Author: T. O. Paul Harper, PhD, Former Education Director
An eating disorder victim’s body is not the only thing being wasted as a result of his or her food, eating, purging, and/or restriction obsessions. The mind and mental capabilities of the victim are also being impacted and impaired. As eating disorder obsessions increase, the mental capability of the victim gradually decreases until every aspect of their life is interfered with, especially their academic education.
The impact on academic education is all the more tragic as most eating disorder victims are very intelligent. Usually, eating disorder victims make excellent grades, often straight A’s while carrying very difficult class loads and taking honors and advanced placement classes. They are often recognized as gifted and talented and excel in academic life as well as many other areas in their lives. As the number of eating disorder victims increases while the ages of victims decrease, it is important to explore and address how the academic environment becomes a catalyst for an eating disorder and how to decrease the impact of an eating disorder on the victim’s academic education.
THE EDUCATIONAL ENVIRONMENT
The North American school systems are complex organizations designed to increase the knowledge of students of various ages and to help them prepare for the challenges of life. To accomplish this massive and important task it usually requires that students be placed in specially designated social systems of peers. These social systems have only limited adult supervision. The school social systems develop elaborate sets of social norms, morals, and interactional rules between student populations and between students, teachers, and administrators. The social rules are often conflicting, confusing, and if broken, punishable with swift and cruel retribution.
An eating disorder victim is ill-prepared to meet the challenges faced in academic social systems. This is because of the unique mix of characteristics inherent in the eating disorder personality and the peculiar demands, inequities, and pressures inherent in student social systems. Although all students have similar characteristics, eating disorder victims’ beliefs converge in ways that accentuate social comparison, self-denigration, and compulsive compensatory coping rituals.
In order to understand the impact of the academic social system on eating disorder victims it is important to understand the characteristics of an eating disorder victim and how these characteristics evolve.
THE EATING DISORDER PERSONALITY: AN EVOLUTIONARY DESCRIPTION
In general, an eating disorder victim is highly sensitive to what is going on around them, has strong perfectionistic tendencies, has low self-esteem, has a lost or ill-defined sense of self and social boundaries, and has obsessive compulsive tendencies. As their eating disorder gains intensity, victims display addictive tendencies and become trapped in powerful physical, social, and mental conflicts.
Many different things can result in an individual’s propensity toward hypersensitivity to what is going on around them. Some researchers suggest that certain individuals may have a genetic predisposition toward increased social sensitivity. Certainly, increased intelligence manifests itself initially as an increased interest in what is taking place in the immediate vicinity of the individual. Any traumatic event such as an illness, abuse, or being witness to a traumatic incident could increase one’s sensitivity to what is going on around them. Another major facilitator of social sensitivity is how one’s parents react to a child’s behavior and how safe they make the child’s world. This list, though incomplete, does illustrate how one could become hypersensitive to their surroundings. Depending upon the positive and/or negative feedback one receives as a result of their social empathy, the social sensitivity could be a blessing or a block to normal social development.
The belief that it is important to do and be one’s best at whatever one does is a persistent belief in western culture. This belief inherently promotes social comparison and competition. Many individuals discover their ability to achieve at an early age and recognize the positive rewards that come from achievement. If this belief is indiscriminately associated with strong social/family norms or religious convictions, an individual could easily assume that they have a heavy obligation and duty to be perfect, to be the best, at whatever they do. As one strives for this goal, the rewards come for excellent performance reinforcing the life style, but so also comes increased pressure to perform. If one does not learn to place perfectionistic beliefs in perspective then they can easily become mentally trapped into increasingly more complicated and demanding life styles which usually become impossible to maintain.
The harder one tries to be perfect the more they will be disappointed. Thus, for eating disorder victims even wonderful accomplishments are denigrated because of their inability to reach perfection. Consistent disappointment in one’s actions erodes self-esteem. One focuses on one’s failures and inability to be what they feel should be. One loses belief in their ability to be what they want to be, perfect. As they try harder and harder they become more and more disappointed. If one is in a social system that emphasizes the absence of perfection in achievement rather than abundance, then the victim becomes trapped in a difficult double bind of trying to be perfect for others and never being able to achieve it. An eating disorder victim can carry this process to extreme feelings of unworthiness and of self-hatred.
Loss of Sense of Self and Lack of Boundaries
As one is oriented more and more toward trying to be perfect for others, they increase the chances of being disappointed. It is virtually impossible to please everyone just as it is next to impossible to get everyone to agree on the same things. They try harder and harder to please and become more and more focused on determining what others want them to do. Over time, the concentration on what others want and the constant striving to achieve facilitates the loss of a sense of self and of clear boundaries. One’s inner desires and wants are ignored and replaced with what one believes others around them want. Eventually, this leads to an inability to recognize personal will and desires.
