As an eating disorder specialist, I work with bullying victims all day, every day. The irony is that no one may be actually bullying them; they are not getting mean texts on their phone. No one is spreading cruel gossip, beating them up or even threatening them.
All of this bullying goes on inside his or her own head. They carry around their Inner Bully 24/7. This may actually be the WORST form of bullying because the victim rarely, if ever, gets a break from the constant stream of abuse.
Courtney, a beautiful mother married to a great guy, has suffered from her eating disorder for over half of her life. Her husband, Bob, wants nothing more than for his wife to love herself and take care of her body. But the Bully-in-her-Brain says:
You are fat, hideous and gross. Don’t let Bob near you; if he touches your flab, he’ll be disgusted. Don’t ask him for help when you’re having a tough time; he’s sick of your whiney demands; you’ve burdened him enough. Tell him everything’s fine; what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Besides, if he knew what a horrible person you really are, he would divorce you like a hot potato.
Then the most insidious part. Courtney’s Inner Bully tops it off with:
I know the Real you. I’m the only one who will tell you the Truth. All those people saying you are worthy, lovable and beautiful are lying, jealous, ignorant or want something from you. You cannot trust them. If they knew the Truth they would leave: but I will NEVER leave you.
This faulty but entrenched belief system reminds me of the character of the wife in the movie “Inception.” She spends so much time inside of her own dreams that she loses touch with Reality.
When people in the “outside world” (e.g. people who don’t understand eating disorders) picture people with eating disorders, they imagine the 58-pound woman on Oprah or the 800-pound man on Jerry Springer. They do not picture the attractive, well-put together, fit-looking, successful, career-woman or home-maker.
But looking OK doesn’t mean you’re OK. Eating disorders are only partly about weight. The other part is about eating behavior, about the Bully-in-the-Brain.
I wrote a play called “What’s Eating Katie?” in which the bully of the eating disorder is played by a separate character. This character starts off seductive and sexy, with lies and promises of Beauty, Popularity and Love. Over time he chips away at his victim, teenager Katie. He becomes an abusive, controlling and domineering creep while Katie becomes more isolated and unsure of herself.
People with eating disorders who’ve seen the show ask me, “How did you know what it sounds like inside of my head?”
Empathy is the antidote to bullying. We are hard-wired to respond with empathy when we see sadness or hurt on someone’s face. This is why the explosion in the use of technology has increased bullying incidents. Texting, e-mailing or internet posting removes the face-to-face contact, causing the loss of human connection. Sometimes it’s enough to remind kids, “If you wouldn’t say it, don’t send it. Be the same person online that you are in real life.”
But reforming a hard-core bully may necessitate a deeper intervention: pushing them to feel their own hurts. In treatment for offenders, bullies who lack empathy are asked, “Do you remember how it felt when your father yelled at you?” When they can re-connect to their OWN feelings, then their hearts crack open and they’re more likely to be able to empathize with others.
This is similar to the process used to help people recovering from eating disorders. When something bad happened to them, they were not encouraged to experience or express their feelings about it. To survive, they went numb (by starving or over-eating) and tried to control the pain by internalizing the bully. “I can beat myself up better than anyone else can.”
Rather than using their eating disorder to numb the pain, actually experiencing their feelings in a safe place can help the person develop empathy for the part of them that was victimized. “Remember how it felt when those kids were mean to you at school?” “What did you experience when your Dad beat up your Mom?” There is something about this process that is transformative.
True recovery means the Kind part of you becomes stronger and louder than the Inner Bully. Healing comes when you start seeking evidence to support the notion that you are loveable and worthy, instead of seeking (or distorting) evidence that you are worthless and evil. Over time, the voice of the Bully in the Brain will become softer, more distant and, best of all, impotent.