I’ve been thinking a lot about values lately, and one of the things that keeps coming up for me is autonomy. Increasingly, I find myself embracing the idea that we can – and are entitled to – govern ourselves. Our bodies, our thoughts, our feelings – they are all uniquely ours. And so are our choices: Who we chose to be friends with, what we wear, how we talk, our hobbies, our favorite books, leisure activities, foods, podcasts – all these choices make up who we are.
So often in an eating disorder, our choices are guided by what we think we should like or dislike, what we think other people want us to like or dislike, and what the eating disorder wants us to choose. These “guides” can eventually drown out our own desires and mute the things we genuinely want – whether it’s a career, a day at the pool, or a new apartment with new friends.
Part of recovery, then, is figuring out what we want or need and then choosing to pursue those things. At first, it can and likely will feel really hard to break free of the restraints that you’ve created through your eating disorder. But with time, making the right choices for you can help you feel stronger in yourself and more sure-footed in your recovery.
This journey, like so many in recovery, may start with one or more small steps:
- Make a list of the things you like. This can help you see where your current choices are incongruent with your true desires. Do you love biographies? Then why have you been reading only fiction novels? Do you love water sports? Why do you tell yourself you can’t go on a trip with friends? When you see what you like, you can start to chip away at the forces in your life that trick you into doing things you don’t enjoy.
- Start with your clothing/hair/makeup. This one has been really helpful in my life. I used to wear more structured clothing because I thought those items “looked best” on me. But over the years I’ve embraced blousier and more earth-toned clothes, solely because these clothes make me feel most like me. I know not everyone is going to like my choices – my love of gray is a joke among my family and friends – but I take comfort in my clothing being my choice. The same goes for makeup. In general, I choose not to wear it. Other people recommend that I try such-and-such concealer or eyeliner, but it doesn’t feel like me, so I don’t. And when I do decide to put on mascara and blush, it’s only because I want to.
- Vocalize your choices. Whether you speak your choice to someone else or say it to yourself, this can help you assert yourself and understand why you’re doing something that might feel new or strange or even stressful but is actually helping you take the reigns of your life. When someone asks where you want to go to dinner for your birthday, instead of saying, “Anything is OK with me,” you can say, “I’d really like to go to the Thai restaurant by my house. I’ve been craving their garlic chicken.” Or, when you’re alone at the grocery store, you can say to yourself, “Eating disorder is telling me to get X cereal, but I prefer Z cereal, so that’s what I will buy this time.”
- Ask yourself “Who says?” Sometimes all it takes to help us reroute and make the decision that’s right for us is an examination of why we think we have to make a certain choice. If you think to yourself, “I can’t go on that road trip,” follow up with “Who says?” If there is a legitimate reason — your health, your job, or if your treatment team believes the trip would be detrimental to your recovery — then you likely shouldn’t go on the trip. But if the answer to “Who says?” is a fear of certain foods, an insistence that you must stay home and clean all weekend, or a discomfort with a lack of routine, you become aware of the shoulds in your head. With this awareness, you can better differentiate these self-punishing terms of living from the choices you genuinely want to make.
- Journal after you make your choice. Once you make a decision that’s right for you and carry it out, write about it. What happened? How do you feel about it? What would you have done differently? Are there other choices you’d like to try?
Examining your choices, your actions, and the outcomes can help you confront your fears and build confidence in your own compass.
There are some choices, of course, that we have to make even though we’d rather do something else. We all have obligations – at work, at school, and at home. I’m not advocating for abandoning those and living according to your own each and every whim. I’m encouraging you to examine where you can take the reigns of your own life, free from eating disorder and free from artificial limits that are keeping you stuck. You may find that as you make the choices that are right for you, you really love who you’re becoming.