Dealing with Spiritual Pain: Part 2 of Finding the Spiritual in Eating Disorder Treatment—A 5-Part Series

Has your soul ever ached? Is it difficult to reconcile living in such a beautiful place as San Diego and feeling such pain?  Have you ever felt so far away from God that it hurt?  Have you ever questioned your belief in God, or in any sort of higher power?  Have you ever wondered how God can exist if there is such pain in the world?  Have you felt angry with God?  Have you ever felt hurt, shamed, disappointed, or discriminated by spiritual leaders?  Many of these emotions and experiences can lead to spiritual pain.  Spiritual pain is a soul-deep ache that is beyond depression or grief.  Spiritual pain is an existential crisis in which the deepest parts of ourselves are crying out, “Is there a God or higher power out there?”  “If so, how could this God or higher power let such pain and suffering happen?”

If you are suffering from an eating disorder, it is likely that you are in a lot of pain—physical, emotional, and psychological.  The eating disorder preoccupies your thoughts and feelings, and it affects how your body feels.  Spiritual pain is a deeper sorrow.  It is the suffering that you are experiencing in the depths of your soul.  It may result from past trauma, from grief and loss, or from the eating disorder behaviors that are eroding your spirit. In this blog post, I will highlight four signs of spiritual pain and give you some suggestions on how to start dealing with it.

Sign #1:  You feel far away from God/your higher power.  The biggest indication I’ve found with my clients struggling with eating disorders is that they feel as though their higher power has abandoned them.  You may have been struggling with your eating disorder behaviors for so long, and you may have asked over and over again for God or your higher power to heal you, and it hasn’t happened.  Perhaps you have experienced trauma or abuse in your life and have said to yourself, “Where was God when this person harmed me?” It is difficult to answer these questions.  

Loss can also trigger feelings of distance from God.  You may have asked, “Where was God when my loved one was sick?  How could God let that person die?”  You are not alone in these feelings.  There are so many examples of people expressing similar questions in sacred texts (Bible, Torah, etc.), literature, or in poetry.  It is a very human phenomenon to feel as though your higher power does not care anymore.  

In spiritual pain, we can feel very alone.  Two strategies I have found helpful for my clients who feel similarly is first to accept that you feel far away from your higher power and second to let go of any guilt you may have for feeling this way.  It is a very human condition, and given the suffering you have experienced, it is completely understandable that you don’t feel that spiritual connection.

Sign #2:  You are questioning your life purpose.  Another symptom of spiritual pain is that you are questioning what the heck you are doing on this planet.  It may feel as though you have lost your way—you are spiritually wandering around in a wilderness that is overwhelming, and you don’t know where to turn.  You may be trying so hard to survive that you really don’t know in which direction you are going.  

I have found that with my clients, questioning their purpose in life tends to emerge when they are feeling like they cannot be authentic in their lives.  It could be because they are not in the career they want or in the relationship they desire.  It could be because they feel discriminated against because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, their body size, etc., and they don’t feel as though they can truly be themselves.  They internalize negative messages the world sends them, and so they feel lost, and they don’t know how to find their spiritual compass.  

Sound familiar?  I suggest that if you are experiencing these emotions that you first connect with people with whom you feel safe—with whom you can be authentic.  Share with them your thoughts and emotions that are troubling you.  You may be surprised—they may have felt the same way at some point.  I also think journaling about these thoughts and feelings can be helpful because it gets them out of your head and onto paper, which can then feel easier to address.

Sign #3:  You feel disconnected from the world around you.  It is common for people struggling with eating disorders to feel isolated, to feel as though no one really understands the specific way in which you are suffering.  You may also experience a lot of anxiety being around larger groups of people or outside in society.  This disconnection could mean that you are having spiritual pain because you are not nourishing your soul by giving and receiving love and compassion from people who care about you.  

I know it may be the last thing you feel like doing, but reaching out to others is exactly what you need.  Start small, with sending a text to a loved one. Then move to a phone call, then schedule a time to meet for coffee (you can always leave after an hour!).  You’ll eventually arrive at the place at which you are spending time more consistently with people so you are getting that spiritual nourishment that comes from connection.  Attending a support group is also an excellent help, but it may feel like a big step for you at first.  Talk to your friends and family about your plan to go to one, and they can help you get there.

Sign #4:  You feel hopeless about humanity.  One indication of spiritual pain that is especially relevant recently is feeling hopeless about the direction of humanity.  I once had a conversation with my graduate students about their philosophy about the evolution of humanity.  They shared that they used to feel positive, as though society were progressing, but in recent years they are thinking that history is cyclical, and that bad things have happened in the past and that they would likely happen again.  It’s kind of depressing to think that way, isn’t it?  I don't blame them, though.

Sometimes negative news events reflect the negative emotions that you are feeling inside.  It may feel overwhelming to hear about such pain and suffering in the world.  Or, you may be feeling hopeless about humanity because people who you used to trust have hurt you.  It could even have been spiritual leaders or teachers who caused this hurt.  It triggers deep pain.  

One suggestion I have is to set a boundary around how much news you watch.  Realize what you have control over and focus on improving that area of your life.  The second thing you can do is find a good therapist to talk about the trauma/abuse/betrayal/hurt you feel because of spiritual leaders and teachers.  It is difficult to have someone who represents God or a higher spiritual level abuse that power and hurt others.  Very difficult.  It’ll take time to heal from it.

I know that having spiritual pain is challenging to admit, no less address.  It takes a lot of courage to do so.  Finding support in this process is really important.  Reach out to a loved one or therapist—let them walk with you in this journey.

Thank you so much for reading today’s blog!  Next week, I will be discussing “Starting the Journey to Spiritual Healing.”

If you are struggling to find eating disorder treatment in San Diego, give me a call for your free 15-minute phone consultation at (858) 699-3754, and I will help you get where you need to be!