How to Release the Eating Disorder Identity

© Sandee Nebel

When all you’ve known for many years is life with an eating disorder, it’s hard to imagine living any other way. In some theories this is known as a schema – a framework for how you see the world around you.

In yoga we call these samskaras – the subtle impressions of our past actions that alter one’s thinking process, without the person even realizing this is happening. You can also simply think of it as a groove in your thoughts, just like grooves form in the road from cars repeatedly driving on them. It’s much easier to slip into this familiar and well-worn path than to forge a new way that might be bumpy or rough.

These ideas all explain why people always seem to revert back to old behaviors, even if you’ve made wonderful productive changes in your life. Still this doesn’t erase the hard work you’ve done, and it doesn’t mean you haven’t tried hard enough.

An important part of this process is to develop a new sense of identity. Who are you without the eating disorder? You may not know, and that’s perfectly okay. One way to discover your true self is to look through photo albums, papers, notebooks, or journals from your childhood.

I recently came across some keepsakes, and that helped me remember a time when I was 12 years old and I’d started taking formal art lessons. I loved doing art with other people in a group, and as I looked through some of this art work I remembered what a powerful and enjoyable experience that was for me, and I started remembering that this is part of who I am.

If you’re not sure and you’re not finding any clues from your childhood, there are an amazing number of online courses and programs where you can explore new interests like trying a musical instrument, volunteering, or taking art lessons like I did all those years ago. The arts provide such enrichment for the mind and soul.

Ask your friends and families what they’re passionate about – you never know what you might discover. My adult kids recommended some graphic novels, such as this biography of Cass Elliott, and I’ve loved them.

Depression, anxiety, and eating disorders all take up a lot of space in the mind, bodies, and lives, and become one’s full identity. Once thoughts about food, body image, or exercise are taken away, there’s time and room to fill in with who you truly are and what you truly love to do.

The recovery process gives you the opportunity to discover healthy, fulfilling activities that help you feel good about yourself again.

Sometimes these passions will reveal themselves, but for many people they’ve been clouded over for so long by the eating disorder identity or trauma, that it’s hard to get there on your own. That’s why as counselors, we do a lot of sessions helping people find those things, find who they were before, and bring those elements forward into the new life they’re creating in recovery.

The key to fulfillment in your new identity is to uncover the interests and passions that are aligned with your true values – things that have been buried but were always there beneath the surface, crowded out by your eating disorder and other life’s challenges. Bringing these back to the surface is a joyful part of the recovery process. Have fun with it!