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The Strangers in Your House

The Eating Disorder Personas That Try To Resist Recovery by Oona Hanson

When your child is in the grips of an eating disorder, it can feel at times like they are being held hostage or possessed by a demon. While unsettling, this observation can end up being a powerful step toward helping your loved one recover.

Learning to see your child as separate from their eating disorder can catalyze a shift that facilitates recovery. Often referred to as the “externalization of the eating disorder,” this conceptualization can help you become a more compassionate, more resilient, and more effective caregiver.  

This process can be tricky, however, especially when the eating disorder takes elements of your loved one’s existing temperament traits and exaggerates or exploits them. For instance, maybe they already had perfectionistic tendencies, and now the volume on that rigid thinking has been turned way up. Or maybe they always had excellent verbal skills, and now you’re in a heated debate at every meal.  

In my own home, I witnessed many convincing roles the eating disorder made my child play. And I’ve come to see just how common some of these personas can be. 

When we can identify these different faces of the eating disorder, we are less likely to be intimidated or bamboozled by their tactics. And we can more easily focus on attending to our child and their recovery.

 Although everyone’s eating disorder experience is unique, there are some features and tactics that appear regularly. Being able to recognize and name some of these presentations of an eating disorder can help families move toward recovery. Here are a few of the common characters that might show up in your home:

The Sleight-of-Hand Artist

Even under the watchful eye of a carer or professional, this magician can make uneaten food disappear. Nuts squirreled away in the couch cushions, granola bars braided into hair, liquid supplements absorbed by sleeves. Napkin tricks are a recurring part of the act, and the family dog is often an eager assistant. 

The Inspector General

With a high error detection ability, this keen observer takes note of every imperfection in their environment. Every perceived mistake is identified and criticized, often leaving caregivers filled with self-doubt, guilt, and hopelessness.

The Bulldog Litigator

This fierce attorney will catch any linguistic ambiguity and try to exploit every possible loophole. There seems to be boundless energy to prove their case, and that’s largely the goal of this lawyer: to wear down the person on the other side of the argument.

The Relentless Statistician 

A highly accurate human calculator, this number cruncher seems to know every calorie count, weight, BMI percentile, and fitness tracking data point they’ve ever seen. Even without access to scales, labels, or FitBits, this numerical wiz kid can still compute with surprising accuracy. 

Having these intense, manipulative personalities in your home can be frightening and exhausting. Now imagine having them inside your own mind. 

Your loved one may feel controlled by another cast of characters. I think of them as The Bully, The Taskmaster, The Toxic Frenemy, The Abusive Partner. Freeing your child from this torment means making your home inhospitable to these unwelcome guests.

The more you can recognize the eating disorder’s desires and methods—and how those are at odds with healing—the more easily you can hold compassionate boundaries that protect your child from their illness. And soon you’ll be seeing less and less of this cruel body snatcher—and more and more of your loved one’s authentic self.

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