Do you think you would be different in any way, had your life been interrupted by a life-threatening eating disorder? Do you think your view of yourself would be impacted by this experience? I’d like to share with you how your self-awareness and identity can be affected, either temporarily or permanently, if you suffer from an eating disorder.
1. IMPORTANT FACTORS IN RECOVERING FROM AN EATING DISORDER
Self-awareness, especially on an emotional level, takes time and introspection. It’s a dynamic process, lasting throughout a person’s lifetime. Some people may develop a deeper understanding of themselves than others for a variety of reasons. These reasons may include their family dynamics while growing up; experiences with relationships, friendships, and social interactions; religious convictions; or if their personality tends to be more obsessive or perfectionist. These can be important factors in a person’s level of self-awareness. Further, I believe that there are some people who are more naturally “tuned in”, and able to understand themselves more fully on a higher level.
Upon developing an eating disorder, the level of self-awareness becomes compromised when compared to the self-understanding before the onset of the disorder. As the disorder continues and worsens, it becomes more complex; many fears and doubts begin to form causing further confusion about identity. As the eating disorder identity broadens to consume more aspects of life, more and more of the former identity may slip away, or lie dormant.
During the intense phases of the disorder, true self-awareness isn’t possible. The ability to think clear, rational thoughts becomes nearly impossible due to the affects of starvation. When suffering from an eating disorder, self-awareness is usually limited to the most basic needs for survival, and even at that, it becomes clouded in terms of one’s own physical well-being. Awareness of self is restricted to only who you are in the realm of your disease, strictly on the outside, and what is perceived to be obvious to others.
Self-criticism and the belief that one is never “good enough” are often exhibited by fear and isolation. At this point, there is an awareness manifested by thoughts of being bad, wrong, or imperfect; all of these thoughts lead to a lack of awareness of true self. I have found that true self-awareness involves accepting yourself, being confident with whom you are, and having the motivation to keep moving forward. This requires an honest evaluation of yourself, psychologically and emotionally, and being willing and able to reach out for support and input from others. It may be difficult to accept imperfection within oneself, but the reality is that no one is perfect. This mindset is much more complex when suffering from an eating disorder. The thought of possibly being imperfect usually causes great fear. It may equate to a loss of control, being a failure or a “bad” person, and it may bring on a sense of danger or impending doom. To the anorexic, the ability to be “perfect” is a convoluted form of self-protection.
When in recovery from an eating disorder, the hardest part is breaking away from the obsessive mindset, in order to begin to focus on thoughts, feelings and true self-analysis. The first step, weight restoration, can be the key to unlocking the rational and teachable part of your brain. Learning about yourself requires taking risks, and a willingness to reveal parts of yourself which you may have kept hidden for a very long time. It’s a process which requires time to begin to fit the pieces together, and at a certain point, becomes more of an exciting discovery. Acceptance of who you truly are, in the process of recovery, is necessary for continued progress.
How does self-awareness differ from how you evaluate self-worth? The concept of “self” may be based more on:
· Judgment and criticism associated with your accomplishments
· How well controlled you consider yourself to be
· How well you control the world around you
Most likely, the anorexic wants these “virtues” to be noticed by key people in their life. They may feel stronger because they have the will power not to eat, the ability to lose weight, or because they can somehow survive on less sleep. Fewer needs equates to more strength or control. They may determine their worth solely on inner strength, outward accomplishments and self-control.
My own self-awareness increased drastically as I recovered from a long history of anorexia. A major difference is that I can now accept my imperfections, or my humanness, including my physical characteristics (weight, size, shape, etc.) as well as who I am inside: emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. I don’t consider myself as inadequate or mentally ill anymore. Additionally, my definitions of “perfect” and “imperfect” have completely changed. I don’t believe that perfection exists, so therefore there cannot be imperfection. In the past, my own attempts for perfection only led to feelings of self-hatred, failure, and unhealthy coping methods. As I have become aware of these things, I also realize that I can use my new awareness and acceptance of myself to move forward in my life, to face my future with a positive outlook, and to develop meaningful and lasting relationships with special people in my life on all levels. I feel a new confidence in knowing who I am, and in my ability to contribute to relationships.
“The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable.”
