Emotions in anorexia

Here's a bit of a confession: I have a hard time believing people like me. Why? There are the obvious self-esteem issues, but there's also my whacked-out interpretations of what other people must be thinking about me. When I'm talking, are they bored or do they just have a really full bladder? Is it a bad day or something I said? Are they offended or just not amused? Are they mad at me? Are they? Are they?

I usually conclude yes, they are mad at me, and then go about wracking my brain to determine what I did that could have caused them to hate me (note that being mad at me automatically translates into "you hate me" which is a cognitive distortion in and of itself). When I can't find anything, I assume it's just, well, me.

As I interact with people, I tend to hyper-interpret everything. An arched eyebrow becomes a stiletto through the heart. The flick of a wrist can toss cold water down my back. This isn't to say that I'm always right--nor that I'm always wrong, seeing as I've pissed off a few people in my time--just that I'm always aware, always looking for meaning.

So when I first read of the similarities between anorexia and autism, I arched an eyebrow of my own. My cousin's son is autistic, and though behavioral therapies have made a world of difference, he still has problems understanding other people's emotions, even just understanding that other people have emotions. Clearly, I didn't have this problem. I was almost too aware of what others might be thinking and feeling.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that they are just (oh dear) mirror images of each other. Both my second cousin and I have difficulties in recognizing emotion. Whereas he doesn't interpret enough, I seem to interpret too much. And this issue only becomes worse when I'm malnourished and starving.

Previous research had shown that women with anorexia had difficulties in interpreting emotional faces. A recent study by Janet Treasure and colleagues found that women hospitalized for anorexia had difficulties in both recognizing and regulating emotions. The authors concluded that although they don't know whether this is a side effect of starvation,

the acceptability of emotions and recognition of emotions are important factors, so specifically practising emotion recognition and examining the function of emotions might be useful treatment targets. Building skills in emotion functioning may enable the client to feel more confident about social interaction and reduce isolation. It might also be useful to involve the family to build a shared understanding of emotional functioning.

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Anonymous said...

I relate a lot with being hyper-vigilant about what feedback I'm getting from people, trying to find a reason for every word. I do this at work, with my friends, etc. That's why being around people becomes so exhausting. I also think people will dissect everything I say, too, so I spend so much time formulating the perfect things to say at the perfect time. I even catch myself with this habit on the internet, but it's less of a problem online. I'm recovered from an ED (periods of both AN and BN depending on my weight, heh)

Thanks for linking to those interesting studies.


Amy said...

I definitely relate to this one. I have absolutely no concept of how people could possibly like me. And the few times I've been in relationship, and inevitably ended them, it's baffled me how the other person could be upset. I've always assumed they'd be happy to be rid of me. Weird.

Libby said...

This makes so much sense... I can definitely relate.

jennifer said...

Hey Carrie,Jennifer here. SO TRUE. Those thoughts and feelings could describe my every interaction,be it with friends,aquaintences,peers,bosses etc etc. My radar is in constant overdrive and alerted to the slightest response or lack thereof,from the poor people i am speaking with,who have no ideathat their every breath is being taken and dissected and mulled over....its an extremely tiring,NOT FUN way to interact!!!

Jessie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sad mom said...

I do like you. I'm not bored. I always have to pee, it's not you.

Both of my boys have trouble with this. My older son doesn't have an ED but does suffer depression and anxiety. He is very awkward socially and constantly apologizes for taking up space. He was very outgoing until elementary school and ADD difficulties squashed his joyeux de vivre. I'd give anything to have that confident four year old back to home school.

My younger one does have ED (they've just added Boost to his meal plan and are holding The Tube as the stick to make him drink it) and cannot be convinced people like him, really. They're just being nice, polite, patient, etc.

Makes me crazy and incredibly sad that such wonderful, charming, intelligent, attractive young men would feel they are such a burden on society.

You are all also wonderful, charming, intelligent and attractive. Really. I mean it.

Jessie said...

I also can definitely relate to this. I know I have a very hard time interpreting people's emotions and I usually tend to be hyper-sensitive. Anything anyone says can immediately become a criticism in my mind and yet another sign of why I am a royal f*ck-up. I have to be constantly on guard against over-reacting like this and it is exhausting.

