Aug 26th, 2009 by Christopher J. Coulson
In this article we take a look at how to maximize your growth along every dimension of your self-potential. To explore it, I have (as far as I can find out) coined the terms: ‘prorexia’ and ‘prorectic’.
I want to make it clear that these terms’ connection with anorexia and other so-called eating disorders is in no way a trivialization of the seriousness of those behaviors. Rather, it is a way to extend that serious awareness into other potentially life-threatening but often overlooked self-diminishing behaviors.
I looked at the classic cashmere overcoat displayed in the expensive boutique and thought: “That’s beautiful,” before turning away with a sigh and a deep feeling of: “but it’s not for me.”
Without dreaming, or planning, or calculating; without even acknowledging the true depth of my desire, I had denied myself the pleasure of owning and wearing that handsome garment. For that moment, I was manifesting coat-anorexia.
What anorexias do you exhibit? Which self-denials, unnoticed and therefore unquestioned, actually define and dominate the shape and content of your life? I hope this article will help you find out in such a way that you may feel tempted to do something about them.
A broad interpretation of anorexia
The word ‘anorexia’ literally means “without appetite” or “without reaching out” so its application to food and the so-called eating disorder ‘anorexia nervosa’ is really a rather narrow usage.
There are plenty of examples of non-food-related anorexia in all parts of society. Many of them are so embedded in and concealed by societal norms that the first challenge is to notice them at all.
Once identified, the ultimate challenge is to do something about them. As we shall see, they are behaviors which apparently provide sufficient psychological comfort to justify the risk inherent in maintaining them. Consequently, the overall appeal of setting them aside is severely reduced by the potentially painful effort involved.
Non-food examples can also be found of the other ‘eating disorders’, bulimia and compulsive overeating. We will look at these later. For the sake of simplicity, let’s start by looking at the anorectic stereotype:
You do her feelings for her – and you
Food-related anorexia is a highly provocative condition. The sight of a severely underweight young woman teetering down the haute couture catwalk leaves hardly anyone unmoved. Yet the feelings it elicits vary enormously depending on the psychology – and the gender – of the observer.
Even though we may be aware that that skinny human up there is slowly but surely killing herself, we do not rush to save her as we would if she were having a heart attack or some other life-threatening illness. Curiously, while some may feel compassion, the more common reactions are likely to be anger or even contempt.
“She should be ashamed of herself!” is a cry of many onlookers. And not just from chronic diehards, either. There are plenty of mental health professionals who find their irritation with anorectic clients is so great they cannot work with them.
So what’s going on here? I suggest that the onlooker’s own inner anorectic drive is being triggered by the model. This drive is too painful to acknowledge, so the onlooker has to reject it without becoming conscious of it. This can only be done by displacing his or her own feelings onto the model and then rejecting the model.
The same displaced type of response can be seen when we condemn beggars (dominated by home-anorexia), drug addicts (dominated by reality-anorexia) and billionaires (dominated by pain-anorexia, of which more later).
The intense self-rejection so visible on the catwalk communicates itself to us and resonates with that part of ourselves which is also self-rejecting. Our response to the model therefore tells us quite a lot about ourselves.
Including the fact that each of us, in part and in our own way, is a closet anorectic.
It’s not about food
The understanding that anorexia nervosa is not an eating disorder is pretty universal among those with it and those who work with them. It is actually a behavioral response to a complex and largely unconscious emotional tangle. Therefore, if we have to call it a disorder at all, it is an emotional disorder which makes itself manifest through the rejection of an appetite for food.
If we turn that into a generic, not food-specific, definition, we get something like this:
* Anorexia is an emotional condition resulting in long-lasting physiological damage or even death whose main sign is a resistance to reaching out for the nutrients essential for a full, happy and healthy life.
At the root of any form of anorectic behavior is a deep, even cellular-level, conviction that one is worthless. This is taken to the point of being ashamed of consuming resources which would supposedly be better used by others.
A very common example of this occurs with socially-conscious, self-impoverishing, naturally gifted people who are often heard to say: “I didn’t work for this talent, so I don’t really deserve to be paid for it.”
I have given the term ‘Prorexia’ to the complement of this condition, giving the following definition:
* Prorexia is an emotional condition which promotes long-lasting physiological benefit and longevity. Its main sign is a readiness to reach out for any and all of the nutrients essential for a full, happy and healthy life.
