April 22, 2024
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Sometimes Actions Become Our Words

Why is communicating so hard? Language. We learn to communicate at a young age. One can argue that our very first means of communication, as human beings, is crying. Parents often say that they can distinguish between different types of cries or wails; one means “I’m hungry,” another, “I need to be changed” etc. As we develop we begin to learn other forms of communicating: pointing, facial expressions, body movements. With time, we begin to learn spoken and written language. We recognize that certain sounds represent things we see or want, and eventually understand abstract concepts and learn to form sentences and communicate with one another in the traditional sense.

Within the natural development of language and communication, styles are adopted based on what an individual sees “works” for him or her. For instance, a baby might learn that crying will yield being held and coddled, and knows that even the screech of a cry will result in his needs being met. Or a young adult may learn that not speaking to someone will actually cause her to receive care, due to others’ worrying about her.

For those struggling with mental health issues, communication oftentimes becomes one of the greatest areas of difficulty. Somewhere during development, messages have been learned about what will get one’s needs met. Oftentimes this clashes with what is actually adaptive or healthy for the individual. For instance, for someone struggling with depression, rather than ask for needs to be met via verbal language, communication takes place through the act of isolation: When someone isolates him/herself this sends a message to others to leave him/her alone. Or perhaps the message is that the person wants others to ask about him/her and show concern.

There are many perceptions and studies related to why an individual develops an eating disorder. Reasons include that the individual has a desire for control, or that the eating disorder is a means of coping with difficult issues in one’s life. Interestingly, an eating disorder can also act as a means of communication. The messaging behind the communication may be conscious or unconscious. When I struggled with anorexia, I did not wake up one day and “choose” to have an eating disorder. While the symptoms related to my weight and appearance, by no means was it truly about these things. Instead, it was about the pain that I was experiencing. I had had the experience of being rejected by particular friends when I tried to use my words and express this pain: Either they did not look to understand or they felt that I was “overreacting.” Though my family and other friends did support me, the messages of rejection became more ingrained than the support.

My eating disorder was complex. It served multiple purposes, and looking back, I am able to identify that it served as a means of communication: It showed my friends and family that I was not okay. Perhaps I was fearful of voicing my pain as I wasn’t sure if they would support me or take me seriously. Maybe my coping mechanisms were simply so maladaptive that I didn’t know any other way to approach my pain. My recovery process included learning to communicate in a healthy manner, in a way that I hadn’t known to do before.

I learned to ask for my needs and express my pain. Whether it be through verbal conversation, crying or even some form of action or silence. But I learned to do so in a way that would bring me the best results long term, and keep my mind and body healthy while doing so. Learning to communicate was not only for or about me, but also included my parents and loved ones having to learn to communicate with me in ways that would prove helpful for all parties.

Communication is far from easy. It includes being vulnerable, perhaps being rejected, not taken seriously or even ignored. But our worth as human beings dictates that we deserve to be able to ask that our needs be met. When we are able to identify what purposes maladaptive behaviors serve, what we hope to communicate, we can learn to use our words or healthy actions to help us. This may include acceptance that we cannot always get what we desire from others, but that we are worth trying.

“Actions speak louder than words.” Perhaps we can commit to trying, together, to be mindful of these actions and how they impact us. And to try to use these difficult, complicated words to both ask for help and to provide it to others.

By Temimah Zucker, LMSW

Temimah Zucker is a primary therapist at Monte Nido Manhattan and has worked in the field of eating disorders as a therapist, meal support, speaker and activist since recovering from her own struggle. She can be reached at [email protected].

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