I believe that so much of our suffering and maladaptive behavior is rooted in a subconscious need to belong, to be accepted, to be loved. I say subconscious because while many of us “know” we want friends and need the love of others in our lives, we don’t have awareness of how deep this need penetrates our everyday life and psyche.
Wired for Connection
We are wired for connection. As Brené Brown says, “I’m willing to call this a fact: A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. There are certainly other causes of illness, numbing and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering. ” (The Gifts of Imperfection p. 26).
While there were many pieces of my experience that led to the development of an eating disorder as a teenager, one significant and main piece was being rejected and the victim of “mean girls.” I went to drastic measures to try to change my body, believing that doing so would make people in high school accept me. Those drastic measures also helped to numb the pain of the deep loneliness and isolation I felt each time I spent lunch alone in a classroom with my chemistry teacher.
Now, as a therapist, I have yet to hear the story and context of someone’s eating disorder that didn’t start or continue because of some relational distress, hurt, loneliness, or desire and hope that changing their body could solve their relationship problems, or breed connection; or at least numb the pain of rejection and loneliness.
Eating Disorders are not unique in their roots of relational suffering or desires for meaningful connection and belonging. Irvin Yalom, PhD, said that no one would come to therapy if they were 100% satisfied in their relationships in their lives. Because if they were, they wouldn’t need therapy. Relationships are the source of our greatest joy, as well as the source of our greatest distress.
While I have been recovered from an eating disorder for a long time now, that doesn’t mean that my relationships are perfect or that I never feel lonely, hurt, rejected, or isolated. I have learned to manage my feelings about this more adaptively, and work consciously on prioritizing and improving the relationships in my life.
Something that has come up for me in recent years is more awareness of a personality trait I have that interferes in my relationships and breeds insecurity. It is a personality trait that many individuals with eating disorders also experience and relate to. Perhaps we can even consider it a common, underlying vulnerability. What is this trait I’m alluding to?
I am competitive.
I’ve known this about myself, and also not known this about myself. In other words, I have known there are times and contexts where my competitive nature manifests itself. For example, my husband and I cannot play card games together anymore. I also know it comes out when I play sports but this has never felt like a bad thing.
In recent years, my friends have begun to give me feedback about the ways in which they see my competitive nature come out and how it has interfered with some of my relationships. This has been painful feedback for me to receive but also incredibly valuable as this was a big blind spot for me. I didn’t consciously feel competitive with my friends. And I don’t always feel competitive with people in my life. Only certain contexts and situations raise that behavior and insecurity for me.
I don’t like this about myself, but instead of criticizing myself for being competitive or trying to change it (it’s pretty hard to change personality traits), I decided to become curious about it’s roots. If I could understand it more fully, then I could be more mindful instead of reactive to triggers.
Getting In My Own Way
As I’ve observed my competitive side and discovered the triggers that bring that part out in me, I realize (again) that it all ties back to my need to be loved and belong. When I feel threatened, or believe that people’s loving, acceptance, or liking of me, will be diminished because someone else seems more loveable, likeable, and competent than me, my “Competitor” flares. Ironically, when my Competitor flares, I create a self-fulfilling prophesy: I act like someone who is less likeable.
One relationship in particular has been such a powerful learning experience for me in this regard. This is a dear friend and colleague. We share the same passions both professionally and personally. Because of our similarities and interests, we have been in several positions to present together. This is when my Competitor has flared. I felt threatened by how competent, likeable, and funny my friend was. I believed that when she showed up in a room, there was no room for me to occupy the space with her. Because of this, I already felt the pain of imagined rejection from our peers and friends. And of course these beliefs are rooted in my old history of rejection and called up those old, familiar painful feelings.
I went through a lot of suffering in this relationship as I chronically felt one social interaction or one presentation away from “getting voted off the island.” This caused me so much distress that I began to withdraw and isolate myself, preempting anyone’s ability to reject me.
After a couple years of this, I decided I didn’t want to be a victim of these negative belief patterns anymore. I didn’t want to feel this insecure or competitive with her, or with others in my life. To change these thought patterns, I have to consciously insert thoughts along the lines of, “Her competency doesn’t diminish my competency. Her light doesn’t diminish my light. We can both shine.”
We Can All Win
I’m a work-in-progress but this has made a lot of difference for me! I am able to maintain my friendship with her and others I care about. When my Competitor is in check, I am aware that she and I make a pretty great team when we present together. The reality is, we may be similar but we both bring unique parts of ourselves to our work that complement each other in important ways. I’d miss the value of what I can learn from her when I get too distracted feeling threatened by her and competitive with her.
I really do believe that we can all shine together. There is enough room for all of us! I also know the 17-year-old in me, doesn’t believe this. So I will keep reminding 17-year-old-me of this fact. Doing so helps me be who I want to be in relationships: able to connect instead of react and feel insecure. But, if you ever want to play Ticket to Ride or Cover your Assets with me, watch out! Game on!