The adjective from ‘prorexia’ is ‘prorectic’. Our goal is to move from an anorectic to a prorectic way of being. This means we must first identify our anorexias.
What should you be?
We can identify the different forms of anorexia which beset us through observation. We can then use that information as a guide to unearth and unravel our anorectic emotional knot(s), thus moving into a prorectic state.
Our self-assessment begins by creating a meaningful standard against which to measure ourselves.
This is relatively easy for food-anorexia: a doctor can look at a chart and say: “You should be 120 lbs. You are only 70 lbs. Therefore there is something seriously wrong.” She or he will then do some more exploring as part of a diagnosis, much of which will center on how much food the patient ‘should’ eat to be healthy.
There are many more categories for assessment, some of which are listed later on. In order to use them, however, it is necessary to have some sort of standard of measurement corresponding to the doctor’s diagnostic criteria.
Quite a useful rule of thumb is simply to ask yourself whether your appetite for these things is commensurate with your potential to digest them.
For example, if you have an IQ of 130 your potential for digesting challenging reading matter is high. So how come your appetite is restricted to the comics page in the Sunday paper? It’s like putting diesel sludge into a racing car’s fuel tank: it destroys its performance and hastens the already inevitable degradation of the engine.
In other words, it fits our generic definition of anorexia exactly. Now let’s see how we might assess our behaviors in the light of the other ‘eating disorders.’
You can be bulimic, too
One way in which we hide our anorexia is by being bulimic. Food-bulimia is the cycle of emotional management that entails eating and then vomiting up one’s food.
Translated literally, ‘bulimia’ means “appetite of a bull” and refers to the fact that the behavior can lead to taking in huge quantities of food but without gaining weight. Its practitioners do, of course, end up malnourished because essential nutrients don’t stay in the system long enough to be beneficial.
However, the huge consumption of food can be very deceptive, hiding the underlying distress. This is even more so for non-food bulimias.
For example, I am a moderate financial bulimic. I always seem to make enough money to live on but not enough to save and build wealth. Or, rather, I don’t allow my otherwise adequate income to build wealth. I tend to expend it and my revenue-creation potential on supporting myself and others in our growth-oriented endeavors.
This combination of self-sacrifice and apparent generosity is classically typical of the eating-disordered community, many of whom have a highly developed social consciousness.
My money-bulimia also makes many of my acquaintances really angry with me, saying: “You should be doing a lot better than that!” There is thus an obvious parallel with those who are angered by the runway model.
To the onlooker, I might appear to be in good financial health, or even successful. It’s only when the Money Doctor checks my net worth that my bulimic behavior is exposed. (I’m working on it. I promise.)
Another form of bulimia is sexual. Promiscuity is a classic response to being unable to absorb the nutrients deliverable only through true intimacy.
What about over-eating then?
On the face of it, the excessive intake of anything looks like an over- rather than an under-appetite. However, I think that compulsive over-eating demonstrates a lack of appetite for pain.
I’m not talking here about masochistic behaviors, but about the unpleasurable stress we feel when in contact with reality. This is especially so if we are stretching ourselves to attain something that forces us out of our comfort zone.
In reality, however, everything has pain potential. It is the obese – the fat cats – who attempt to shelter from some aspect of reality by insulating themselves with layers of food or money or intellectualization.
We can even cloak ourselves in emotional wounds. It can be far easier to go round wrapped in wounds than to do the work necessary to heal them. Such healing is painful in itself and costs us the rewards of victimhood, which include great dollops of sympathy.
Pleasure and Pain: The Scylla and Charybdis of existence
As the Australian band, the Divinyls, sings: “there’s a fine line between pleasure and pain”. That line is life itself.
It’s as if each of us is an orange pip being squeezed between the index finger of pleasure and the thumb of pain, or unpleasure. The forces drive us forward, and if they are evenly balanced we develop and ‘live’ in a consistent direction. If one is stronger than the other, we get forced to one side or the other.
The force with which we do life, if that’s the right phrase, depends on the pressure being applied. Sometimes, the pain will be as small as not liking the view out of the window. Other times it is the deepest grief of mourning. We must reach out for – develop an appetite for – the fullest range of both pain and pleasure in order to live the fullest life.
