Disordered Eating: Reframing The Discussion, Part 4: A Sense of Self

Woman running with Compulsive Exercise and Eating Disorders

A Sense of Self

As with most of these tips that we’re exploring, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that they require equal parts of a strong sense of self, introspection, confidence and resolve. This work can be extremely challenging and is likely to make you feel quite vulnerable.

That’s why I think it is important for me to share a portion of my own journey. I do this with the hope that you might see some parallels in your own story, and perhaps strengthen your own resolve towards living a highly actualized life.

Dignity and Living at Your Highest Level of Integrity

Prior to developing the eating disorder, I had been a high achieving, responsible, and popular kid. Your basic poster child for a “Good Girl”. I even won many awards for character and service to others. My future looked very bright.

When I was struggling with my eating disorder, I made many choices that seemed highly out of character to my friends and family. I was irresponsible, dishonest, mean and unstable. I hurt a lot of people, and I felt deeply disappointed in myself. It seemed the “Good Girl” was gone.

The Ups and Downs As Symptoms

As a bit of a train wreck, I started a cycle of unhelpful starts and stops. I continually started and quit schools (both high school and college), started and quit multiple jobs (resume disaster!) and also had many unstable and tumultuous romantic relations with men that were not well suited for me, or my emotional needs.

I was on again/off again in getting my life back together. There were shining moments – moments that gave my family and friends a glimmer of hope that the ‘good girl’ was back. Unfortunately, these moments proved to be short lived as my behavior ripped them all to shreds again and again. This cycle defined my late teens through early 30’s.

After Treatment, The Emotional Turns

hurting_by_feffamine-d6kshu2After treatment and much therapy, I realized that I carried the burden of tremendous regret and shame over parts of my past. In some cases, deservedly so! However, this process of introspection helped me to develop clarity about my true values, and what it looked like to live a life exemplified by these values.

I developed a new level of dignity.

Over time, a tremendous sense of self-confidence developed as I, imperfectly but sincerely, strived to live at my highest level of integrity. This renewed sense of self gradually developed and gave me a grounded place of confidence from which to operate in the world – and in any circumstance.

It evolved into an internal security blanket and reference point for confidence when I felt intimidated or fearful.

Forgiving the Past in Order to Move On

We all make mistakes and poor choices occasionally, but persecuting ourselves over this is highly unproductive. We must forgive our past and regularly occurring mistakes and accept ourselves. At the same time, I strive to live according to my values in a way that honors God and my true self.

I found the best way to gain this grounded perspective of my value system was to explore and know myself deeply. I encourage the same for you.

Too often, when ingrained deeply in an eating disorder, it becomes easy to lose sight of what is truly important, valuable, and meaningful in your own life, particularly as the eating disorder behaviors take hold and become prioritized.

As you establish greater clarity of your values, you will begin to find self-worth in your character and actions, rather than by your weight, image and the perception of others. You will develop an internally driven sense of self that you can carry throughout your days, keeping you full of confidence and secure in your own skin.

You will begin to be reminded of the defining characteristics that shape your life and meaning, outside of your eating disorder and the behaviors that have prioritized your thoughts and actions for so long.

This will decrease the anxiety you may feel around others, and free you from the roller coaster ride of self-evaluation based upon the perspective of others. Redefining your identify based on your own internal value and self-worth can support your overall healing and eating disorder recovery.

Substance versus Form

vinyl_girl_2_by_biscuitsi-d2m6trtI find the concept of ‘substance versus form’ intriguing and refer to it often when considering the difference between being real and being an “image”.

For years, I had tried to be so much more than what I feared was just plain old ordinary me. I thought if I tried hard enough to be perfect, look perfect, have everyone like me and be thin as a wisp then I would be happy and life would go exactly as planned.

Alas, the very fuel of my eating disorder was derived from this die-hard desire to be the image of perfection. The ‘real me’, that flawed person, was just not going to cut it. I wasn’t acceptable enough, good enough, attractive enough or popular enough.

Asking Questions

It took treatment and some serious work in therapy, over about four years, to realize that I had rejected my authentic self and was deluding myself, and others, with the many pretenses that made up my “image.” I began dismantling the pretenses, one at a time and exploring what my true values were.

  • What really made me happy?
  • What did I want out of life, not what did others expect of me, but what did I truly want?
  • Who did I believe God created me to be?
  • Was materialism and appearance important to me, or had I just bought into the societal focus on these things and disregarded my own internal value system?

Perhaps most importantly, did I value myself based on my performance and image? I realized that I had unfortunately become obsessed with my superficial image and neglected my own true inner self. Big changes needed to happen. As I explored these realizations, I discovered I wanted to become more comfortable in my own skin and embrace my true self.

The old false image I had worked so hard to project no longer felt comfortable – it took too much energy to keep up the pretenses. It was far easier just to be real.

This is a crucial step toward healing from an eating disorder and being empowered to let go of many of the false pretenses that are created and upheld by the eating disorder itself. For many of us who struggle with eating disorders, we may not even be fully aware of the facade that has taken over our true identity until we begin asking questions and seeking to find our true values.

Resolving the Internal World with the External

The_PHOTOGRAPH_GIRL_by_MomoGieFunny thing, the more congruent my internal world became with the self that I presented to the world, the less hold the eating disorder had over my life. I believe that you will find this to be true, too.

Being myself became the norm, pretenses and trying to impress others seemed silly and a waste of energy once I realized that I had significant inner value based on my character and the unique individual that God had created me to be.

The Greek philosophers were really tuned into this, and I also encourage you to “Know Thyself”. To me, this means: explore your values, your likes, and dislikes and determine the life that you want to live.

This can be one of the most difficult aspects of eating disorder recovery, as you are essentially undoing years of negative thought patterns that are complex and deep-rooted, but know that you do not need to do this alone.

Eating disorder professionals and treatment programs are available to assist and guide you through this process and help you uncover your true self under the shell of the eating disorder.Seek professional help to find guidance on your road to recovery.

Do this, and refine your life to be lived more congruently with your vision. Your true character will be revealed, and you will find a greater sense of self.

Have hope that your work in this area will ultimately support your healing journey in your eating disorder recovery and lead you to a place of greater satisfaction and peace in life. I want this for you.

This is part 4 of 7 of Disordered Eating: Reframing The Discussion. See Part 5


Jacquelyn EkernAbout the author: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. As president, Jacquelyn manages Ekern Enterprises, Inc. and the Eating Disorder Hope website. In addition, she is a fully licensed therapist with a closed private counseling practice specializing in the treatment of eating disorders.

Jacquelyn has a Bachelor of Science in Human Services degree from The University of Phoenix and a Masters degree in Counseling/Psychology, from Capella University. She has extensive experience in the eating disorder field including advanced education in psychology, participation and contributions to additional eating disorder groups, symposiums, and professional associations. She is a member of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), Academy of Eating Disorders (AED), the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC) and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (iaedp).

Jacquelyn enjoys art, working out, walking her golden retriever “Cowgirl”, reading, painting and time with family.
Although Eating Disorder Hope was founded by Jacquelyn Ekern, this organization would not be possible without support from our generous sponsors.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed and Updated By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 31, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.