The desire for the “anorexic identity” can be an enormous factor in the development and maintenance of anorexia and the reconstructive task of recovery. Even before the onset of the anorexic disease process and associated behaviors, there will be doubt and confusion about identity. Several factors often add to the confusion in this matter, especially for women. Parental teaching and expectations, sometimes pertaining to gender roles in society, or religious teachings, can cause conflict with regard to individual beliefs and life goals. The influence of society and the emphasis that is put on the importance of outward beauty and physical perfection can trigger guilt and lowered self-esteem. In an over-controlled environment, the desire to gain control becomes all-important. Developmental instructions that mandate how one “should be” or moral concepts that dictate what one “should believe” lead to the conclusion that all things can be determined to be either good or bad.
Interpretations of good and bad may vary among different people, but being “good” usually means being people-pleasing, conflict avoidant, and maintaining emotional and physical self-control. Emotional self-control commonly involves denying any feelings and emotions. Physical self-control focuses on body perfection, which is displayed in society as the ultimate goal and achievement. When suffering from anorexia, there is a need for control and the search for perfection evolves into restricting food, losing weight, exercising, and other forms of bodily control. The lack of clear identity, along with the obsessive nature of the disorder, often results in isolation in order to protect oneself from scrutiny or judgment.
When your weight loss becomes obvious, the positive reactions from others strengthens personal resolve and fuels the belief that this is good and acceptable, i.e., more “perfect”. This may be viewed as self-control and strength. As an anorexic, this promotes the feeling of pride and accomplishment which will likely encourage thoughts to continue to prove self worth and strength by physical, emotional, and psychological denial. When acceptable and successful in others’ eyes, this is deemed to be “good”. To an anorexic, “bad” is synonymous with weakness, and may be applied to eating, weight gain, cleanliness (germs), impulsiveness, lack of self-control, displaying emotions, and allowing oneself joy and pleasure. A convincing argument could even be formulated that if one’s life isn’t difficult and painful, then you aren’t working hard enough.
Over time, this anorexic identity strengthens as individuality diminishes, and you are unable to have a rational view of yourself. It becomes increasingly more important that others notice your weight loss in order to uphold that anorexic identity, even when it becomes obvious that weight loss has reached a dangerous level. The numerous psychological factors involved in the maintenance of anorexia may each take on their own personal identity. It’s terrifying, as an anorexic, to imagine letting go of that identity; there is perceived emptiness without it, along with loss and loneliness. This often leads to desperation in thinking:
· Who am I without it?
· How do I find out who I am?
· Will I like who I am?
· Will others like who I am?
This is a process of discovery, and it can not be hurried. But it can be encouraged by being willing to take risks in exploring your values, reaching out for support, and by challenging your past beliefs.
In my experience after many years of maintaining the disease and not being successful in numerous attempts at recovery, I felt no pride or accomplishment in that identity. For years, my “anorexic” identity had been seen by everyone around me, but I felt shame and guilt for continuing to be sick. I hid my body and pretended that I was fine. I wanted out of the prison I had built, and I wanted to adopt a new identity, yet fear had me immobilized, and I knew no way out. As I began to recover, giving up that identity wasn’t as hard as I had expected. Because that identity had become a source of shame for me, I desperately wanted something better for my life. I also made the decision not to return to the environment I had come from, so I didn’t have the same issues that others might have of people noticing and commenting on the physical changes they saw in me. I did however, feel great fear about what my identity would be without anorexia. I knew myself no other way.
During recovery, the first and most important issue that I addressed was weight restoration and maintenance; normal brain function had to be restored. On a daily basis, weight stability has been the key to allowing me to discover my true identity. I feared at first that I would have to develop or create an identity, which seemed overwhelming, until I realized that I had an identity before anorexia. I had to do a lot of hard work to recover and understand it. Recovery is a process which requires repeated times of letting go and allowing yourself to become who you really are. I have acquired an understanding and belief that worth is not earned, nor is it something that is developed. Worth is something that is realized along with the development of an identity outside of anorexia, including the social skills to contribute to meaningful relationships, and the acceptance of who you are as a person. This requires taking risks, a commitment to examining who you are as a person, and patience. I now find strength in having true control over my disease, trusting my own decisions, and by refusing to use past coping skills.
Developing and maintaining an identity is a life-long process, as you grow, change, live, and learn. Life’s experiences, and how you deal with them, also influence who you are. At this point in my recovery, I have learned a lot about who I am, and I am able to accept myself, flaws and all! I have become comfortable with my body size, and when I feel discomfort, I am aware that it is not about my body, but that something emotional is going on, and I’m not dealing with it in the healthiest way. Now that I know what maintaining a healthy weight has given me, I’m not willing to sacrifice that. My weight is no longer who I am.