Which leaves us with the ABC of life-appetite disorders:
- Anorexia = lack of appetite for pleasure/excessive appetite for pain;
- Bulimia = lack of sustainable appetite for either pleasure or pain;
- Compulsive overeating = lack of appetite for pain/excessive appetite for pleasure.
Once we start to think about our behaviors this way, social convention adds to our confusion. For example, I had to invent a new word – ‘prorexia’ – to give focus to this article. Inventing new words is fun but it’s not really good writing practice.
The fact that I felt compelled to create one does highlight the way in which morality is embedded in cultural mechanisms. If ‘society’ thought the condition desirable, we would have a non-judgmental word to describe the state in which we healthily embrace our natural and appropriate appetites.
A number of double standards surround different appetites, and this is nowhere more obvious than with regard to the notion of a healthy material appetite.
At least in the West, it is not generally recognized that compulsive wealth-gain (unless it’s gained illegally) can be every bit as disordered as compulsive weight-gain. Yet given that anyone can live extremely comfortably on, say $250,000 a year, what is the root of an individual’s need for $1 million a week?
We must assume that compulsive over-earners are dominated by the same deeply held belief in their own worthlessness as are compulsive over- and under-eaters.
Interestingly, society at large doesn’t feel much compassion for this ‘rich’ group, either.
Maybe it’s not just coincidence that the over-moneyed and the under-bodied are often to be seen at the same social gatherings; nor that these gatherings are often bulimic displays of excessive nutrient investment (money, creativity, passion, canapes) for minimal nutritional return (a pretty dress, a photograph in a magazine).
Conflictingly, society not only honors the wealth-obese, but simultaneously encourages us to hold an anorectic belief in our own second-bestness. From our youth we are brought up to believe it is good to deny ourselves, to put others first, to offer the best cake to the guest.
Go tell that to a hyena or a redwood tree and see what kind of look you get in return.
Religions, too, perpetuate the anorectic path. Many of the saints were ascetic in demeanor, embracing of pain and dying in lengthy agony. Celibacy, silence and material dispossession are the hallmarks of religious communities of all kinds. There’s only the occasional libidinous Saint Augustine to balance that picture, though the tubby friar is too popular a figure in literature for there not to be some truth in the depiction.
There is thus a societal force of one kind or another to support both the fat and the lean in terms of material wealth. The same applies to many other kinds of potentially anorectic behavior.
Let your right to freedom guide you
Societal approval of any form of ‘eating’ disorder is not a reasonable indicator of its desirability in the context of a full life. In order to cut through society’s confusion, it is necessary to turn to a more potent judge: our true selves.
Here’s how I understand the situation:
- You are born a free soul. A restriction on your ability to reach out, whether for pain or for pleasure, is a restraint on your freedom and on your soul’s ability to fulfil itself. Any constraint on your freedom, even from inside your own bodily self, is counter to your universal right of existence. You therefore have the right and universal duty to identify and dissemble such constraints.
By taking prorectic action you will deliver into the universe the full benefit to be derived from your unique energy.
Any loss or reduction of your unique contribution is the true cost of any form of anorexia and is greater than any of us can afford.
Where do you lack appetite?
So, with that as the setting, it’s time to review some of the possible areas where you may be exhibiting anorectic behavior. I suppose the list could cover every aspect of existence, but here are some headings to get you started. They might well trigger your awareness of some of your own.
Given the tendency we all have to being self-condemning, I would stress that these are designed to promote self-examination, not self-punishment. I certainly fall short of many of them. It’s worth remembering that each moment is a new starting point and none of us has the means to do everything at once.
Here’s the list:
Physical anorexia might show itself through behaviors relating to:
- Food: Is your diet planned, balanced, regular and organic? Your water filtered?
- Habits: Do you smoke, drink, take drugs or otherwise self-harm?
- Clothing: Do you always have the right color-coordinated outfit available for any occasion?
- Accommodation: Does your home accurately reflect both your personality and your social position?
- Location: Have you chosen where to live based on a balanced assessment of your physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs?
- Transport: Is your car or bike clean and in good order? Does it meet all your needs?
- Exercise: Do you work out aerobically for 40 minutes, three times a week, as well as lifting weights and maintaining flexibility?
