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Who am I without my Eating Disorder?
There is more to who you are than how you eat, look, and exercise.
Before we really dive into this topic, I want you to take just a couple moments to write down (or just think about) how you would describe yourself to someone else. How would you want someone else to describe you? Each of us has a set of values that we live by that tell ourselves and others who we are. We have qualities that add to that and create uniqueness. And some of those things are part of our intrinsic selves while others are curated by what we learn and appreciate over time. There’s influence from those we are closest to, the things we watch or read, and those we see in our lives but may never know. This natural experience of community can be what builds up our confidence and ability to comfortably and confidently self-express or it can be what dehumanizes and objectifies us. If our community is driving us toward the latter, finding ways to conform feels safe and incredibly protective.
There is an intensity around eating patterns that resembles the way someone might feel about their work, their sports team, or their values. You hear moralistic terms thrown around about specific foods and dieting on a consistent basis - and it impacts a person’s views on who they are and whether they’re a good person. So, when I start talking to someone about moving away from disordered eating, I am not surprised when there is a sense of self abandonment, a fear of becoming unacceptable. There is often fear around how it would change the way people see them. There is a desire to hold on to part of the disorder to maintain that sense of belonging, acceptance, and safety.
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I’ve heard about fears that someone won’t be as interesting, as significant, as cared for if they leave their eating disorder behind. I’ve heard that their eating disorder makes a person feel safe, important, and morally good. I understand this thought process, I think it makes sense in the culture that we live in - and I don’t think those things are true. An eating disorder does not make a person any of these things, they are already true just from being alive and being human. This line of thinking is part of the objectification of people - the idea that we are no more than something to look at and commodify.
If giving up your eating disorder feels a bit like giving up a part of yourself, I hear you. But let’s unpack it for a second.
What is it that your eating disorder says about you? How are you aligning yourself with your ED and the values associated with it?
You may notice that you have your own beliefs about what it means to exist in a specific sized body. How have bodies of different sizes been talked about or judged throughout your life?
If people have told you that certain bodies, looks, health parameters are acceptable or unacceptable, it makes sense that you fear letting go of what is keeping you accepted. That is a core human need. We all crave human connection. What concerns me is that an eating disorder isn’t what meets that need.
Living in a body is tough. Living in a body in a culture where we judge people based on their bodies sucks. A lot. In this way, an eating disorder is usually protective. It acts as a shield from judgement or negativity. It serves as an insurance policy - even if my body isn’t perfect at least people can see that I’m working on it. The disorder provides safety from feelings of inadequacy, not being accepted, the fear of not being loved. Basically, if you have an eating disorder - you make sense. There are reasons that it is hard to recover - real reasons - you aren’t just struggling without cause.
So if we’re going to recover there are a few things we have to do. We have to learn to be okay in our own bodies. We have to find things we love about ourselves that don’t change when our bodies change. We have to trust our relationships - or find relationships that can be trusted. We have to trust in our own worth and humanity.
We have to learn to be okay in our bodies. The truth is, you are okay. As you are. Right now. Your body doesn’t need to change for you to be a good person or a nice person or a loveable person. Your body is just the vessel for how you get around in your day to day life - it says nothing else about you as a human being. You may be a person with chronic health issues - this makes it especially hard to be okay in a body. I still want you to find your peace if you can. You may be a person who has family that is judgmental and comments on your body. I still want you to find your peace if you can. You may have any number of reasons that your body has not felt like your ally in life. I still want you to explore peace - I still believe it is possible for you to feel okay in your body. Your body is not a problem to be solved. Being okay with our body means that we can shift from hatred to love. And it’s much easier to take care of yourself when it is out of love.
We have to find things we love about ourselves that don’t change when our bodies change. Because your body is going to change. Short term, long term… your body isn’t designed to stay the same all the time. So even if you figure out how to love the body you’re in right now, there is always the possibility of a new wrinkle, another pound (or more) gained, a gray hair… how do we build resiliency to see ourselves as more than a body to be looked at and admired. The objectification of our bodies - and desire for them to remain unchangeable and perpetually in line with beauty standards - is harmful. It puts us at war with the humanity of our body: the imperfections, the changes over time, the aging process. You deserve to be seen as a whole, intact person.
We have to trust our relationships - or find relationships that can be trusted. This is particularly hard if you were raised in a family that commented on bodies regularly. When a family is hyper focused on the bodies in the room, it makes sense that you have developed a sense of self that is highly in tune with how you look and how your body is being perceived. What I’d like to believe is that your friends and family love you for who you are and not for how you look. Even if that hasn’t felt true for you in the past. The people closest to you care for you as a human, not only as something to be looked at. Give them the chance to prove to you that they care deeply for you beyond your body. And if they aren’t able to show up for you in that way, I hope you give yourself the opportunity to find the people in the world who will show up for you with unconditional love and kindness.
We have to trust in our own worth and humanity. You are capable of doing hard things. You are capable of being your full self without placing your worth entirely in your body, looks, and eating style. It takes time, grieving, and discomfort and you are capable of detaching yourself from your eating disorder. You are so much more than the rigidity and rules that your eating disorder provides. You are so much more than a body type. You are so capable of loving yourself in your entirety, of unlearning the crappy beauty standards and body judgements and food rules. You deserve the gift of recovery - you deserve to discover who you can be without an eating disorder.