A client mentioned seeing parts of her childhood reflected in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, a book I recently read at her suggestion. What struck her was Vance describing how people may respond to childhood dysfunction in an unhealthy, polarized way through either fatalism or irrational hope or a mix of the two. This is a perfect description of the mindset of many dysregulated eaters, especially regarding their relationship with food.
Fatalism is a belief in a fixed destiny that we are powerless to change or escape. An example is believing that what was said of you as a child—no one will ever love you, you’re not good enough, or you won’t amount to anything—is true. Fatalist thinking then leads to you act in such a way that you end up not living up to your potential, failing to follow through or succeed, or finding people who mistreat you. Among dysregulated eaters, it plays out as I’ve tried everything and nothing will heal my eating problems.
At the other end of the spectrum, irrationality manifests in believing that, in spite of experience and evidence to the contrary, life will improve. This magical mind trick allows you to have faith when none is warranted. You stick with the same abuser and expect miraculous changes, hate your job while hoping it will improve, or cling to the belief that someone you love will give up an addiction or abuse behavior though he or she does nothing to lead anyone else to share your optimism. Among dysregulated eaters it plays out as This time my diet will work or I’ll faithfully go to the gym I hate going to.
These beliefs are adaptations that are generated by dysfunctional parenting. By engaging in fatalism, adults need not face trying and failing and can play the victim card for life—it’s all happening to me and I can’t do anything about it. They can avoid ever having their hopes dashed and needing to take responsibility for their choices. Alternately, holding on to irrational hope means side-stepping depression or, worse, despair that life will always be as bad as it is. In some cases, such hope keeps children or adults alive because they never need to surrender to the crushing weight of how awful their reality actually is and might continue to be.
Dysregulated eaters often alternate between fatalism and irrational hope. At times, they sink into despair that no matter what they do, their eating/weight/health will never get better. At other times, they’re buoyed by the unwarranted and mistaken belief that things will magically improve somehow. This emotional tug of war gets them nowhere, because neither approach is reality based, and all-or-nothing thinking only bounces them back and forth between two doomed-to-fail extremes.
What works is a middle ground of recognizing exactly what we can change and what we can’t. There are also emotions that we must acknowledge and experience and the need for exploration of how we came to dwell in fatalism or irrational hope to begin with. My hunch is that if you, as a dysregulated eater, have often experienced these mindsets around food or weight, you have them in other areas of your life as well. Now is the time to cast off these unhealthy and unproductive extreme ways of thinking and learn to deal with life more adaptively and successfully.