Eating Disorders: Linking Self, Other, & Gaze

Research Paper Title

The Pathogenic and Therapeutic Potential of the Gaze of the Other in the Clinic of “Eating Disorders”.

Background

Building on the optical-coenaesthetic disproportion model of so-called eating disorders, this paper provides a framework for the psychotherapy of people affected by these conditions.

This model characterises “eating disorders” as disorders of embodiment and identity, where a sense of unfamiliarity with one’s own flesh, experienced as shifting and incomprehensible, leads to an impairment in the constitution of the Self and thus of one’s own identity.

Since there is a deficit of the coenaesthetic experience of the embodied Self, greater importance is assumed by body perception conveyed from without. To these persons, their corporeality is principally given as a body-object “to be seen” from a third-person perspective, rather than as a body-subject “to be felt” from a first-person perspective.

The Other’s look serves as an optical prosthesis to cope with dis-coenaesthesia and as a device through which these persons can define themselves. They are unable to accept the hiatus between “being a body” and “having a body,” constitutively present in every human being, forcibly trying to recouple it, and finally ending up objectifying themselves to succeed.

The external foundation of the Self thus takes the form of a constriction one can never be completely free of. Psychotherapy should thus accompany persons affected by eating disorders in their encounter with the miscarried dialectic between feeling oneself from within and seeing oneself from without through the gaze of the Other, so keenly feared by people desperately in search of self-control.

Tactfully, the clinician accompanies the patient in taking a stance towards their symptom as the outcome of this miscarried dialectics, which is one premise for overcoming it.

The clinician’s gaze becomes the herald of recognition, allowing the patient to feel accepted in terms of their individuality. Feeling themselves touched by a gaze that waives its alienating potential in order to signify acceptance reactivates the identity-forming dialectics. Their body is thus revealed as the receiver of gazes, but also rediscovers its own possibility for self-determination starting out from these gazes.

This intersubjective resonance between the clinician’s gaze and the patient reactivates the identity-making dialectics between body-subject and body-object, creating the relational premises for overcoming the symptom.

Reference

Esposito, C.M. & Stanghellini, G. (2020) The Pathogenic and Therapeutic Potential of the Gaze of the Other in the Clinic of “Eating Disorders”. Psychopathology. 1-7. doi: 10.1159/000509625. Online ahead of print.

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