‘SOUL STARVATION’ and a BINGEING NATION:
An Age-Old Problem in a Contemporary Setting
‘We have to reclaim the parts of ourselves that were ours before we cloaked ourselves in the vestments of the culture.’ (Murdock 1990, p102)
In this article I explore the links between modern Western society, addictions and excesses, and the concept of ‘soul-starvation’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p214) in the lives of women. This is not to say that these issues are not of concern to men. However, women experience them in a way that is unique to women in society, just as men experience their own issues in society as men, and of course there are some issues that are common to humanity regardless of gender. As a woman myself, I can write more clearly from the standpoint of being a woman. Men working with women in therapy, or in relationship with the different women in their lives may benefit from understanding something of these issues from a woman-centred perspective. Looking at a number of variations of addiction and excess, including Binge-Eating, Compulsive Eating (Woodman 1980; Lawrence 1987 ed.) and Bulimia Nervosa (Orbach and Lawrence 1987, as well Anorexia Nervosa (Woodman 1980; Lawrence 1987 ed.) on the other end of the spectrum and variations on a theme within the spectrum, along with body-image issues, I explore the issues around a woman’s inner creative and instinctual life, environment, influences and society. I also look at various other addictions and excesses from drugs and alcohol to consumerism, expectations, over-achievement and perfectionism (Pinkola Estes 2008, pp265, 494) as a way of filling a need for that which may be lost, ‘injured’ or not developed, leading to what Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls ‘injured instincts’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p230. Although on drawing on a variety of literature in relation to this article, I give ‘Women who Run with the Wolves’ by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes (2008) a central place as parts of this text capture and illuminate the subject matter with wisdom, knowledge and creativity.
‘Too much domestication breeds out strong and basic impulses to play, relate, cope, rove, commune and so forth. When a woman agrees to become too ‘well bred’ her instincts for these impulses drop down into her darkest unconscious, outside her automatic reach. She is said to be ‘instinct injured’. What should come naturally comes not at all, or after too much tugging, pulling, rationalizing, fighting with herself.
When I speak of being ‘over-domesticated’ as capture, I do not refer to socialization, the process whereby children are taught to behave in more or less civilized ways. Social development is critical and important. Without it a woman cannot make her way in the world.
But too much domestication is like forbidding the vital essence to dance.’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p232).
The ‘instinct injured’ woman is stuck. She lacks creative choice. She might have a difficult time asking for the help she needs or may not recognise her own needs. Her natural instincts to fight or flee may be slowed down or temporarily extinct. The instinctual nature is life-preserving and discriminating. Instincts of suspicion or cautiousness may be inhibited or exaggerated (Pinkola Estes 2008, p 232). She does not fight for her true desires, her creativity, her true purpose. She does not listen deep within to that intuitive voice that tells her which path is her path to follow, regardless of what others may say. She procrastinates. Procrastination is one of the signs of injury to instinct beginning to happen when a woman has been in trauma, loss or discouragement. As Pinkola Estes writes ‘ There are many things that try to force, sweep, seduce away those handmade shoes, seeming simple things like “Later, I’ll do that dance, planting, hugging, finding, planning, learning, peace-making, cleansing…later.” Traps, all.’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p224). The traps a woman finds herself in may be specific to her individual culture (though there are some that are common to all cultures) (Pinkola Estes 2008, p252), or upbringing and unconscious childhood messages (Riso and Hudson 1999, p31) and merged with her natural temperament.
‘Soul – Starvation’
‘To be in a state of hambre del alma, a starved soul, as Pinkola Estes names it, is to be made constantly hungry. Then a woman burns with a hunger for anything that will make her feel alive again. A woman who has been captured knows no better, and will take something, anything, that seems similar to the original treasure, good or not. A woman who is starved for her real soul-life may appear ‘cleaned up and combed’ on the outside, but on the inside she is filled with dozens of pleading hands and empty mouths.’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p 228).
