Weight Issues and Eating Disorders Related to Narcissistic Abuse
I have been asked by many to include a chapter explaining the relationship between narcissistic abuse and weight/eating-related disorders. I invested some time researching the topic so I could address those concerns. These types of disorders are complex, but I will do my best to give you some answers.
Many theories underlying the causes of these food related disorders exist, though there doesn’t seem to be one explanation that applies in every case. Most experts do agree that low self-esteem and feelings of helplessness are common denominators. Little has been written correlating weight/eating related disorders directly with narcissistic abuse, but the low self-esteem/feeling of helplessness connection seems fitting.
Studies show that trauma, of which narcissistic victims suffer a great deal, may predispose people to these types of disorders. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, it is estimated that around 30 percent of eating disorder sufferers have been the victim of trauma (emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect and/or sexual abuse) in their lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than six million obese and morbidly obese people are likely to have suffered physical, emotional, sexual or verbal abuse during their childhoods.
Child abuse issues that have been identified as contributing to eating disorders are:
- Chaotic and/or angry family environment
- Emotionally or physically absent parents
- Unrealistic parental expectations
- Extreme parental rigidity
- Forced suppression of feelings or emotions
- Overvaluing or undervaluing physical appearance
- Teasing and/or criticism
- Deprivation of love, affection, approval and acceptance
This problem is not exclusive to sufferers of narcissistic child abuse. Abuse by partners, spouses, friends, co-workers, bosses, or siblings can also cause symptoms, behaviors and mental states known to foster eating issues such as:
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Unrealistic expectations of self
- Feeling defective and worthless
- Poor or no self-identity
- Fear of criticism
- Inability to express emotions, detachment
- Black and white thinking
- Approval seeking
- Emotional regulation problems
- Body image or appearance issues
- Poor coping mechanisms
- Lacking control over life
- Feeling unloved and unaccepted
Narcissistically abused victims may resort to food manipulation for a variety of reasons.
- Since certain foods activate brain chemicals that produce calm and euphoric feelings, they can be used as “drugs” to calm anxiety, numb pain and alleviate depression. Victims become trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction eating to temporarily feel better, followed by the emotional let-down or shame of over-eating that compels the person to eat again.
- Excessive or compulsive eating can be a way for abuse victims to fill the emptiness they feel inside. They “stuff” themselves to fill a void.
- Food may be considered the person’s only friend; one who does not make her feel bad, hurt or betray her.
- Abuse victims may inflict punishment on themselves through the deprivation of food or the over-eating of it, believing that they don’t deserve anything good in their lives.
- Some victims of abuse who feel as if they have no control over their life may resort to starving or binge-eating followed by purging to gain some control of it. Purging is also a way to release emotions.
- Some victims starve themselves to please their abusers, believing that if they lose weight the abuse will stop.
Four common weight-related disorders may develop in abuse victims:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Those with anorexia nervosa have a distorted self-image—they see themselves as overweight, even when they are critically underweight. They obsessively weigh themselves, severely limit their caloric and fat intake, and/or restrict the amount and the kind of food they eat. Anorexia nervosa sufferers tend to be perfectionists by nature.
- Bulimia nervosa
- Those withbulimia nervosa have recurrent, frequent, and uncontrollable bouts of excessive eating. To avoid gaining weight, these episodes are followed by compensating behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, over-use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or excessive exercising. Bulimia nervosa sufferers tend to be impulsive by nature.
- Binge-eating disorder/Compulsive over-eating
- Those with binge-eating disorder are not able to control their food intake. They feel compelled to eat even when they are not hungry, and cannot stop even when they feel full. Unlike with bulimia nervosa, they do not follow binging episodes with purging, fasting, or copious amounts of exercise, therefore are often overweight or suffer from obesity. Binge eaters have impulse control issues.
- Emotional-eating disorder
- Those with emotional-eating disorder use food as a way to control their emotions and regulate their moods. Episodes may be occasional or habitual, and can occur frequently throughout the day. Emotional eaters use food to block painful memories, soothe distressing moods, and as a form of protection. They are likely to suffer from excess body weight or obesity.
Eating disorders are harmful and life threatening. If you believe you are suffering from one, I urge you to promptly seek the help of an experienced mental health professional specializing in your condition.
In the meantime:
- Practice expressing your emotions in healthy ways instead of harboring them.
- Be mindful about your eating habits.
- Do things that you enjoy or that make you feel good.
- Treat yourself with love, kindness and respect.
- Find healthy ways to self-soothe; exercise, yoga, walking, meditation, take a bath.
- Avoid people and places that make you feel bad about yourself.
- Seek out support groups for your particular problem.
- Create affirmations and use positive self-talk.
If you have a food-related or eating-related disorder after suffering narcissistic abuse, it is my sincere hope that this chapter has given you the insight needed to progress in your healing journey.
Please be kind and gentle with yourself.