- Pleasure: Do you have a regular schedule of body-rubs, sex, true relaxation or other total-pleasure activity?
- Pain: Do you push your body regularly to take on something a little – not too much – challenging?
- Money: Do you have an income commensurate with your potential as well as adequate savings etc?
- Teeth: Do you make regular visits to the dentist and have work done as soon as it is necessary?
- Rest: Do you sleep well and take proper vacations and other breaks?
Intellectual anorexia might show itself through behaviors relating to:
- Reading: Do you always have a challenging book of some kind on the go?
- Debate: Do you make opportunities for discussion which flex your mind and force you to consider new things?
- Discovery: Do you dip into subjects which are of no apparent value to you just to see what they’re about?
- Power: Do you hide your knowledge or analytical power even though you’re pretty sure you’re right?
- Challenge: Do you avoid intellectual issues which might be hard for you, like understanding statistical deviations?
- Reflection: Do you set aside time each day to think about what’s happened and what you’ve learned from it?
- Stimulation: Do you head for that new exhibition even if you don’t think there’s much there for you?
- Pleasure: Do you reward your beautiful mind with crosswords, chess, bridge, constructions and puzzles of all kinds which have no value beyond the joy of doing them?
- Pain: When last did you force yourself to make the case for something you’re diametrically opposed to?
Emotional anorexia might show itself through behaviors relating to:
- Love: Can you admit there are people who love you just for yourself?
- Expression: Do you always voice your feelings, love as well as rage, joy as well as fear?
- Hate: When last did you tell someone you hated them? Do you allow yourself to hate anyone?
- Compliments: Do you welcome praise, repeating it to yourself on every occasion?
- Kindness: Can you receive warmth and generosity with ease, basking in its nutritional power?
- Community: Are you active in social groupings for more than financial reward?
- Relationship: Do you accept the risks and effort involved in linking yourself to others?
- Pain: Do you allow yourself to feel the pain and poignancy of everyday life and cry when anything hurts you?
- Pleasure: Can you permit yourself the warmth reward for having made a generous gesture?
- Risk: Do you tell people when they are important to you, even in the face of indifference or worse?
- Vulnerability: Can you admit to yourself that all sorts of things matter to you and that the wanting may be painful?
- Career: Have you found a work life which is healthily emotionally rewarding?
Spiritual anorexia might show itself through behaviors relating to:
- Universal connection: Can you make contact with a sense of being an inextricable and essential part of this 13 billion year-old universe?
- Unconditional acceptance: Are you totally convinced of your own universal perfection?
- Fundamental reassurance: How often do you reach through the chaos of conscious thoughts and feelings to the place where you know that everything is right because it is all that it can be, just as it should be?
- Sense of truth: Can you ‘smell’ when things are universally true, even if you are unable to follow those truths?
- Soulful pleasure: Do you thank your soul for nudging you along a path of ever-growing meaning and treat it to meditations and enriching experiences?
- Soulful pain: Do you permit yourself to feel universal pain?
- Easy acquaintance with death: Are you comfortable with the knowledge that you will die and content that it should be so?
- Creative works and appreciation: Do you create unique works of your own and resonate with those of others? Are you learning a musical instrument?
With some sense of where you are self-restricting, it’s now time to see how to to move into a state of prorexia.
How can you be free?
The average person with food-related anorexia undergoes two forms of therapy. One is behavioral, so as to regain a healthy bodyweight and learn to eat again. The other is psychological or psychospiritual, so that the root emotional/soulful distress can be dissipated.
The overall success of the combined approach is dependent on the psychological distress being ameliorated, or regression occurs.
(Interestingly, there is today a growing tendency for eating disorders to recur in midlife, presumably because the psychological issues that gave rise to them in adolescence were not fully addressed. This is further proof that the disorder is not about food.)
The twin-therapy response is demanding of resources, both in terms of the supporting therapists and of the client’s time and money. It is also not a lot of fun and can include periods of great unpleasure. The same considerations apply to all other anorexias, which is why we tend to ignore them as long as possible.
Another reason we avoid expanding our appetites is because we fear the consequential risks associated with being properly ‘fed’.