When women are starved of a life that is personally meaningful to who she truly is in her core identity, or has gone without her cycles of creativity, creative needs and instinctual nature (Murdock 1990, p25; Pinkola Estes 2008, pp 230-231) for an extended period of time, she may act out through excesses, whether this be food and eating disorders, sex, education, success, body fitness, body modification, drugs, alcohol, to name but a few which are prevalent in our modern society. She tries to fill a void that she may not even realise is a void, because on the surface she may have what is often valued by modern society, that is, for example, physical beauty according to society’s current expectations, a high ranking job, money or multiple degrees and may be addicted to maintenance of these and building upon them. Or she may be ‘dancing out of control’ with other addictions, such as drug addiction, a hunger for sex and multiple partners or shopping for things she does not really want, never mind needs, but what consumerism and society tells her she must have in order to be ‘worthwhile’, to ‘belong’.
In soul starvation, a woman longs for her deep life. She longs for what Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her book ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ (Pinkola Estes 2008) calls those ‘handmade red shoes’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p227), which is the ‘handmade life’, a life true to herself, a creative life that is from her deep soul need, her own making and instinct. She is trying to make up for that which was lost. She becomes possessed by a voracious hunger, either for the original loss or by replacing it with a synthetic substitute. For example, if a woman has not been permitted to dance when she longs with her body and soul to twirl, swirl and leap, she may dance and dance herself to exhaustion, maybe in places that are not good for her, with people who are ‘predators’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, pp35-69). Or if she has been told by the dance culture educators she is not ‘ideal’ for dance, she may strive in a career in dance that demands more and more perfection or the ‘perfect body’. That is not to say entering a career in dance is unhealthy, but her soul-starvation may drive her to excess and to submit to the demands of the culture of that dance company or dance style, leading to such things as anorexia or bulimia as one common example. However, there are many routes to eating disorders and other addictions and excesses.
Addictions, Excesses and Dancing Out of Control
‘It is not the joy of life that kills the spirit of the child in ‘The Red Shoes’, it is the lack of it. When a woman is unconscious about her starvation, about the consequences of using death-dealing vehicles and substances, she is dancing, she is dancing. Whether these are such things as chronic negative thinking, poor relationships, abusive situations, drugs, or alcohol-they are like the red shoes, hard to pry a person away from once they’ve taken hold.’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p248)
This addiction to excess is a compensatory solution in a woman’s captivity and lack of authentic ‘hand-made’ and meaningful life. She becomes fixated on retrieving anything that resembles it and reminds her of it, whether this be a ‘high’ feeling that she mistakes for real joy, or accolade after accolade that she mistakes for the achievement of creating something herself from the depths of her own soul, the original ideas of her own mind, or the organic movements of her own body. There are many compensations and resemblances that become an addictive process, which leaves her dancing out of control. She loses her power of discrimination and her original vitality (Pinkola Estes 2008, p249). This is the loss of natural instinct which tells us when enough is enough or something is not good for us. Sometimes this loss of natural instinct is difficult to recognise as it is often an insidious process and takes place over time (Pinkola Estes 2008, p248).
Marion Woodman in her book ‘Addiction to Perfection’ says that many of us, men and women, are addicted in one way or another because ‘our patriarchal culture emphasizes specialization and perfection’ (Woodman 1982, p10). They know their “ ‘I’ is possessed by some demon over which they have no control” (Woodman 1982, p13). They may perform efficiently at their work by being in their Persona (Snowden 2006, p72), but outside of this, the compensations and addictions, continue to dominate body and soul. The efficient work persona can be a compensation in itself. Keeping busy, there is no time to truly feel the depths of loneliness or despair that lie under the surface, which break through in night dreams, only to be pushed aside at the ringing of the alarm clock, to start the process of dressing up in the Persona and being efficient and achieving through the day. ‘If I achieve, I am someone worthwhile, worth loving’ or ‘If I achieve I can be recognised in the Patriarchal society’, ‘If I push down the feelings of grief or loneliness, I do not have to face my own shame’, or whichever variation on a theme, and each woman will have her own reasons, her own introjects (Widdowson 2009, p135), that is messages about herself that she has taken in in her childhood (or later) about what it is to be worthwhile, lovable or acceptable. She feeds her starving soul and strengthens these messages by addictions, excesses and then dancing out of control and away from her ‘hand-crafted life’ (Pinkola Estes, 2008, pp220-222).
