Adaptive functions

Part of the healing process is learning to identify my triggers and, for me, this has allowed me to identify two distinct aspects of myself which I have deemed the ‘Victim’ and the ‘Wild Woman’. Each triggered by their own respective needs- the Victim needs validation, admiration, control, isolation etc.. Whereas the Wild Woman desires adventure, creativity, community, giving and receiving LOVE.

This morning I stumbled on an article discussing the adaptive nature of eating disorders, that reiterates this duality, elaborating on the development of eating disorders.
It suggested that:

In trying to understand the meaning of someone’s behavior, it is helpful to think of the behavior as serving a function or “doing a job.” Once the function is discovered, it becomes easier to understand why it is so difficult to give it up and, furthermore, how to replace it. When exploring deep within the psyche of eating disordered individuals, one can find explanations for a whole series of adaptive functions serving as substitutes for the missing functions that should have been, but weren’t, supplied in childhood.

Paradoxically, then, an eating disorder, for all of the problems it creates, is an effort to cope, communicate, defend against, and even solve other problems. For some, starving may be in part an attempt to establish a sense of power, worth, strength and containment, and specialness because of inadequate mirroring responses, such as praise, from caregivers.

Binge eating may be used to express comfort or to numb pain, due to a developmental deficit in the ability to self-soothe. Purging may serve as an acceptable physiological and psychological release of anger or anxiety if the expression of one’s feelings in childhood was ignored or led to ridicule or abuse. Eating disorder symptoms are paradoxical, in that they can be used as an expression of and defense against feelings and needs. The symptoms of eating disorders can be seen as a repression or punishment of the self, or as a way of asserting the self, which has found no other way out.

Here are some examples of how these behaviors fill emotional needs:

  • An expression of and defense against early childhood needs and feelings. It’s too scary to need anything, I try not to even need food.
  • Self-destructive and self-affirming attitudes. I will be the thinnest girl at my school, even if it kills me.
  • An assertion of self and a punishment of self. I insist on eating whatever and whenever I want, even though being fat is making me miserable . . . I deserve it.
  • Used as cohesive functions, psychologically holding the person together. If I don’t purge I’m anxious and distracted. After I purge I can calm down and get things done.

The development of an eating disorder can begin early in life when childhood needs and mental states are not properly responded to by caregivers and thus get disowned, repressed, and shunted off into a separate part of a person’s psyche. The child develops deficits in his or her capacities for self-cohesion and self-esteem regulation. At some point in time, the individual learns to create a system whereby disordered eating patterns, rather than people, are used to meet needs because previous attempts with caregivers have brought about disappointment, frustration, or even abuse.

For example, caregivers who do not properly comfort and soothe their babies, allowing them to eventually learn how to comfort themselves, create lacks in their children’s ability to self-soothe. These children grow up needing to seek abnormal amounts of external comfort or relief. Caregivers who do not accurately listen, acknowledge, validate, and respond make it difficult for a child to learn how to validate himself. Both of these examples could result in:

  • a distorted self-image (I am selfish, bad, stupid)
  • no self-image (I don’t deserve to be heard or seen, I don’t exist)

Disruptions or deficits in self-image and self-development make it increasingly difficult for people to function as they grow older. Adaptive measures are developed, the purpose of which is to make the individual feel whole, safe, and secure. With certain individuals, food, weight loss, and eating rituals are substituted for responsiveness from caregivers. Perhaps in other eras different means were sought as substitutes, but today turning to food or dieting for validation and acknowledgment is understandable in the context of the sociocultural factors described in the previous chapter.

Personality development is disrupted in persons with eating disorders, as eating rituals are substituted for responsiveness and the usual developmental process is arrested. The early needs remain sequestered and cannot be integrated into the adult personality, thus remaining unavailable to awareness and operating on an unconscious level.

Some theorists, including this author, view this process as if, to a greater or lesser degree in each individual, a separate adaptive self is developed. The adaptive self operates from these old sequestered feelings and needs. The eating disorder symptoms are the behavioral component of this separate, split-off self, or what I have come to call the “eating disorder self.” This split-off, eating disorder self has a special set of needs, behaviors, feelings, and perceptions all dissociated from the individual’s total self-experience. The eating disorder self functions to express, mitigate, or in some way meet underlying unmet needs and make up for the developmental deficits.

The problem is that the eating disorder behaviors are only a temporary Band-Aid and the person needs to keep going back for more; that is, she needs to continue the behaviors to meet the need. Dependency on these “external agents” is developed to fill the unmet needs; thus, an addictive cycle is set up, not an addiction to food but an addiction to whatever function the eating disorder behavior is serving. There is no self-growth, and the underlying deficit in the self remains. To get beyond this, the adaptive function of an individual’s eating and weight-related behaviors must be discovered and replaced with healthier alternatives. The following is a list of adaptive functions that eating disorder behaviors commonly serve.

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