Obsessive Compulsive Behaviors Leading to Addiction and Double Binds
As one feels consistently frustrated in their attempts to please others and to achieve perfection, they become filled with the emotional pain of self-denigration. Just as one instinctively removes their hand from a hot surface, so too one naturally desires to remove emotional pain. This is usually accomplished by doing things that effectively distract from inner feelings. Eating, bingeing, and restriction of food bring about this distraction. In some cases the pain can be so great that the need to distract becomes obsessive and compulsive. As time goes on, some actions and behaviors, like eating disorders, become addictive in nature, further reinforced by strong physical and psychological needs. As a result of one’s dependencies on activities, situations, and substances which serve to temporally relieve the emotional pain of wanting to be accepted, loved, or perfect, negative feelings about self are enhanced. Individuals become trapped in a cycle of needing to perform, but never feel able to perform at acceptable levels. These types of double binds that throw eating disorder victims into vicious behavioral cycles and traps.
THE EATING DISORDER VICTIM IN THE ACADEMIC ENVIRONMENT
The educational social system negatively feeds an eating disorder victim’s: increased sensitivity to their surroundings, need to please those they interact with, inability to get satisfaction and support from all their peers, and desire to strive for perfection. For an individual with these desires and tendencies, the educational social system presents the perfect environment of frustration. The inherent challenge in the academic environment is that one cannot always be the best at everything, please everyone involved, and read, understand, and react to the millions of different positive and negative influences that surround them. In the absence of a relatively strong sense of self and self-worth, the educational social system is a world full of fear, disappointment, doubt, pain, and disillusionment. The double binds placed upon the eating disorder victim in this environment result in his or her engaging in behaviors that drastically reduce their ability to maintain normal academic activities. Their behaviors may result in the need to be treated in a comprehensive care facility designed to help break the negative cycles of behavior they utilize to cope with their environments.
EDUCATION IN A COMPREHENSIVE CARE CENTER
When the negative pressures inherent in one’s normal social systems are relaxed and a safe environment is felt, it is easier to reduce destructive behaviors and be freed of negative double binds so one can again pursue educational goals. The distortions and momentum of a victim’s negative thinking remain, but the initial pressures and triggers which prompt addictive behaviors are reduced. This facilitates an introspective analysis of the old pressures and triggers and frees up intellectual capacities previously preoccupied with fear and control. Thus, educational studies can be resumed, (along with therapy) while in the comprehensive care center. Inherent in the treatment given at a care center will be methods and strategies designed to help the individual eventually return to old social systems with skills and tools that will help them successfully meet life’s challenges.
THE EDUCATIONAL PHILOSOPHY AT CENTER FOR CHANGE
A fundamental belief at the Center for Change is that education is a basic right and opportunity for all human beings. Eating disorder victims are inhibited in their ability to take advantage of academic education opportunities. An eating disorder victim forfeits their right to an education because of a basic belief in their inability to do what is necessary to meet educational goals. The victim’s belief in their inability to meet goals stems from the mental and behavioral double binds they are unable to eliminate and control. Center For Change recognizes that fundamental to gaining an education is the ability to: (1) take advantage of educational opportunities, (2) maintain personal motivation for educational activities, and (3) believe in one’s personal ability to achieve educational goals.
As a result of our beliefs about the importance of education and the necessary personal prerequisites to gaining an education, the Center for Change incorporates an education philosophy and program designed to help participants become able, motivated, and self-effective learners. We have developed an integrated education programs designed to teach students how to maintain personal motivation toward their academic education goals, and to foster personal beliefs about their ability to successfully achieve education goals. In addition, the goals of the education program are designed to augment the intensive care approach utilized at the Center for Change, providing a powerful and synergistic educational experience.
While the purpose of this article is to explore the impact of eating disorders on academic education, it is also important to remember that with appropriate preventive education offered at appropriate times throughout a student’s life, the need to be treated for an eating disorder in a comprehensive treatment center could be avoided. This preventive education would require the proper types of psycho education regarding social comparison trends and personal belief development about self, others, beauty, weight, and food. Preventive education should also include the development of critical thinking skills about the explicit and implicit messages that are sent in our mass media and personal spheres of influence.
Caretakers should help those suffering with eating disorders to avoid the sense of helplessness and hopelessness which comes from being trapped in behaviors and thoughts that are seemingly uncontrollable. Eating disorder victims must be taught and eventually come to believe that help is available, and peace is attainable. They must be told that under proper care and the right circumstances they will be able to regain control of their lives, eliminate the mental traps, live normal lives, and pursue education. With the right kinds of emotional support victims can be free to live up to their abundant potential and be relieved of the torment of their mental prisons.