, feeling unloved or not cared for. With that, images and memories might surface of the people who were involved in the creation of your negative self-image.

When you move through the various emotional layers, it isn’t about addiction anymore. You have shifted away from that towards your core emotional pain.

Resolving Trauma to Heal Addiction, Negative Self-Image and Body Image

The more you can contain your core pain and “sit” with your younger self/selves—to hold that pain—the more you will digest that emotional residue that still lives within you.

That part of you wants to be heard, held, and listened to, as opposed to being judged by you. It wants to be (re)parented in a loving and compassionate manner in order to help self-regulate.

The more you digest your core emotional wounding, the less need you will have to dissociate into addiction.

How are you dealing with self-image, body image related to PTSD or Complex Trauma? Leave your comments below.

  • Cheri Crider says:

    Holy Schmoly Roland,
    You never cease to amaze me with your insights! I’ve been frustrated for decades over my smoking addiction. I never understood why I could quit for years (when support was present) and yet, always return to it when my trauma resurfaced (without support). I never connected that I was dissociating from the negative emotions by smoking. I smoke when triggered.

    I’m learning in DBT, how to sit with my emotional pain now and not drown in it. I like the visualization of hearing, holding, listening to my child’s pain. I visualize my tiny self in my arms just feeling the pain of abuse and me as a parent, comforting, rocking and reassuring her that it’s gonna be alright. I see myself holding her, singing to her and reminding her that she’s really a beautiful unicorn with wings, who’s free in the world. We become the unicorns together and romp thru the forests and fly over the mountaintops. And when she’s ready, we go back in again and look at it…together. In and out of the pain, as unicorns…free in the world….one day, free of pain.

    I’ll do this with the craving for cigarettes. I wish to be free….of that too. Thank you for this.
    Cheri Crider

    • Roland says:

      Hi Cheri. Great to hear you are getting more insight into what is going for you and you are applying the reparenting exercises. You are on track. Keep going.

  • BB says:

    Wow what an article that describes the real issues behind eating disorders trauma and body image issues

  • Andrea says:

    fantastic post. Truth. as a thriver beyond anorexia and bulimia this is a very helpful piece of writing. I have been the other side of so many therapists that simply do NOT understand eating disorders. I healed through my own journey and self discovery thank goodness. I feel fortunate to now be healthy and well, and supporting others. I was thrown in hospital in the 90s (= more trauma), talked AT like i was a problem and never felt supported by any therapist. I am sharing this post to aid education. thank you x

    • cliona ryan says:

      andrea…. i understand that soo much… when i finally after second in paicent stay working with great thearpists realised the reasons behind my eating disorders (15 years) like tramua from childhood even it just being a traumatic opereration that i would never have thought that this was even possible to be a link down to being hate the word (rape) by a best friend that i still cant say that it was that and to bulling etc….
      but what frustrates me more is the total lack of understanding …… and this post is fantastic and should be shared over and over…. i wish u the very best and i hope your doing well x

  • Sheree says:

    Scary stuff, confronting that pain/inner wounded child versus employing usual coping techniques!

  • Evie says:

    Hi Roland,
    Ooft. Painful reading, rings true. Thanks for sharing.
    I am stuck somewhere between the issues in this post and your other one about fatigue. I’m battling with low self esteem, binge eating, compulsive exercising and feeling exhausted – switching between all those things. When things are “good” I look outwardly fit and healthy, I feel “better” when my abs are taught, low body fat. But. Massive caveat there- it’s hard to sustain and doesn’t feel like a calm state either. I do get mood lift (but I have to go hard to get it) and that feels great, but…I dislike that I’m pursuing it mainly if I’m truthful because of society’s appreciation of outer beauty; I get attention when I’m lean and that “feeds” the obsession. I perceive a strange double message too in social media re: “empowering”: it does feel great to be light and strong, but also like a double edged sword, damaging that it’s connected with conforming to beauty standards and that I frantically must match these or else…I don’t know…I’m not of value. That’s not explicitly stated anywhere though – probably because it sounds vapid, competitive and needy! – which makes it doubly confusing. I suppose the best thing is just stay off social media but I find it hard.
    On the other side when I start slipping, I binge to numb my feelings. it’s not just a little bit of greed it’s absolute stuffing, I would be so sad to watch myself doing it, til I’m numb. It makes me feel better but only temporarily. That can stop after a day or two but I’ve had it go on for weeks, or months – my body goes soft,I gain weight, my mood goes all over the place and I feel shattered. The tiredness is compounded by feeling wired so I sleep poorly, feel like a zombie at work, reach for the sugar, despise my body, feel invisible and so on. Neither state feels good, the bingeing phase is def a sign that things are bad and feels I’m in the serious danger zone…but in the “good” side when I’m physically fit I’m still not doing great. It is a frightening pattern and I’m not sure how to get out of it. I do believe it is like you say about underlying trauma. I have a couple of questions:
    On sitting with the pain, comforting the inner child – I can’t tell whether I’m making progress or actually just retraumatising myself/ruminating with the bad memories, making it worse. I get so angry and despairing about it all, and feel like I can never escape the past, too much has happened, one horrific thing after another, and revisiting it…I don’t know if that sets me back. I’ve seen so much cruelty violence psychological abuse I struggle to connect. I value kindness, compassion, justice, deceny… when I’m not totally numb feeling…but I know that has no greater meaning only that I’m an ape that feels good about these values, by happenstance I’m wired that way. Other apes feel good about hurting others. There’s no morality, you know? It’s just a concept. This makes things seem pointless. I don’t have family or intimate relationships so I haven’t got comfort there and feel distance with people. I don’t think I’ve lost the capacity to love as I’m pained when I see e.g injured animals in the news, I want to help them, but with people I feel like an outsider.
    I can’t afford therapy so am doing my best with self-help. I am fearful of taking anti-depressants as I don’t want to risk something that might send me further into the fatigue pit.
    Do you have any ideas/comments?

  • cliona ryan says:

    roland…. if i could wrap u up and bring u home to explaine all this to family i would and just to even have u as a guideance your insight is amazing and im glad ive spent my day reading all this and others as ur sitting my mind back on track and even if just for a few hrs to stop my guilt and shame of feeling like such a failure and waste of space…… thank you x

  • Agneta Nilsson says:

    Thank you for this information. I am interested in your work but not convinced that it will help me. I had in utero trauma and early childhood traumas that made me go inte Freeze-state and I have never gotten out of that. I do not feel emotions only frustration and sometimes anger. So when people say “feel this” they have to tell me how to do it to make me understand. What can you do to help me ??

  • Gordana says:

    Thanks for sharing this articel — thank You!!! this went right into my gut… a new perspektiv.. very very helpful!!

  • Zaiga says:

    Dancing Argentine tango and meditation (both 17 years) have been my most powerful healers.
    And I am surprised why this kind of tango is almost never mentioned as a physical and spiritual practice. It’s impact on people is amazing! Listening to our own bodies and bodies of others, responding, leading, following, expressing our emotions, improvisation… Magic!

  • Zaiga says:

    And thank you very very much for your articles and other materials – I find them so useful.

  • S says:

    This feels so very truthful, in describing my own negative body-image, and food addiction, and traumatic history. Wonderful article. Thank you.

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