The Illusion of the Ego: Pride in Eating Disorders

Woman thinking about Pride in Eating Disorders

Contributor: Staff at McCallum Place

Sometimes, those with dysfunctional eating habits find an unhealthy sense of pride in self-denial and feeling hungry. This mentality of “pride in eating disorders” is plastered across many pro-ana and pro-mia blogs and social media pages, as illustrated in the quote, “Stay Strong and Starve On,” and the propensity to see themselves as an elite group who have mastered their bodies through willpower and strength and rejected the “weak” conventional norms [1].

Patients with eating disorders have linked feelings of triumph, power, and pride to their ability to lose weight, and for those who participate as elite athletes, the reward is even greater. However, these positive emotions linked to disordered eating behaviors only serve to further fuel the development of serious eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, which has a very high mortality rate [2].

Pride as an Emotion

This feeling of pride is understood as the reward for the achievement of something valuable. It is related to feelings of happiness, self-worth, self-esteem, and superiority. Pride has been identified to be an important emotion for anorexia and bulimia patients who have lived with the disorder for a period of time, as they are reported to experience a sense of glory and accomplishment at their survival and endurance despite having a disorder.

Pride appears to operate in their lives as motivation to handle the pain that comes with the restricted eating and starvation that is common in those with anorexia. As the illness progresses, this same pride blinds the individual to the fact that this type of behavior is not normal and prevents them from admitting that there is a problem and seeking help.

Research Findings of Pride in Eating Disorders

A recent grounded theory research study was conducted with patients who struggle with eating disorders in order to further understand the function of pride in the development and maintenance of disordered eating behavior [3]. Some interesting findings emerged from the research that pointed to a complex relationship with pride that expresses itself differently throughout an anorexia patient’s weight loss and treatment journey.

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The Anorexia Journey and Pride

Alluring pride. In the beginning, patients tend to experience a significant amount of negative effects, including shame, embarrassment, and sadness related to their body weight or shape. Exposed to messages from popular culture or negative evaluations by peers (perceived or actual), these individuals become highly distressed and vulnerable.

When making small changes to their diet in order to lose weight, and then seeing results, a pleasant feeling transpires and has a significant impact on their self-evaluation. This then prompts them to further restrict their eating. This is identified as the concept of alluring pride, where the similarities to drastic eating disorder pathology are unforeseen, but the positive effects are immediate.

Toxic pride. As the disorder progresses, pride becomes toxic. Patients become fully immersed in the experience of anorexia nervosa and its messaging and rules. More meals are excluded and skipped, and calories are burned through excessive exercise. This phase is more aggressive in its ability to create an immediate and powerful response.

By engaging in behaviors such as vomiting, using laxatives, exercising excessively, and checking body weight constantly, the patients in the study were identified to have skewed positive emotions, making it more difficult for them to understand the risks of their behavior. In fact, these exaggerated emotions serve to reward their maladaptive behaviors.

By being able to exert a certain level of control, both to cope with their unhappiness and to avoid discovery by authority figures, they felt a sense of pride. In addition, it was during the ‘toxic pride’ phase that individuals began to view themselves as superior to others who were not as thin or who were unable to stick to their diet.

Pathological pride comes after the patients convince themselves that what they are doing is necessary in order to be successful at their weight loss and staying thin. At this point, women often describe their experience as being overtaken by the illness.

Driven by the desire to be the best, and fueled by fears of not being good enough, losses in weight are never quite enough, and new goals are constantly created and replaced, chasing the ideal further and further into emaciated territory. At this point in the illness, even expressions of concern from others are viewed as confirmation of their success, highlighting the especially insidious nature of this condition and the need for highly specialized care.

The Recovery Journey of Pride in Eating Disorders

Girl in a SororityFrom the research, we understand that it is not until a person experiences a moment of clarity that they are able to face the lies and promises of their illness and realize that they are on a dangerous path.

In early recovery, individuals move between their understanding of what is termed anorexia pride and shameful pride. The former is said to be experienced at the beginning of treatment when most patients are confused about the willingness to recover from their illness.

Shameful pride comes into play when patients feel remorseful about not enjoying their life due to their illness, and the negative judgment they expect from others who do not understand the specific ‘mind games’ perpetuated by the disorder. However, this type of guilt regarding their behavior is adaptive in that it appears to be a crucial aspect of their transition to healthier expressions of pride.

Recovery pride comes later as a result of active effort and consciously focusing on what they know to be healthy behaviors (e.g., eating a meal and not exercising). By learning to value what others thought of them and what seemed meaningful to important others, they could counteract their eating disorder’s long-lasting effect.

In being able to cope with the momentary distress in order to experience moments of fulfillment and meaning, individuals were able to return to a healthy experience of pride in how they handle the daily challenges of living with an eating disorder.

Finally, resilient pride comes into play after an individual has not engaged in disordered eating behavior for some time, and they come to see themselves as a strong person who has survived, persevered, and overcome an extremely traumatic condition. With this change of attitude, individuals are able to accept themselves as they are, strengths, weaknesses, and all.

It is important to understand the role of pride and how it plays into the creation and persistence of these disorders.


[1] X. (2018, June 22). Starving ana sisters. Retrieved March 21, 2019, from
[2] Linardon, J., Garcia, X. D., & Brennan, L. (2016). Predictors, Moderators, and Mediators of Treatment Outcome Following Manualised Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for Eating Disorders: A Systematic Review. European Eating Disorders Review,25(1), 3-12. doi:10.1002/erv.2492
[3] Faija, C. L., Tierney, S., Gooding, P. A., Peters, S., & Fox, J. R. (2017). The role of pride in women with anorexia nervosa: A grounded theory study. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice,90(4), 567-585. doi:10.1111/papt.12125

About the Contributor:

McCallum Place is a nationally recognized eating disorder treatment center where professionals can help guide you through the process of treatment and recovery every step of the way. We operate treatment facilities in St. Louis, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, that offers comprehensive medical, nutritional, and psychological care within the flexibility of several levels of treatment for adult men and women, adolescents, and elite athletes alike. We will work with you personally to create a treatment program that is right for you.

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 a 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.

Published on April 10, 2019.
Reviewed & Approved on April 10, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

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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.