In my quest to better understand eating disorders and why some people are more prone to them than other people I have conducted a great deal of research and self reflection.
In the summer I identified myself as a highly sensitive person, thanks to the wonderfully written book "You've Got This" written by Dr Michaela Dunbar. Highly sensitive people often absorb other people's emotions. They are highly tuned to understanding the unspoken messages a person conveys and are natural born "helpers". This level of emotional stimulation can leave highly sensitive people exhausted. It can also leave them feeling disappointed when those around them are unable to read them in the same way. I make this point as it is relevant to the summary I make at the end of this piece of writing.
Transactional Analysis looks at the roles or ego states we take on in relationships. This research has also played a part in better understanding why some people are prone to particular types of eating disorders.
Firstly let us look at the various types of ego states:
Parent state can be both controlling and nurturing. As a parent I can see that both these states are important for my children to receive both discipline and love, but when the role is taken too far, controlling can become hyper critical and nurturing can become smothering.
Child states can be both free and vulnerable. Children are often free with their emotions, meaning they express a wide range of emotions and act on impulse. This is perfectly natural as a child and even helpful as a form of self expression. However, without regulation this unbounded expression as an adult, can be unhelpful. Vulnerable children tend to avoid conflict and do whatever is required to please the other person. Again this is a healthy state in some transactions, we have all bitten our lip and kept our head down when things got heated, but it can be hugely detrimental if a person rarely transitions out of this state.
Adult state is where open, honest, reasonable transactions take place. It is in this state both parties are equal and congruent.
It is important to remember that ALL of these states are normal and even helpful in many cases BUT our ego state will have a direct impact on the ego state of the other person or people within the transaction. By becoming more self aware we can forge stronger, more positive relationships and perhaps go some way to better understanding the contributing factors of eating disorders in young people..
A nurturing parent ego state may be reassuring to a person who is in vulnerable child ego state, but they may appear smothering to a person in free child state. A controlling parent may help a person in free child state to regulate their emotions and channel their energy in a constructive manner but, they may appear uncaring to a person in a vulnerable child ego state.
Perhaps this is a good opportunity to reflect on your closest relationships and identify your most natural ego state. What impact might that have on the other person and the relationship between you. Now reflect on your own upbringing and the most natural ego state of your primary care givers. The reality is, many of us will mirror at least one of our parents...whether we like it or not!
My children will tell you that I am the one with all the rules, but also the one they will confide in when they are unhappy. I am the parent. They will also tell you, their dad is the one they will go to when they want a break from all my rules and they want to have fun, he is often the child. But what happens when my husband and I have a transaction and retain our natural ego states? I stay as parent and he remains as child. I can tell you, it can be a recipe for disaster.
Now, it may be this transactional analysis that helps shed a light on how maladapted coping strategies, in the form of eating disorders, are created.
It is really important for me, at this stage, to emphasise that this is a theory; It will not apply to everybody. I am not dealing with issues such as abuse and neglect. I am merely focussing on natural behaviour. It is also really important for me to tell you, that I am not blaming parents for their children's eating disorders, nor am I saying this is the only cause. Eating Disorders are hugely complex. This article is designed to explore what factors of transactional analysis may contribute.
What is interesting to me, is how exposure to certain ego states, may influence the kind of eating disorder a person develops.
Anorexia is often developed as it brings a sense of control and conformity. People who suffer anorexia often report, wanting to be a good child. They do not want to cause a fuss or bring attention to themselves. They are often over achievers who grade their level of achievement in anorexia. It may be a vulnerable child response response to feeling criticised by a parent.
Binge Eating Disorder is often developed as it brings a sense of rebellion. The dopamine hit brings a sense of release. A binge might be seen as an opportunity to relinquish boundaries and indulge ones self. They too can be high achievers. It may be a free child response to feeling smothered by a parent.
Bulimia is probably the most complex of all, as the behaviour is indicative of both vulnerable child and free child and swings between the two ego states. This may be a response to either parenting ego state or a lack of consistency by any one care provider.
I say again, I am not attempting to blame parents. I know first hand how hard it can be. If it was purely down to the parents then all of my siblings would have had anorexia too. I know that it is not the case. I do wonder however, if my sensitivity, along with my perception of my parent's parenting style and the hormonal changes I was going through at the time, created the perfect storm for my anorexia.