The Return to the ‘Wild’ and Creative
‘The hand-made shoes are marks of her rising out of a mean psychic existence into a passionate life of her own design. Her shoes represent an enormous and literal step toward integration of her resourceful feminine nature in day-to-day life. It does not matter that her life is imperfect. She has her joy. She will evolve.’
To return to the ‘hand-made life’, there needs to be a healing of ‘injured instincts’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p251) and with a gradual journey back into the ‘wild’, or the ‘Wild Woman Archetype’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, pp2, 6, 252). A woman needs to surround herself with those that support her journey, that support her in doing the things she values. She needs to stay close to others who are soul-ful and who have their instincts well intact, or at least who are on the journey of healing injured instincts. After a time in the captivity of being over-domesticated, held back, or filling one’s life with substitutes, a woman needs to return to the wild with courage and boldness, but also with discernment and consideration, as she may have a naivete about her. As she returns to her innate, instinctual nature, she must consider excesses with caution and be aware of the cost to soul, psyche and instinct. She is in a feral state as she returns to the wild and needs to learn and memorize the traps (Pinkola Estes 2008, p253).
The word ‘wild’ in this context does not mean to be ‘out of control’ but means to live a natural life, with innate integrity, instincts intact (Pinkola Estes 2008, p6). A ‘wild’ woman is true to herself, her fundamental nature. As Pinkola Estes writes, ‘To adjoin to the instinctual nature does not mean to come undone, change everything from left to right, from black to white, to move the east to west, to act crazy or out of control. It does not mean to lose one’s primary socialisations, or to become less human. It means quite the opposite. The wild nature has a vast integrity to it.’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p10). The wild nature establishes territory, finds those who support it, not diminishes it, has vitality, creativity, draws on innate powers of intuition and sensation (Pinkola Estes 2008 p10). The wild nature moves beyond ‘learned helplessness’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p243; Peterson, Maier and Seligman 1995), begins healing the wounds and ‘injured instincts’, and reclaims the fullness of Self. This in itself is an integral and creative process.
‘If you want to re-summon Wild Woman, refuse to be captured. With instincts sharpened for balance, jump anywhere you like, howl at will, take what there is, find out all about it, let your eyes show your feelings, look into everything, see what you can see. Dance in red shoes, but make sure they’re the ones made by hand. I can promise you that you will become one vital woman.’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p254)
Despite the expectations of our current society upon women in terms of body image, perfectionism, expectations in a patriarchal society (Woodman 1982, p10; Murdock 1990, p37), and the tendency to excess and mores that we see around us, a woman has the choice to go back to her vital nature and create her own hand-made life. This process of individuation and reclamation (Pinkola Estes 2008, p254) is open to all women, and also to all men. It may mean letting go of some things and people and becoming surrounded by those things and people that are nourishing to the soul, that support the work of the hand-made life. It may mean getting help. It will mean taking regular time aside to nurture and nourish the process of returning to the ‘wild’, creating a life made by hand, to healing injured instincts and it may be a painful journey (Pinkola Estes 2008, p251). It is not an issue that once solved stays solved, and especially with the pulls, demands and influences of our current Western Society. Pinkola Estes writes ‘the work is to keep doing the work’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p253). However, there is hope for all women who choose to embark upon the journey of the hand-made life and return to the ‘wild’. As Pinkola Estes writes:
‘If you have ever been called defiant, incorrigible, forward, cunning, insurgent, unruly, rebellious, you’re on the right track. Wild Woman is close by. If you have never been called these things, there is yet time.’ (Pinkola Estes 2008, p196)
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