I also wondered when I saw the article however whether this difficulty in interpreting emotions was a result of malnutrition or a trait existing independently of malnutrition. I know that I have always been somewhat over-sensitive to what other people say and do, but my ability to interpret other people's emotions was absolutely non-existent when I was severely malnourished. People would say hello to me and I would think they were attacking me.

I also wonder whether the difficulties that people with anorexia have in regulating their own emotions is a result of malnutrition as well. It seems that malnutrition certainly exacerbates this and the inability to read others' emotions.
Either way, this article was really interesting and will hopefully start a major push for more research of this type.

Wrapped up in Life said...

I think you were just inside my head...

Emily said...

Thanks for this post - I can definitely relate. Growing up I had to be hyper vigilant so that I could anticipate my parents' moods and reactions, now that trait only reinforces my insecurity and distrust of others. It is a bit of a catch 22.

Kim said...

I think you were just inside my head, too. Lately, I've been thinking so much about this -- how I overinterpret emotions. My mom always said, "Your radar is too active." I wish I could turn off the damn radar, especially at times like this, when I'm so consumed wondering what my loved ones are feeling, thinking, etc. It's exhausting and, ultimately, distracts from me taking care of myself.

This was a really interesting post. Thanks...

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this. I am the same way, but have gotten better about it recently. Part of this is my slow recovery from Anorexia, and part of it is the relationship I have with my girlfriend, who never worries what people think of her or how she is perceived. I am BAFFLED by people who don't worry about that, but being around her, I see how futile it is, and I worry less. Sometimes I put it to myself this way "how narcissistic am I to think that people are ALWAYS mad at me or reacting to me in some strong way?" Most of the time most people are just focused on themselves. :)

Anonymous said...

While I don't have anorexia, I do compulsively binge and overeat . . . and I also am hyper-interpretive of people's emotions. I always assume there are a million places they would rather be, a million other people they would rather be with . .

So, yes, I'm with you on this!

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

Unknown said...

Ah yes, I definitely know what you’re talking about. As someone who struggles with BN I can only nod my head in response to your post. The insecurities, hyperawareness, and extreme self centeredness that people with eating disorders deal with really screws up the ability to correctly interpret emotions. To most of us, it’s always our fault and the emotions are always negative when directed at us. The urge to overanalyze emotions is usually the cause of relationship strife, at least in my life anyways.

(P.S. – Some argue that those with ED’s are not self centered, but I guess we all have our own opinions)

Carrie Arnold said...

I agree that the emotions difficulties here seems to be a factor in almost all EDs, not just anorexia. Thank you all for sharing your experiences!

Unknown said...

This fits. And explains. As does the logic that malnourishment just sharpens it.

I wonder also whether some of us have the SAME trouble reading others but are tuned to take everything positively, instead. I can easily see in myself sometimes and in others the ability to misperceive and yet interpret things more positively than they were meant. And other times the opposite. Either way, it leads to disjointed and awkward relations without proper feedback from the environment.

anne said...

Wow, Carrie, I JUST wrote an almost identical comment to this on the around the dinner table site (and truly, I hadn't read your blog!!). My daughter over-interprets everything too. While it might seem she is very sensitive and empathetic, I really think this is just as significant a misinterpretation as the person who doesn't 'get' emotions. I have such a personally hard time relating to this because I seldom think about what someone else is thinking of me. Maybe that's why I'm typically fairly relaxed with people. I just don't let MY perception of their POSSIBLE perception of me even enter my mind. It just doesn't.

Carrie Arnold said...


Your comment is interesting- my grandmother (also with anxiety issues) is almost pathologically incapble of perceiving that people could be anything but honest, good people, to the point where she has been taken advantage of numerous times. I try to remember that most people are inherently good, but I have a quirky little internal cynic that keeps me from being too gullible.


You make a good point- being very aware of others' emotions can make a person very sensitive and empathetic. I remember being told at a very early age that I had a unique knack for putting myself in other people's shoes. Which isn't a bad thing, it's the perservating over every tiny gesture and change of vocal tone that's not so positive.

Anonymous said...

i totally understand how you feel as a teenager especially you feel insecure at nearly every moment of your life, thinking how you can improve on your looks or what you don't have. but as im maturing ive come to realize that what makes a person beautiful is how they are different from everybody else. your flaws can become your appeal. i am a perfectionist myself but am slowly realizing not to look at all the bad things about myself but rather the good.

check out my blog

getting better everyday, working towards my goals and thinking positively

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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