Avatar Syndrome, Separation Sabotage, and Belonging

I just got back from 2 days in mile-high Denver, where I was attending the annual Institute for the Psychology of Eating graduation and alumni event. Even though there were many freshly graduated Eating Psychology coaches whom I’d never met, it felt like a big, warm, fuzzy family reunion. (I posted some pictures on my Facebook page, in case you want to check them out.)

What I love about going to these kinds of events is that I feel a true sense of belonging. And that’s extremely nourishing.

We all, from the day we are born, have a deep human need to belong. It’s a survival instinct. But as we grow older, our sense of belonging can become damaged or threatened, and that can, in turn, affect our relationship with food, body, and health in a number of ways.

In my work with clients, I’ve seen belonging come into play in two primary ways.

1. Avatar Syndrome. If we internalize the belief that who we are is not enough (which is quite common), we may end up creating a persona that we think other people will like, one that will allow us to belong. A persona that is not quite who we truly are. This may manifest as “the nice girl” or “the people pleaser”, for example. I call this persona an avatar: The term “avatar” can be defined as “an icon or figure representing a particular person”. And that’s what we do – we create an iconic version of ourselves, and that’s the version we show to the world. Meanwhile we suppress who we truly are. Our true self remains unexpressed.

Over time, the conflict between who we are and who we project builds up tension and stress in our system, and we may be driven to turn to food in order to help manage this inner conflict.

2. Separation Sabotage. The other way belonging shows up is when we are engaged in personal development – when we are trying to change and grow. Subconsciously, we may fear that our changes will separate us from our circle of belonging, that we will leave others behind and therefore become isolated. When belonging is threatened in this way, self-sabotage often results – we procrastinate, we don’t follow through, we overeat, etc.

Note that what I’m calling self-sabotage here is not actually sabotage in my mind. What people label as self-sabotaging behaviors are actually serving some purpose, and in this case, they are protecting against a threat to belonging. I use that term just because that’s what people are familiar with.

So what do you do if you feel you are affected by the Avatar Syndrome or Separation Anxiety (as described here)? Well, I’d love to chat with you to see if I could help. Just email me and we can set up a time to explore together.

In the meantime, ask yourself – when and where do I feel like I belong? And if you feel so inclined, share your list on my Facebook page.