This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week and the spotlight is on the male experience of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions. They are not a lifestyle choice or a ‘phase’, and often they have roots in emotional distress and negative life experiences. When life feels too much, we may develop coping mechanisms to deal with overwhelming feelings, with some finding a sense of control – when they might otherwise feel out of control – through controlling their relationship to food. Others may binge on food – consuming a large quantity of food to the point of discomfort or nausea – in an effort to self-soothe during moments of challenge. In essence, they are debilitating illnesses and can take over someone’s life.
Many boys and young men are struggling with eating disorders, but are often left out of the narrative when we talk about eating disorders because they don’t fit the stereotype of what it “looks like” to have an eating disorder. However, as awareness improves, it’s clear that many men are struggling and we have to pay attention to the more nuanced symptoms that go beyond that of BMI (body mass index).
Underneath is the real me
When we look at eating disorders in men, we have to consider the wider context of the male experience of mental health, and the challenges boys and men can experience when it comes to emotional intuition.
We live in a culture that is defined by gender norms, where social acceptance often depends on how much you conform to the expectations of your gender. For men, masculine traits encourage men to avoid emotional expression, and this can mean that over time men feel disconnected from their emotional experience and struggle to understand how they really feel.
How we can process emotions
If we are not in tune with our emotional experience, we might develop what’s known as “cognitive distortions” (or unhelpful thinking styles) or “psychological defenses” which serve a purpose to process and “do something with” our emotional experience. Often, these ways of thinking are reactive – i.e. they happen instantaneously without us really being aware of it.
Cognitive distortions include things such as overgeneralising, all or nothing thinking, emotional reasoning or magnification or minimisation. Psychological defenses are things such as emotional repression, avoidance of emotion, projection of an unwanted part of ourselves onto someone else. Whilst they may sound negative, they’re actually very creative ways of protecting ourselves when we’re going through distress and challenge.
However, what these thinking styles don’t do is respond to the underlying emotional content underneath. Neglecting this can mean we bottle our feelings up and turn away from the threatening world, feeling isolated in our experience.
So, how am I really feeling?
Here are three ways to understand how you’re really feeling:
- Learn the full spectrum of emotions
A really handy way of understanding our emotions is to look at the emotions wheel. The wheel takes the 7 core emotions that we might be more familiar with (happiness, sadness, anger, fearful, disgusted, bad, surprised) and expands on these to identify more nuanced feelings associated with them. Such as, humiliated for anger, or rejected for fearful. It’s a really good way of discovering the nuances of feeling.
2. Check in with your body
We feel our emotions in our body. Have you ever felt tension in your chest when you’re anxious? Or “see red” when you’re angry? When you’re sad, you might “well up” or feel empty inside. Our body is a rich resource for understanding what we feel.
We can do this through a short exercise: close your eyes and scan your body to notice areas of tension, heat or pain. When you find an area, sit with it and ask yourself what it feels like. Notice if words, memories or emotions arise within you as you do this. Before you finish, offer compassion to this part of you that you’ve identified.
Doing this, you might awaken some parts of you that you haven’t felt in a long time, so go gently and remember that you can stop at any time.
3. Write it out
One of the most helpful things you can do is write your feelings down on paper. Give your feelings room to breathe so you can understand what’s really going on – creating space for the feelings rather than the thoughts that are often more cognitive.
For instance, “I want to be good looking” may actually be understood as “I want to feel accepted and loved”. It can be tough to make contact with our vulnerability, but there’s so much wisdom and opportunity to gain when you stand in a place of authenticity. Essentially, we can’t take steps forward without knowing where we stand.
You deserve to know where you stand
There are many reasons we may avoid our emotional experience: perhaps we’ve been conditioned to distance ourselves from it, or perhaps we feel fear or shame towards how we feel in the first place.
It takes courage to make contact with the parts of ourselves that we’ve neglected, but we can take it slowly and see it as a creative phase in our psychological development. The more we understand our emotional experience, the easier it is to show up in life and in relationships.
It feels important to emphasise that how you feel is absolutely valid – notice how you feel, and perhaps how you feel about how you feel! And then offer any negativity that arises the kindness and compassion it’s always deserved.