Unlocking Emotions: Metaphors as Pathways to Understanding Eating Disorders

Copmlex Birds Flying Free after Recovery

When you have an eating disorder, you struggle to explain what’s going on.  It actually goes with the territory.  There’s a diagnosis with the struggle that technically is implied, many go through it and most people don’t realize it: Alexithymia – The inability to identify and/or communication one’s emotions.  It’s a form of emotional blindness, an experience that so many people struggle to understand because the disrupted emotional awareness that takes root, causes those with mental health to feel lost and helpless. Particularly when trying to feel understood. 

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to getting better. Finding the want to recover and halt hurting requires awareness. Once the awareness is centered many people find their voice.

When you have your own experience, not every intervention is going to work.

If you can’t figure out what’s going on, how do you know if something is working? One person may benefit immensely from specific therapeutic interventions with the support of medication while another may not. For others, finding a combination of processing, opposite action, and alternative types of therapy may be most effective.  Still, some tools and tactics can be more universally beneficial as part of the treatment mix and that is part of the process. Discovering how a person feels heard and seen is the work.

The use of metaphor is among one of the best to describe alexithymic experiences. In addition to their proof of being an effective healing modality, the best part is use of metaphor doesn’t require any major learning curve,

Here, we’ll discuss the value of experimenting with metaphors in eating disorder recovery and provide some examples to help you get started.

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What Are Metaphors?

First and foremost, let’s get clear on what a metaphor is so you feel better equipped to use them. According to Scribbr, a metaphor is a figure of speech that implicitly compares two unrelated things, typically by stating that one thing is another. Examples:

  • You are a gem.
  • Life is a maze.
  • Laughter is the best medicine.

Metaphors can make a complex thought more approachable and easier to understand, making it a tremendous tool in treating and recovering from an eating disorder.

Secret to body image and feeling better

How Metaphors Are Useful in Eating Disorder Treatment

The complex and intense emotions that come with having an eating disorder can make it difficult for clients to convey the cycle of engaging in disordered eating behaviors and why it’s so difficult to let them go. Remember Alexithymia is at play, here. Literal language such as “I restrict my food because it provides me a sense of safety and control” or “I obsessively think about food because I allow myself so little of it” may not even be connections the client has made. Using the imagination and speaking more figuratively creates an avenue for communicating and comprehending reality.

Eating psychology pioneer, clinical director, and author Anita Johnston, Ph.D., CEDS, explains how metaphor connects with the right side of the brain, which invites clients to use their imagination. “When we imagine our struggles and our eating disorder journeys using metaphor, it can unlock hope and compassion for ourselves in a way that hasn’t previously felt possible.”

Author Ellen Siegelman builds on this concept in her book Metaphor and Meaning in Psychotherapy (1990) in which she tells us the “aha” moment of drawing a connection between metaphor and reality is emotionally gratifying for clients. “The new knowledge that accompanies the analogy is also charged with affect, and we know that the only insights that are usable are affectively realized truths” (p.16). 

Metaphor allows someone seeking answers a pathway to the various ways disordered eating or eating disorder behaviors show up in other areas of life. By exploring the deeper significance of phrases like “I’m a black-and-white-thinker” or “I want to make myself invisible,” we can concentrate more on the meanings of clients’ life experiences rather than on specific causes of these events (Peavy, 2004).

For example, the restrictive type often struggles with abundance or feels like life is too much. As a survival mechanism, one may aim to shrink their body or make themself invisible by restricting food, but that usually isn’t the only thing they’re restricting. They also restrict things like their emotions, new experiences, spending money, developing relationships, and intimacy. When they slip, they retaliate through deeper restrictions. 

Time wasted while bingeing and emotional eating

Paradoxically, someone struggling with binge eating wrestles with the emptiness of life—not feeling like they have enough time, money, friends, clothes, or attention, or simply feeling like they’re not enough. 

For clients with bulimia, it can be beneficial to explore in other ways they’re engaging in impulsive and compensatory behaviors, e.g. are they “binging and purging men,” experiencing intense mood swings, or vacillating between a disheveled household to an immaculately clean and organized one.  

Thus, the use of metaphor to explain the eating disorder can serve as a launching pad to explore and address underlying traits and liabilities rather than simply focusing on changing eating behaviors. Because, after all, eating disorders are and are not about the food.

