[Trigger warning: eating disorders]
“Your relationship to food, no matter how conflicted, is the doorway to freedom.” This quote from author, emotional eating guru, and IIN visiting teacher Geneen Roth is now my personal mantra. But for a chunk of my life, I had no idea what it meant. From late adolescence to my early 20s, I struggled with an eating disorder. I deliberately starved myself, counted calories, weighed myself too often, made myself throw up, and exercised compulsively.
Now, recovered and in my 30s, I am still learning how to practice self-forgiveness and self-compassion every day. Sometimes, I’m tempted to look back on the years I struggled and think, “What a waste. I let this thing consume my brain and completely take me over. I missed out on so many experiences I should have had in my youth. I lost the best years of my life.” But did I?
Finding strength in my eating disorder recovery
I took the most meaningful step in my recovery when I set out to write my first book, Starving in Search of Me. Authoring this book gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences and find meaning in them. As an analytical person who likes to have all the answers, I was determined to understand why I put myself through what I did. I wanted to crack the code and solve the puzzle; I wanted it all to make sense.
The universe has a strange way of giving us what we need rather than what we want. I wanted certainty and resolution. But as I searched for answers, I realized my approach wasn’t going to work. I was treating my eating disorder like a problem that I wanted to solve. What if, instead, I treated it like a gift? What if I viewed it as an opportunity to better understand myself? Suddenly, Geneen Roth’s quote made sense – my eating disorder was my doorway to freedom.
It was then that I decided to pursue more merciful questions rooted in self-love. I needed to ask questions like, “What did I learn?” and “What did my eating disorder teach me about myself?” Most importantly, I needed to ask, “How can I apply these lessons to the rest of my life?” In observance of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, here are a few of these lessons:
Lesson #1: I am responsible for my own happiness.
Throughout the time I struggled with an eating disorder, I pushed with as much resistance as possible to avoid facing the void inside me. But the more I tried to distract myself from the inner work I really needed to be doing, the more intense my fear, pain, shame, and anxiety became. I can now acknowledge that the reason I resisted facing myself was fear. I was afraid. As a result of being controlled by fear, I held anger toward myself and all the people in my life who couldn’t read my mind or understand what I was feeling. I even had an idea that if I made my pain visible to others by emaciating my body, someone would have to swoop in and save me.
What I’ve since come to recognize is my happiness is my responsibility. Often we project our pain onto others when we live in denial and resist facing our problems. But when we blame others, or hold others responsible for the way we feel, we give them power. Owning my own happiness starts with entitling myself to feel and witness my emotions without judgment. From that starting point, I can act to make my life better by taking risks and dealing with things I need to confront. Rather than waiting to be rescued, it’s my job to love and care for myself daily, like an attuned parent would for a child.
Lesson #2: I have limits.
My eating disorder was a barrier I created between myself and the world as protection from feeling overwhelmed by the stressful demands of daily life. In my younger years, I was terrible at setting boundaries – I felt constantly obligated to please everyone around me. Without boundaries, I felt violated and unsafe. I had a desperate need to protect my own space.
Acknowledging I have limits has been the ultimate empowerment. I now accept that energy is a renewable, but limited, resource, and I am entitled to protect my energy in the ways I need to in order to feel healthy and sane. So what if I’d rather curl up with a good book than go to a party? And if I need to limit the time I spend with people who drain my energy, that’s okay. I am a unique individual with needs that are unique to me.
At IIN, we use the term bio-individuality to convey that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to living. What works for one person might not work for another. Today, I know when I carve out time to care for myself, it is an act of self-love. I am entitled to bring awareness each day to who I am and what I need to thrive and live my life according to my own standards.
Lesson #3: I can trust my body.
When I struggled with food, I was convinced I was at war with my body. My body was not to be trusted – I needed to outsmart it, trick it, and punish it. But this wasn’t the case. My body was always on my side, holding the wisdom I refused to let guide me. I starved my body of the nourishment I lacked emotionally in my heart and mind. But it was never my body’s fault.
True freedom is not having the willpower to control our bodies; it’s having the courage to be present within them. If we want to be happy, we must have the willingness to surrender. We must be willing to trust ourselves. The magic that makes life worth living comes from letting go of fear, guilt, shame, and rules. It comes from letting go of needing to have all the answers. Today, I know I can trust my body’s infinite wisdom. My daily work is only to connect to it – to turn off the noise of the mind and tune in.
Sometimes we need to lose ourselves to find ourselves.
As humans (especially us perfectionists), we sometimes hold ourselves to the unrealistic expectation that we should walk a perfect line from birth to death while never faltering, messing up, getting distracted, or losing our way. But this would be a very boring life.
Instead try this approach: Examine the challenges you’ve been through. If it helps, make a list of the hard things you’ve survived. Then, reflect on lessons you have learned as a result of overcoming these hardships. Consider the possibility that the universe, or whatever higher power you believe in, planted lessons like seeds into the timeline of your life with the intent that they will bloom when you are ready to receive them.
Sometimes we need to go through the mud to find ourselves, and that’s okay. It’s part of growing, and it’s what builds character. Life is about taking risks, failing, cultivating awareness, and learning as we go. The best shot we have at feeling happy and free is to avoid judging ourselves too harshly along the way.
It has been my honor to support students in IIN’s Emotional Eating Course as a contributing teacher and community coordinator. Being part of this course reminds me each day to practice self-love, self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and anti-perfectionism. It also reminds me to look at emotional eating as a doorway, not a roadblock. Check out our Emotional Eating Course today to learn more about how to transform your relationship with food and improve your overall health in the process.