It's a question I've asked and been asked many times: why did I develop anorexia? Of course, I wanted to know because of my own natural curiosity; I also wanted to know because I thought it was my key to recovery.
The idea was predicated on a simple assumption: if I could understand why I was starving myself, then I could stop.
The problem is that this assumption isn't correct. After all, we know why the pancreas stops producing insulin in Type 1 diabetes, but that knowledge doesn't magically jump start insulin production. Even from a behavioral perspective, understanding our motivations doesn't always mean we can just change. Most smokers know that lighting up isn't healthy, but this knowledge doesn't necessarily mean they'll quit.
Today's Fxck Feelings blog had some similar advice, to a girl who liked to date men already in relationships:
As such, asking why you’re attracted to pre-attached guys is about as dangerous as asking why you love Martinis; it allows you to study and indulge your predilection until you find an answer that will make it easy to stop, which won’t happen, and in the meantime, all your research is just fodder for rehab.
Accept the fact that the answer will never come or, if it does, it will change nothing, and it will never be easy to stop.
This comment answers the question of why so many of us get trapped in the never-ending quest for "why." Simply put, the search for why doesn't require us to stop the problematic behavior. After all, we can't stop (according to the theory) because we haven't answered the "why." So there's no point in trying. Yet we get to tell worried friends and family that we're in therapy, that we're "working on it." Meanwhile, we don't have to challenge these behaviors.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't ask questions, just that "why" might not be the most useful. I think better questions to ask might be:
- When am I most vulnerable to using behaviors?
- How can I get better? How can I stay better?
- What are warning signs of illness returning?
- What are the benefits I get from the ED?
- How can my friends and family provide support?
It also makes the assumption that people with eating disorders are able to see their behavior rationally--and that's often not the case. Nor are ED behaviors choices. They're much more like compulsions. When I have OCD compulsions, I don't give a damn about why I'm doing what I'm doing. I can even understand it. But in the moment, all I want to do is feel better. Eating more and gaining weight freaked me out. The why didn't matter. My brain never even got to that point.
We don't need to understand exactly why we're doing something in order to stop doing it. Understanding why might be a nice bonus, but it's not necessary. Maybe my next question is: why do so many people insist on asking us why?