“Who will I be without my eating disorder?”
As someone who had identified as “the girl with the eating disorder” since I was a young girl, I had no idea what to expect when I finally started defining myself by my personal attributes instead of a series of meaningless numbers (pounds, calories, inches, and BMI).
It’s funny how therapists talk about recovery as this “amazing journey of self-discovery,” when facing up to who we truly are is what many of us are most afraid of.
It is scary going into recovery and not knowing who you are separate from your eating disorder. It is even scarier when you go into recovery and suspect you will not like the true you: the person you have been hiding from throughout your entire illness.
Most people who have never had an eating disorder do not understand that developing an eating disorder is not truly a fear of food.
Rather, it is a fear of feelings and often a fear of one’s true self.
It is less emotionally painful to convince yourself you are only X amount of pounds away from being a good person or being happy than admitting pain in life is unavoidable and coming to terms with very low self-esteem. When I finally realized I could not avoid pain by manipulating food and I could not change the way I felt on the inside by changing what I looked like on the outside, a very daunting task was ahead of me.
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Above all, I have had to completely re-conceptualize how I view emotions.
I used to view sensitivity as a weakness, and I prided myself on being able to turn off feelings by restricting. Without my eating disorder I experience so many emotions all the time–some super fun ones, too, like vulnerability and anger (can you tell I’m being sarcastic?).
In recovery, I not only have to experience the emotions but also learn to accept that emotions are not shameful, dangerous, or weak. Working through my beliefs about emotions has happened in therapy and also through self-education. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown is an excellent book on how to embrace one’s vulnerability to live a more authentic life.
Outside of therapy, I have worked hard at opening up to loved ones when I am upset, and they have shown me that expressing myself is a strength, not a weakness.
It is a work in progress, but I am coming to accept having negative emotions does not make me a weak or unworthy person
I’ve also learned it is possible to tolerate my emotions without letting them overpower me. I am a naturally anxious person, and I used my eating disorder to cope. Now I accept that while I may be more on edge than the average person, I can cope with it.
Also I have had to accept myself as a very sensitive, emotional person in general. I am starting to see my sensitivity as one of the many things that make me unique. I can empathize with others’ pain, which gives me the motivation to try to make the world a better place. And I know I can do a lot better job giving back to the world when I am healthy and have a clear head.
Most people with eating disorders are perfectionists, and part of me was afraid I would lose my drive for success if I recovered from my eating disorder. This is not the case at all. In fact, I am able to achieve my goals with significantly less stress because while I still strive for excellence, my entire identity is not tied up in external achievements. In addition, I do not have a self-defeating all-or-nothing perspective.
This more balanced perspective on success helped me a lot with my job search after college. If I was stuck in my eating disordered thinking, I would be convinced my interviews that did not result in job offers meant I was a failure and would never get a job. Instead, I was able to learn from each interview and improve in future interviews, which ultimately helped me get the job I have now.
Who am I now that I do not define myself by my eating disorder?
I am loving. I am actually, for the first time in a long time, happy. I am accomplished, but I am so much more, and I value myself regardless of my accomplishments. I am flawed, but that is fine with me because it is what makes me human, and perfection is boring anyway. And most of all, unlike when I was trapped in my eating disorder, I laugh often. I find joy in the everyday experience and feel grateful to be alive and healthier than I have ever been.
Who will you be without your eating disorder?
I know it’s terrifying, but I hope you will join me and find out. You are worth it, and I promise self-discovery and self-acceptance becomes easier over time.
Above all, you are not alone.
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