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The Overvaluing of Overthinness


In psychology, egosyntonic refers to the behaviors, values, and feelings that are in harmony with or acceptable to the needs and goals of the ego, or consistent with one's ideal self-image. One of the reasons Anorexia, Orthorexia and other restrictive food behaviors are so difficult to treat has to do with the way clients (and our culture) place such a high value on thinness and controlling food and weight. Time and time again, I’ve heard described how important the admiration from family and peers became as they began to lose weight. One of my clients, I’ll call him Brian, had been larger as a child and often bullied about his weight. He described feeling redeemed in his teen years as he became thinner and thinner, and ultimately was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa. In his mind, it was a way to get back at the bullies and naysayers who had made fun of him for his size. Another young woman reported how many times her mother complimented her on her ability to control her eating and her dedication to exercise. She even mentioned in the annual Christmas letter how her daughter often prepared amazing recipes for the family, but seemed to have super powers by denying herself the consumption of her food preparation.

As I tell all my clients, anorectic episodes are not sustainable. You cannot continue to use restrictive eating as a way to manage weight, food, and self-esteem for the long haul. Eventually someone notices the dangerous weight loss or the body actually begins to demand food by sending an urge to eat in an effort to protect the body from starvation. Because they have so highly valued restricting their food intake, at this point, clients may experience the flip side of ego-syntonic, which is ego-dystonic, the opposite, referring to thoughts and behaviors (dreams, compulsions, desires, etc.) that are in conflict, or dissonant, with a person's ideal self-image. This often culminates in feelings of self-loathing when one eats more than they feel is the ideal amount of food, generally with the ongoing goal of weight loss. This can lead to vicious cycles of restricting and binge-eating, purging, laxative abuse, or self-harm to punish oneself for eating more than what their anorectic mind believes to be acceptable.

If you or someone you love is caught up in these behaviors, seek the help of a professional trained in the treatment of eating disorders. Life is too short to spend in obsessive thinking about food and weight, and the compulsions to restrict, binge, or binge and purge.