Eating disorders are all-consuming conditions. They find a way to draw your attention away from every other aspect of your life. Once you’ve lived with an eating disorder for months or years, it expands far beyond your food choices and exercise routine; it affects your time spent with friends and family, your job, your education, and your entire sense of self.
When you battle an eating disorder for a long time, it’s easy to adopt it as part of your identity. Who are you without your eating disorder? What would you do and where would you go? However, holding onto an eating disorder as part of your identity keeps you from recovery. You can’t overcome your condition when you view it as an intrinsic part of you.
Building an identity apart from your eating disorder is crucial if you want to get well. But how can you begin to build that identity when you’ve viewed the world through the lens of your disorder for so long?
The Progression of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can start with what seems like a harmless diet and maybe progresses to skipping a meal here and there. Things still seem controlled and tolerable, though, and the positive attention for weight loss is inspiring.
After a certain point, though, some cross the line into disordered eating behaviors. Diets become more restrictive, meals get smaller, and the time between meals increases. Concerns grow over the number of calories consumed and a compulsive obsession to control food intake forms.
Eventually, you plan your entire life around your eating disorder. You begin to withdraw from friends and family as it takes over more of your life. It becomes the center of your world, the lens through which you view life.
But eating disorder recovery means building an identity apart from your eating disorder. It means separating yourself from those harmful, disordered thoughts. When you’re in the middle of it, though, that probably feels impossible. How can you possibly build an identity that doesn’t involve your eating disorder?
Understanding the Eating Disorder Identity
Human beings are tribal creatures at the core. We seek to be part of a group and developing an identity is a significant part of that process. The drive to seek out a similar group of people who understand is subconscious but powerful. Even if you’re an introverted person who prefers to spend time alone, having a group to identify with is crucial for your well-being.
Research shows that people who face judgment or discrimination, such as people with mental illness, tend to identify strongly with that stigmatized group. Building identity around that illness or disorder provides a community of people who understand and a sense of protection from those who don’t.
Building an identity around your eating disorder buffers the judgment of others. It also keeps people from finding out so you can continue with little interruption or input. That identity also connects you with people who understand the difficulties you deal with from their own experiences.
However, identifying with your eating disorder puts a barrier between you and getting the help you need. You can’t overcome something you identify with; if it’s part of your identity that means it’s part of who you are. But you are not your eating disorder. You’re more than your condition. Separating yourself from this identity is the first step toward freedom. So how can you do that?
Building a New Identity
It’s difficult to know who you are when that truth has been obscured by months or years of disordered eating behaviors. Your eating disorder determined what you ate, when you ate it, which activities you participated in, who you spent time with, and how long you spent time there. Everything filtered through your disordered behavior and over time it molded your entire world.
So, who are you without your eating disorder? If you could go anywhere, do anything, be whatever you wanted to be, what would that look like? Your eating disorder doesn’t get to dictate your life anymore. When you achieve recovery, you get to decide all of these things for yourself.
Building that new identity apart from your eating disorder can feel scary, though. The sheer number of available possibilities can be overwhelming. Where do you start when you have the entire world open to you? How do you know which direction to go?
The best way to begin is by starting small. You don’t need to uncover everything about yourself and find out all that you’re interested in at once. Think about activities you’ve always wanted to try or places you’ve wanted to visit. Consider different books, music, or art you’re curious about. Maybe there are certain groups you wanted to join.
Every experience that intrigued you in the past is available to you now in the present. Pick one new thing to try each week and go from there. It’s okay if you don’t like something; simply choose something else and go that direction instead. Over time you’ll discover things you enjoy, things you don’t, and you’ll build your new identity along the way!
Seeking Support Through the Process
Selah House is a facility that provides treatment programs for women battling eating disorders. We offer a range of services from residential treatment to outpatient programs to fit the needs of each woman who reaches out for help. To learn more about the programs available at Selah House, contact us today.