Our identities are shaped by a countless factors: age, race, sex, gender, location, physical health, mental health, socio-economic status, education, culture, family, friends, the list goes on and on and on. But sometimes, those of us with diagnosed mental illnesses find our identities too closely tied to the illness. This is actually pretty common, and makes all the sense in the world: we spend a lot of time engaging in the illness/disorder and the ensuing disordered behaviors, and an equally large amount of time figuring out how to survive/thrive with our illness and rectify our disordered behaviors. Kati Morton, an incredible therapist with a large presence on YouTube, breaks down the barriers between mental illness and identity HERE.
I've found myself toeing the line between identifying too closely with my eating disorder, and I have to say, it's a delicate balance. The most popular blogs I've published have been either deeply personal tales about my own eating disorders, or articles about coping with and/or overcoming eating disorders. I've found myself pigeon-holing my writing, because writing about my mental illness has mostly worked.
But I'm not really suffering from my eating disorder anymore. Sure, I have moments when it comes raging back, louder and meaner than ever, but I've learned how to cope with these moments. My eating disorder used to be so loud that it drowned most other thoughts. It was like being in an abusive relationship, that took lots of therapy and self-revelation to extract myself from. The insidious thing about abusive relationships is that sometimes we miss our abusers. There are days when I miss my eating disorder, because it brought me comfort when I was scared, validated my belief that my worth stemmed from the size/shape of my body, and overall made me feel halfway good, some of the time.
Of course, when people leave an abuser they are usually see just how abusive the relationship was, and the same is true for my eating disorder. If I ever have fleeting moments of missing it, I simply remind myself of the hundreds of times it hurt me. Since my illness was so toxic, it makes little sense to continue examining it so closely. The only good thing that could, or has come, of this degree of self-interrogation is that other people who are suffering from similar mental illnesses may find hope: they can get better, and I'm showing them that recovery is possible.
The other, equally important benefit is that those who don't understand eating disorders-who may think they aren't real-will understand them better and subsequently, understand those who suffer from them. Fostering this type of open communication can hopefully ignite empathy and understanding. BUT fostering empathy and understanding doesn't require that I define myself by my eating disorder, and the same is true for you. We are all multi-faceted humans, and that's uncomfortable sometimes, but it's true.
This blog post is specifically for those who've suffered from eating disorders, or any mental illness for that matter. Our identities shift. They are not constant, which is nearly too obvious to write down. People reinvent themselves all the time. We choose parts of ourselves to embrace, and parts of ourselves to discard. It can be scary to let parts of ourselves go, but it is certainly not impossible. Moreover, such a damaging part of us shouldn't become the most prominent. So with that, here are some tips to separate your mental illness from your identity. *Take these ALL with a grain of salt. I'm a writer, not a psychiatrist.*
1. Focus On Qualities You Like About Yourself.
Make a list of things you like about yourself, whether they are positive qualities you possess or other interests you have. Maybe you're an incredible artist, athlete, mother, manager, or friend. Maybe you're incredibly empathetic, a good listener, a good negotiator, etc, etc, etc. Maybe you're ignoring some amazing qualities because your mental disorder is holding you back. Focusing on your positive traits will help diminish the power of your mental illness, and writing things down makes them far more real than simply thinking them.
2. Accept The Mental Illness.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but it takes considerably more energy to resist something than it does to embrace something. If you're able to see your mental illness or disorder as a benefit rather than a downfall, the illness will have less power over you. While my eating disorder didn't produce many positive outcomes when I was suffering, it did teach me a heck of a lot about myself. Thanks to my eating disorder, I was able to uncover some deeply rooted trauma and subsequently, learn the best ways to move through that trauma. By accepting your mental illnesses, you will also accept yourself, and that's pretty damn powerful.
3. Pursue People and Activities That Increase Self-Esteem.
I know you're probably thinking, "Easier said than done!" but it's true. If you surround yourself with people who tear you down, you're going to feel worse. But if you surround yourself with people who build you up and believe in you, you'll start believing in you, too. It's really not complicated, but it might be difficult. I extracted myself from a toxic partnership which was very hard at the time, but was incredibly healthy for me in the long run. If someone or something tears you down, you know it, and you absolutely don't deserve it.
I cannot recommend therapy enough, but *disclaimer* therapy is difficult work. It can be emotionally exhausting, mentally draining, and even physically tiring. Going to therapy can feel weird at first, and you might be resistant to the very idea of seeing a therapist because we're taught to believe that seeking therapy is an indication of weakness. Or, you may simply believe that therapy doesn't work, but I'm here to tell you that therapy works if you want it to work. Nobody's life has ever significantly worsened by seeing a therapist. Therapy can be costly if you're uninsured, so if that's the case, check out these tips to accessing affordable care.