Spontaneous Vulnerability: Eating Disorders and Creative Arts Therapies
Posted on January 23, 2017
Eating disorders communicate non-verbally. Each behavior driven by the eating disorder has a symbolic message and meaning that desperately wants to be understood. In this way, eating disorders are a call for help using symbol and metaphor. Creative Arts Therapies such as dance/movement therapy and drama therapy meet eating disorders on the stage of the body itself, and just like eating disorders, do not limit communication to mere words.
Dance/movement therapy uses narrative movement to communicate and to share personal stories, spontaneous movement to respond intuitively in the moment and emotive movement to help express the experience of emotions. Sharing stories, responding spontaneously and expressing emotions are all antithetical to the rigidity and isolation of eating disorders. Eating disorders love to ruminate on the past and plan how to defend from the future and have a hard time surviving the here and the now. Through dance/movement therapy, patients connect to their bodies and access the freedom of self-expression. Most patients are intensely uncomfortable when asked to move in front of their peers. I gently remind them that trust and vulnerability are essential ingredients for building healthy relationships and for reestablishing secure attachments rooted in connection with something other than their eating disorders. The treatment environment of trust, acceptance and unconditional positive regard can elicit feelings of safety and comfort, and for most patients this can be the beginning of a more compassionate relationship with themselves. When I walk into the room with a bag of colored scarves ready for a dance/movement therapy group, some patients immediately roll their eyes, sigh and groan "oh no." I always smile, because I know that it is fear of being vulnerable, fear of engaging in free play and spontaneity and fear of feeling shame that is activated. I know their eating disorders feel threatened by the scarves. I also know that after group, the majority of patients will share that they felt less insecure than they thought they would, and that they noticed their inner critic was silent for the duration of the group.
The group experience can provide patients the means for intimate connection through giving and receiving support. This is the beginning of the unraveling of the isolating tendency and the "protection" of the eating disorder. When patients share and embody beliefs and fears with one another, and they are met by acceptance and love, they are forced to reconsider old, unhelpful beliefs that no one will ever understand or love them. Their beliefs that they are flawed or unworthy are challenged. There is risk in sharing themselves, and risk implies trust.
When patients allow themselves to play, to move, to laugh and to be spontaneous in front of one another, they are silencing shame and reinforcing the truth that they have something valuable inside that's worth sharing and worth fighting for.