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Do You Need to Have Problems to Feel Cared For?


Wouldn’t it be awful if you were holding onto having an eating problem—or any other kind, for that matter—as a way to get people to pay attention to and care about you? As I explained in my secondary gain blog, this dynamic isn’t as strange or uncommon as it sounds. Here’s why you might be clinging to problems to feel loved or cared about.

If you were physically neglected in childhood, you might feel starved for someone to do things for you now. Let’s say you were the third of five children and always felt kind of lost in the shuffle. Dad worked three jobs and Mom expected you to be independent because she was overwhelmed. Living in the country, you often wandered the woods alone and managed on your own. Mom had you dress and feed yourself early on, was too busy to help much with homework, and once forgot and drove off without you on a family outing. You did notice that when something was seriously wrong with you, it got parental attention—when you had pneumonia, were lost in the woods for hours and the family came frantically searching for you, and whenever you got into trouble in school. 

If you were emotionally neglected in childhood, you might feel as if your thoughts and feelings don’t matter and that, therefore, you don’t either. Perhaps Dad was an unemotional type and Mom was depressed and wrapped up in her own problems. You spent a good deal of time worried about Mom who rarely asked how you were doing. When you tried to tell her, she turned the tables and complained about her woes. Everything changed when you developed an eating disorder. Dad tried to fix the problem by giving you long lectures on our duty to take care of our bodies, while Mom constantly asked how you were doing with food and made lists of what you should and shouldn’t eat. The sicker you got, the more attention was targeted in your direction. 

Today you enjoy when people make a fuss over you and try to fix your problems. You’re secretly afraid that if you get well, friends and family will forget about you again and you’ll feel alone, ignored and abandoned. While you don’t like having anorexia/binge-eating/bulimia, it does serve a purpose and you hate to think of what life would be like without people always asking how you’re doing and coming up with suggestions to help.

Most people who use eating and other problems to get people to take care of them do so unconsciously, so please don’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Consider how you would get care and attention if you didn’t have a problem that people could nag you about resolving. Consider if your eating disorder is trying to solve a problem you could solve in healthier and more direct ways without it.