Contributor: Nikki Rollo, Ph.D., LMFT, CEDS-S – National Director of Reasons Eating Disorder Center
“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” ―Anais Nin
The pursuit of meaning in life is a highly personal one. No matter the shape of your spiritual beliefs, your individual search for meaning can take many twists and turns.
Especially in challenging moments working on recovery from an eating disorder, the search for meaning in life can feel daunting. How do we explore meaning, especially in the moments where it seems absent?
The road toward eating disorder recovery can prove especially challenging to our sense of meaning. It is difficult to let go of long-held beliefs and ways of being and coping. As difficult as it may be, the journey to recovery can also open new and healing ways of finding and cultivating meaning in life.
I recently read “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters” by Emily Esfahani Smith. In her book, Smith offers a useful framework for exploring the pathways toward meaning in our lives. She describes four key pillars for meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. I see each of these pillars as critical components on the path to eating disorder recovery.
Smith describes belonging as our shared core need to be recognized, understood, and valued. We need to be part of a community where we both give and receive acts of kindness and compassion.
We all have a deep need to belong. Relationships and connections are essential in creating meaning and value in life. Eating disorders thrive in isolation.
We cultivate healing and recovery through relationships, connection, and through reaching out, sharing of ourselves, and being there for others. Perhaps our relationships center around family and friends. However, in the context of eating disorder recovery, those relationships might take shape as trusted relationships with a therapist, dietitian, doctor, or a support group of peers.
Within these relationships, we find love, support, and kindness as we are simultaneously encouraged to grow and do things differently. We also find the opportunity to negotiate our needs, learn to disagree peacefully, and to both express and be witness to big emotions.
Purpose and Meaning
In “The Power of Meaning,” Esfahani Smith reminds us that living with a purpose provides the motivation necessary to make it through both challenging and joyful times in life. We can find and utilize our talents to make a difference in the world. We can find purpose in unexpected places, in mundane tasks, in the ordinary rhythm of life.
Work can serve as one path to discovering our purpose. While “work” may consist of a job as a paid employee, it can also consist of parenting, caring for an animal, volunteering, activism and advocacy, or creating art. Paid or unpaid, the work we do is a huge part of finding meaning in our lives to help us in the quest to build a life worth living.
The real question is: where can you find meaning and purpose in spaces you move through each day? Maybe you find meaning through your connections with colleagues, through the environment you work in, through the process of learning something new, through deep listening to a child, through contributing your ideas, or through mentoring and helping others.
Take a moment to self-reflect and consider the ways that purpose might show up for you in the space you call “work.” What are your strengths, gifts, and talents? How can you invite them forward in your work in a mindful and present way?
Purpose helps us find new ways to cope other than engaging in eating disorder behaviors. Connecting these seemingly small tasks to a sense of a bigger purpose can serve you in the recovery journey as you develop a sense of meaning and a life beyond an eating disorder identity or a particular body image ideal.
Storytelling, as Emily Esfahani Smith explains, is our personal myth. What do we tell ourselves about our life? What is our story? How can our story impact others?
Through stories, we can better understand our identity. We each have a personal myth, a narrative about who we are and what has happened in our lives. In eating disorder treatment and beyond, our life stories are an important part of therapy.
Eating disorders are disruptive and secretive. When we allow ourselves to be known by telling our story, we can reframe the role of the eating disorder and more deeply understand the ways we attempted to survive our hardships and pain.
Stories can break through the secretive nature of this illness and open up possibilities for transformation. We can write, re-write, and come to new understandings and meanings about our lives. Through this process, our sense of self becomes more refined and deeply understood. We become more integrated.
When we share our stories, we practice vulnerability and courage. We communicate our needs, hopes, disappointments, fears, joys, and longings. As Brene Brown says, “When we deny the story, it defines us.
When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” Your story matters. You matter. Hope can be found here as we consider what we want our future story to be as well.
Think about how your story could deepen your connections with others. What story do you tell about your life? Could it use some re-writing? Does it need to be heard?
Meaning Through Transcendence
These are moments in meditation, prayer, or nature when the anxieties of life seem to melt away, and we feel connected to something bigger, deeper, or beyond.
Often, in the throes of a mental illness like an eating disorder, feelings of emptiness and isolation can seem very pervasive. In these moments, connection to something bigger, beyond the self, can especially help in bringing peace and well-being into our lives.
Keep in mind that a connection to something bigger doesn’t necessarily need to be religious in nature, though religion can certainly offer a pathway toward those realizations. Transcendence is about connecting on an emotional level to what inspires you or brings awe into your life.
Examples might include spending time in nature, meditating, listening to music, going to an art exhibit, or reading poetry. These are essential pathways to open up new coping skills in recovery to handle the pain and struggle of an eating disorder.
Whatever the medium is for you, the idea is to be fully present and engaged in whatever you are doing, to really immerse yourself in the experience and feel it fully and mindfully.
As Emily Esfahani Smith explains, “The only certainty is that we are here, in this moment, in this now. It’s up to us: to live fully, experiencing each moment, aware, alert, and attentive.”
Just as life is full of twists and turns, so is the path toward eating disorder recovery. As you explore your path forward, consider how belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence can support you along the way. You are never alone in your journey. Let these beacons of meaning remind you of that truth.
Resources: Chodron, P. (2012). Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.  Esfahani Smith, E. (2017). The Power of Meaning.  Dr. Linehan on Building a Life Worth Living: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EJwSHOqIHs  Tafarodi, R. W., Bonn, G., Liang, H., Takai, J., Moriizumi, S., Belhekar, V., & Padhye, A. (2012). What makes for a good life? A four-nation study. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(5), 783-800
Friendships, family, making the world a better place.  Steger, M. F., Fitch-martin, A., Donnelly, J., & Rickard, K. M. (2015). Meaning in life and health: Proactive health orientation links meaning in life to health variables among american undergraduates. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(3), 583-597.  Zhang, H., Sang, Z., Chen, C., Zhu, J., & Deng, W. (2018). Need for meaning, meaning confusion, meaning anxiety, and meaning avoidance: Additional dimensions of meaning in life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 19(1), 191-212.  O Connor, Kay, & Chamberlain, K. (1996). Dimensions of life meaning: A qualitative investigation at mid-life. British Journal of Psychology, 87, 461.
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Reasons Eating Disorder Center offers a full continuum of care for patients struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and co-occurring issues such as trauma symptoms, substance abuse, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression.
About the Author:
Nikki Rollo, Ph.D., LMFT, CEDS-S – National Director of Reasons Eating Disorder Center
Nikki has a Ph.D. in Depth Psychology, with an emphasis in psychotherapy and is a licensed marriage and family therapist in both California and New York State. She is also a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist- Supervisor. She has worked in various aspects of eating disorder treatment over the past ten years, utilizing her experience as a clinician and passion for the idea that relationships are healing to inform her efforts in program development, training staff, admissions, business development and clinical outreach aspects of her work.
Integral to her clinical philosophy is her personal practice of yoga and meditation, including completing a Yoga teacher training with an emphasis on trauma-sensitive mind-body movement. She is the founding chair of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals, San Diego Chapter, and has served on several chapters over the past eight years. She currently serves in the role of National Director of Program Development, where she is responsible for developing the Reasons philosophy and ensuring consistency across all programs through oversight of clinical and operations, as well as development and expansion efforts.
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.
Reviewed & Approved on October 7, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published October 7, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com