Moving Towards What Matters Most

Eating disorders are unique from other types of psychiatric issues in many ways, but one of the most striking distinctions is that these disorders can masquerade – even to the individual with the problem – as consistent with a person’s fundamental personality, values or beliefs. The term for this, for how ingrained or innate ideas of the eating disorder can seem to the person with the illness, is ego-syntonic

This feature of eating disorders, most prominent in anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and atypical anorexia nervosa, can create challenges for people as they recover. Recovery involves moving beyond the pull of the illness by clarifying what you, separated from the eating disorder, want to be about or stand for as a person, deciding who or what is deeply important to you, and then making choices that align with these values. A value serves as a compass, pointing you in a particular direction. Unlike goals, values are not in and of themselves achievable per se; rather, they are big broad concepts that provide meaning and purpose to life.

In the throes of an eating disorder, it can be tricky to parse out where the disorder ends and your true self begins. When asked about core values, some people with eating disorders might say that they value thinness, fitting into a favorite pair of jeans, or control. To start to really understand your core values, however, you will need to drill down beneath the illness’s answer. Getting your answer involves curiosity and exploration. It involves asking yourself a lot of questions with few right or wrong answers.

For example, if you believe you value thinness, you might ask yourself what you believe thinness will add to your life. Perhaps you imagine it will bring belonging or acceptance, that it will make you more attractive in some fashion. This may signal that deep down, connection to other people is important to you.

If fitting into a pair of old jeans seems important, then let me ask you this: Let’s say the jeans fit. Where would you go in them? What would you do? Who would you see and why? The answers to these questions probably offer some clues to your true values.

As for control, you may very well make many choices in the service of having a sense of control in life (though I could argue – as I have elsewhere – that there is little certainty to be had in life). What kind of decisions do you make that align with control? Are these choices moving you in your desired direction? Or, are these choices serving primarily to relieve or prevent discomfort? Values are ideas or concepts you care about because they are meaningful, not because they help to avoid distress. 

If the work of clarifying your values seems overwhelming, then start by looking for clues with a few simple exercises:

  • Track the activities, endeavors, or relationships in which you currently devote a lot of your time and energy
  • List what was most important to you, deep down inside, before you became very focused on eating, weight, body shape, exercise, and/or appearance
  • Imagine and write about what you think your life would look like if you achieved your eating disorder’s goals in terms of weight or body shape, and then pull out the main themes
  • Ponder how you’d like someone to describe you if they were writing your biography  at some far future date
  • Think about friends and loved ones who you admire and consider what qualities about them you value to see if these qualities might align with values you hold dear 

Determining which values you, rather than your illness, care the most about may help loosen the grip of the disorder a little. This kind of exercise – worth repeating from time to time – can keep pointing you away from the eating problem and towards a bigger, richer, and more meaningful life.

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