Sample Metaphors to Use in Your Recovery 

If you’re unsure how to formulate your own metaphors to facilitate your eating disorder recovery, here are some examples to get you started.

My Eating Disorder Is a Troubled Significant Other 

Imagine falling madly in love with someone and thinking about how they’re the soulmate you’ve been looking for all along. You do everything together, and you can always count on them to be there for you. However, they often criticize you for what you wear, the shows you watch, and what you choose to eat. You think they’re just trying to help you, so you usually listen to what they say. Plus, you know they’ve had a rough life and weren’t always shown love or support, so you think some of their own insecurities get taken out on you. You don’t feel like you deserve it, though, and you’re not sure how much longer you’re willing to tolerate it.

Your eating disorder isn’t actually a troubled significant other, but the way it controls you, gaslights you and puts you down is very similar, and you are equally deserving of extending yourself compassion for living your day-to-day with the eating disorder voice chattering away in your head.

Recovery Is Like a Hot Cup of Coffee

Imagine you’re handed a mug of coffee. You go in for a sip and, “Ow!” It’s hotter than you expected, and now you’re hesitant to take another sip. Fortunately, it cools off after a couple of minutes, and you’re able to enjoy it.

So many aspects of recovery relate to the hot cup of coffee metaphor. Maybe it’s trying a fear food for the first time, and it feeling too overwhelming. Maybe it’s noticing your pants feeling a little more snug as you work to restore some weight and the discomfort you feel in your body. Maybe it’s replacing militant exercise with joyful and gentle movement and worrying your weight will spiral out of control.

The more you consistently eat the fear food, the less scary it becomes. The more you tenderly and neutrally speak to yourself, the more appreciative of your body you become. The more you allow yourself to explore alternative forms of movement you enjoy, the more you start to see exercise as a health-promoting behavior—not a method of body manipulation.

It’s like being an Oak Tree in a Windstorm

Imagine yourself as an oak tree enduring a windstorm. Gusts are blowing at what feels like unbearable rates, causing every one of your limbs to bend backward so far that you’re certain they’ll snap. Despite the unrelenting harsh blasts of wind, your trunk remains unfazed and grounded—its roots so deep even the most inclement conditions can’t displace you. The storm passes, and you revel in the calm and sunshine.

This metaphor symbolizes the intense feelings you experience in those moments you’re compelled to use an eating disorder behavior like restricting, binging, and purging. The impulse is so strong, you feel it’s almost beyond your control to let it pass. The good news is, you can. You have the inner fortitude to not only allow this discomfort to pass through you but to actually take note of where it’s showing up and what it feels like. Sure, there may be times you, especially early on, that you give in to the urge, but don’t let this deter you. The more you allow and endure the discomfort, the stronger and more resilient you grow. 

Building Blocks of Healthy Eating and Recovery

Metaphors for You to Build from

Even with the above examples, you may still feel unsure how to create your own metaphors. Here are a few metaphors sans context that you can start with and personalize to your own recovery. 

  • My eating disorder is a frenemy. 
  • My urge to binge on sweet foods is like a plea for sweetness in my life.
  • Purging is an eraser for my “bad” behavior.
  • It’s like hitting the reset button
  • Comparison is the thief of joy ( – Theodore Roosevelt). 
  • The eating disorder voice is a bee constantly buzzing around my ear. 
  • Recovery is a rollercoaster.
  • Recovery is the professor I detested but look back on with appreciation.

You can also get curious by writing simple words, even journal entries. Openly write or review old entries and see if you notice any natural use of metaphors or other figures of speech or similes, e.g. “My eating disorder sucks the joy out of life” or “I’m too broken to be fixed,” and deconstruct those using unrelated objects or scenarios. You might be surprised by what you find and unveil.

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Final Thoughts on Using Metaphors in Eating Disorder Treatment

If you struggle with an eating disorder or disordered eating and have a difficult time unraveling your thoughts and emotions, using metaphor can be a great building block for understanding and expressing yourself. It allows you to recognize the many parallels your eating disorder has with other difficulties in life. When you realize your issues with food and your body show up in other places—and in ways so many people experience, be it with food or something else—it helps you see that you’re not broken. You never were. You may just need to work on your alexithymia, and it truly gives you hope for healing.

If you’re seeing a therapist or counselor, consider bringing up the concept of metaphor and storytelling with them. Your imaginations working together reveal so many important truths to lead you further down the road of recovery.