By Wesley Gallagher
Recovery from eating disorders, as with all mental health disorders, takes time, energy, counseling, and a transformative change in the way you view yourself and the world. If you struggle with an eating disorder, you might notice conflicting feelings: Even if you know that what you’re doing is unhealthy, even if you recognize that you need to get well, you may find yourself hesitating to give up your eating disorder.
If this is the case for you, it may help to know that you are not alone. Many people with eating disorders struggle to want to recover, and there are even studies that explain, at least to some degree, why this is the case. Once you understand more about why you feel the way you do, you can begin to address these feelings and hesitancies.
Eating Disorders and Identity
If you struggle with an eating disorder, you know that like many other mental illnesses, it can become all-encompassing. Weight, diet, calories and exercise probably feel like all you can think about. Your eating disorder may be the driving factor behind many of the decisions you make on a day-to-day basis — which social events you attend, the people you spend time with, and the routines you keep.
Once you understand more about why you feel the way you do, you can begin to address these feelings and hesitancies.
Added to this is the fact that you may feel labeled by your eating disorder, either by yourself or by others. A diagnosis of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder can feel less like a clinical assessment and more like a proclamation of identity, especially if you have people in your life who seem to only see you in light of your illness.
But what makes eating disorders unique is the way they are intricately tied to your identity. Many people with eating disorders internalize the disorder, connecting it to their sense of self and even their core values. Eventually they see the world, and themselves, through the lens of their eating disorder.
Additionally, eating disorders, or symptoms that are precursors to eating disorders, often develop in adolescence and emerging adulthood, which is a critical time for identity formation. Studies, including a recent one published in Frontiers in Psychology, have shown a correlation between eating disorder symptomatology (psychological and behavioral aspects of subclinical eating concerns) and identity formation. Identity confusion, or the feeling of lacking a clear sense of purpose or direction in life, was shown to be connected to disordered eating habits in adolescents.
The truth is that you are not your eating disorder, and it is not your identity.
Binge eating behaviors have also been found to be a mechanism people use to avoid dealing with identity issues. For instance, if negative feelings or emotions surface, someone might focus all of their energy and time on bingeing, rather than taking the time to think through the implications of the negative emotions. This allows them to avoid dealing with deeper issues related to their identity.
One theory around adolescent identity formation and disordered eating is that someone with disturbed eating behaviors may be so preoccupied with their body weight and shape that their body image represents a disproportionate aspect of their identity. So when they are subjected to any type of weight teasing or comparison, they take it as a threat against not just their body, but their identity. Thus it seems that eating disorder symptoms hinder proper identity development over time.
Eating Disorders, Coping and Control
Eating disorders are also often used as a coping mechanism or a way to control one aspect of life when the rest of it seems uncontrollable. The ability to control food intake and/or weight can seem like a way to make the rest of life more manageable, especially when the rest of your life is out of control. And as with many types of addiction, eating disorder habits are often a go-to coping strategy when life gets stressful — they can feel like a sort of escape from the rest of life’s worries.
All of the factors mentioned above can contribute to an unwillingness to give up an eating disorder. It makes sense that something intricately tied to your identity that helps you cope with difficult situations would be something you’re hesitant to lose. Even if you want to get well, it’s difficult to give up something that has felt like a part of your life for a long time.
Embracing Treatment for an Eating Disorder
While the idea of recovering from your eating disorder may seem daunting, it’s important to think of your identity outside of your eating disorder. The truth is that you are not your eating disorder, and it is not your identity. You may have forgotten what you were like without your eating disorder, but rest assured that you are so much more than your diagnosis, and leaving that diagnosis behind will only help you to rediscover your true identity.
Treatment will help you work through the intricacies of your eating disorder and all the ways it has affected your life. As you learn healthy eating habits and work on the outward symptoms of the disorder, you’ll also focus on the inward aspects of your eating disorder as trained professionals walk you through whole-person healing. If you or a loved one is dealing with an eating disorder, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. The Meadows Ranch offers comprehensive treatment that will help you get on the road to recovery and regaining your authentic self.