04/17/2007 04:42 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mothers and Daughters, Truth at Any Age

History denied is destined to repeat itself. This adage is as true in the realm of psychology as it is in politics or war. But mothers can play a profound role in arresting the cycle of denial and changing the course of their family history. I recently witnessed a remarkable group of mothers doing just this during a discussion about eating disorders at the Yale New Haven Women's Center.

I had come to the Center to share what I'd learned in my research into the causes and consequences of anorexia and bulimia. I expected to be talking with a group of students. But the audience included all ages. One woman in her forties had recently suffered a relapse of anorexia, and she was there with her mother. Another mother had driven all the way from Maine, collecting her daughter at Amherst on the way. Still another daughter brought her mother from an hour and a half away. Several of the mothers bravely acknowledged that they, too, had histories of anorexia and bulimia.

What drew the crowd with such urgency was my promise of insight and relief from the assumptions of blame that have surrounded eating disorders for decades. Doctors would blame mothers. Parents would blame their children - as if they chose to get sick. Meanwhile, those who suffer from anorexia and bulimia, by nature, blame themselves. I know; I did.

My aim on this evening was to lift the burden of blame off our collective backs. I began by delivering the news that the causes of eating disorders are at least 60% genetic. This came as a huge relief to these families. How can you blame someone for her genes?

But there was relief, too, in the information that some of the innate temperament traits that give rise to eating disorders can be POSITIVE traits, if we just learn to recognize and manage them. Perfectionism, for example, is a gift of our genes. We expect the best of ourselves, and that can be an asset in the arts, in science, and in sports. But it can also be a liability when we confuse perfection with goodness, and anything less than perfection with failure. When we allow our perfectionism to damn us for getting second place, or for making an innocuous mistake, we are setting ourselves up for illness.

Another core trait of people who are prone to eating disorders is a heightened sensitivity to criticism. This means that we don't have to be told twice to take out the garbage or dress for success. But if we let our sensitivity rule us, it also means that we collapse into a heap of self-loathing if anyone makes the slightest comment about the size of our thighs. How other people see us usually says more about their truth than it does about ours. Given our nature, we may have to repeat this to ourselves like a mantra every day of our life. But eventually it will penetrate, and we can learn to become more sensitive to how we make ourselves feel than to the criticism of others. We can train ourselves to be more sensitive to what we love than to what we fear, to what gives us joy than to what makes us miserable. The best news is, this training has no stop date.

At any and every age, mothers can help their daughters (and themselves!) with this subtle shift in habit and perception by becoming more aware of their own innate tendencies toward perfectionism and criticism. Recovery represents an opportunity for everyone in the family to become more self-aware, more open, and more compassionate.

Recognizing this opportunity is the first step toward breaking the cycle of denial.