Reconstitution brings risk
For example, if we have an IQ of 120 and intellectual anorexia, we may not have opened a serious book in 20 years. It might seem as if the investment in recovery was minimal: $25.00 and three hours reading energy – four if the book is by a ‘good’ writer.
However, our organism is also aware on some level that opening that book is the thin end of the wedge. Once we’ve read that one we’ll have our appetite whetted for another, and then another, until we need to build a bookshelf to hold them all.
Next, our convictions start to develop and this leads to differences with our old non-intellectual couch-potato friends. It becomes less tolerable to spend an evening listening to Fred’s immature views on politics or Emma’s bitter condemnation of all men.
The impact of our ‘new’ self spreads. Suddenly, we’re on the wrong side of the boss at work and – before we’ve said: “What Color Is Your Parachute?” – we’re out looking for a new job.
More riskily, we now find we want more than before, not just a job but an occupation with true meaning to it. In the midst of writing our 400th job application we might well say: “I wish I’d never picked up that darned book in the first place.”
Time goes by. Belts get taken in another notch. But we’re gloomily committed to self-development and audit a course or two at the local college.
And then? The company which fired us is acquired by Friendly Monster Corp. FMC hires us at a consultant’s massive day rate to go in and manage the human partnership side of the transition. Thank goodness for that book! More money and more fulfilled, too!
The self-protective developmental cycle will continue in this way until we die. Lots of discomfort balancing lots of joyful growth.
You may read this and think: “There’s no way I’m going to get into all that”. You may be right, but watch out: this stuff has a sneaky way of creeping up on you. Once you start thinking, you may already be on a path of change . . . .
Follow this method
Assuming that you do want to do something about your anorexia(s), here’s how to proceed:
- Identify what form(s) your anorexia(s) take(s);
- Assess the true cost of investing in overcoming it/them;
- Make a positive estimate of where it might lead you; and
- Decide whether or not you want to make that investment.
There isn’t time here to go into each of these four steps. Discovering what form(s) your ‘appetite disorder’ takes is probably the most important step, so I offer this sequence as a starting point:
- Allow yourself to reflect and gain a sense of where your intelligence, energy, and personality place you in the global human organization.
- Once you have a reasonable sense of your place in the world, put yourself in an eating frame of mind, as if it were mid-morning and you were in a delicatessen, supermarket or chocolate boutique. Remind yourself that you know what it feels like to have an appetite or a distaste for something.
- Read through the lists of anorexias again, sensing when you have either an excessive appetite or a significant distaste for something. These are your starting places. Write them down.
- Go down your new list, asking yourself more measuredly whether your appetite and accumulated ‘store’ of each entity is greater or lesser than might be expected of someone with equivalent natural credentials. [For example, that person with an IQ of 120 might consider they ‘should’ have at least a Master’s degree in addition to their high school diploma.]
- Strike out any item which doesn’t feel significantly different from the norm for your set of personal qualities.
- Prioritize the items which remain. If any are immediately life-threatening, move them up to the top. There’s no point in attaining that Ph.D. and having a heart attack at the moment of your glory.
Remind yourself: all anorexias are life-reducing, life-inhibiting, soul-destroying. And you deserve better than that.
The Ultimate Kindness
The ultimate kindness to yourself is to grant yourself the gift of courageous vision to review your appetites, both diminished and excessive. Then, support that courage with the resources to make the necessary changes, alone or with a committed ally.
When choosing that ally, I urge you to move with care or you may find yourself subtly sidetracked by their agenda. This is particularly likely if the ally is also your spouse. The influence is not intentional but it’s bound to be there.
It’s really only a third-party coach, counselor or psychotherapist who can be expected to be reasonably objective, and even then you should spend some considerable time researching the best one for you.
- Your family is part of the system which, all unconsciously, helped create your anorexia(s) in the first place;
- Your friends have a vested interest in keeping you the way you are, even if they are also following the path of independent development;
- Your work colleagues have very mixed motivation regarding your success and cannot be relied on to put you first in any hard times.
So, tread with care but tread: you will move yourself into a state of greater freedom and growth.
Good luck to you. Good growth to you. You are entitled to every cubic millimeter of the space the universe made for you.
Oh, and if that overcoat is still on display in the Atrium Mall, Newton, MA, please tell the shop to hold it: I’m on my way . . .