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Content Warning: eating disorders, body image and body dysmorphic disorder, perfectionism, obsessive thoughts
I’ve always been a very structured person. In grade school and high school, I earned straight As, did my homework, was punctual to my extracurricular commitments, and had a “responsible” bedtime.
I was always proud of that structure and discipline. It allowed me to balance work, school, friends, and partners with relative ease, but what I’ve learned is that most personality traits, seemingly admirable ones, have a “shadow side.”
For me, the “light” side of my Type-A personality was coming across as responsible, balanced, and well-adjusted.
My shadow-side, however, manifested over time in conjunction with other life events. It revealed the side of me that was anxious, rigid, and obsessive.
As graduate school came to an end, I worried about if, when, and where I would find a teaching position. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know how the next chapter of my life would look. My worth would no longer be validated by an A+ or gold star.
I was untethered and, all of a sudden, relatively unremarkable.
So, as many do when they feel out of control, I sought out things I thought I could control, namely my weight and my diet.
It was the genesis of my seven-year battle with orthorexia, binge eating disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder.
I craved the comfort of being in control of some piece of my destiny; I wanted to feel like I knew (or could likely predict) the outcome of my life’s events.
Here are some things about eating disorders and control that I realized in recovery:
#1 My eating disorder was actually in control of me.
I thought that counting calories and macros and weighing myself every day created this perfectly-controlled environment where I could sculpt my body to look exactly the way I wanted it.
What was actually happening was that my eating disorders had staked claim to my thoughts and autonomy.
I was a slave to what I believed I should weigh and what I should eat. It constructed a small, windowless room, doors locked from the outside. It told me when and how much to eat, and when, how much, and how hard to work out. It even dictated my social calendar.
#2 I shouldn’t worry about things I can’t control.
I can’t control much of what happens in my life. To many, this may seem terrifying; a reframe, though, could be how incredibly liberating it is. It’s a weight I can take off of my shoulders without guilt.
I realized, for example, that I cannot control what people think of me. Even if I tried to mould myself into what everyone wanted me to be, different versions of me for different people, I would lose who I was at my core.
During my eating disorder struggles, I didn’t even recognize myself because I was striving to be a version of perfection that didn’t exist; and even if I had reached my version of perfection, there would always be someone who didn’t like me. Their reasons for disliking me would never change, no matter what; I had to make peace with that.
In the same way, studies suggest that our genes determine up to 80 percent of our weight and body shape. That means lifestyle choices like diet and exercise determine only 20%. (https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/why-people-become-overweight) That’s a lot less than the diet industry has led us to believe.
My body does not need to be controlled by external factors like diets and body weight scales.
If I trust it and listen to its needs, it will regulate itself.
#3 The need for control typically comes from a fear of criticism.
I’ve always said that people fall into two categories: either those who seek pleasure or those who avoid pain.
Somewhere along the way, in my “shadow” desire for control, I went from being the former to the latter.
I realized my obsession with control and perfection was directly related to my desire to avoid criticism.
If I could look a certain way that was pleasing to others, I could avoid feeling bad about myself.
I was basing my worth on my appearance and also on other people’s opinions about that appearance. I realized that no weight loss would save me from criticism, particularly the criticism I constantly gave myself.
My goal weight was a moving target, and I would never be happy with who I was and, by extension, safe from my self-criticism until I cultivated a sense of intrinsic and unconditional self-worth.
It’s obviously all much easier said than done. But it is possible to separate your self-worth from your body and ease your grip on the wheel of life. You can laugh at your missteps and “flaws” instead of bristling at them.
It takes mindset work. It takes repetition to create new neural pathways and narratives. It takes a resolve to create a better life for yourself, but first, you have to learn to let go.
Alana is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, author, speaker, and eating disorder survivor. She is the founder of Freedom with Food and Fitness, an online community dedicated to empowering women to heal their relationship with food and their bodies, and ditch diet culture through intuitive eating. Freedom with Food and Fitness offers a variety of resources to those ready to leave chronic dieting behind, including free resources, group coaching programs, online courses, a podcast, quizzes, and guided meditations. Alana is a contributing writer for several national publications, including the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), Elephant Journal, Recovery Warriors, The Edge Magazine, and Best Holistic Life Magazine. A lover of whisky and travel fiction in her downtime, Alana lives in New Jersey with her husband, Scott; son, Archer; and fur baby, Captain Oats.
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