Contributor: Nikki Rollo, Ph.D., LMFT, CEDS-S – National Director of Reasons Eating Disorder Center
“Trust that which gives you meaning and accept it as your guide.” – C.G. Jung
There is good evidence that a sense of meaning in our lives can increase our psychological health and decrease our distress as well as protect against depression, low self-esteem, and substance abuse. It is a core aspect of psychological health and can act as a reserve for coping with stressful times in life.
A sense of meaning can also serve as a key element on the road to eating disorder recovery. Yet, this search for meaning may feel utterly mysterious and abstract. What does it really mean to live a good life, to have a life worth living?
We can draw inspiration from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) on the quest. Along with the essential skills of mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation, DBT offers a fundamental emphasis on building a life worth living.
While this therapy was developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan for helping people with Borderline Personality Disorder, chronic suicidality, and self-harming behavior, it is also found to be useful for eating disorder treatment.
Those on the eating disorder recovery path can often identify with the struggle to stay present and mindful in life and with food, maintain solid conflict management skills and establish good boundaries, tolerate stress and practice self-soothing in difficult situations, and live with big emotions – all skills that help us build a meaningful life.
Where to Start Finding Meaning?
This personal work can feel like a big undertaking. It is normal to experience a sense of overwhelm or confusion! The first step is always the most challenging.
Self-Compassion is always a good place to start. With a gentle attitude, we can start by accepting that there is a problem, a need, or a desire. We turn toward our own suffering with an attitude of loving-kindness and understanding.
We practice acceptance by acknowledging the reality of the current situation in order to reduce the suffering and fighting against what simply is. Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist teacher, states:
“We have a choice. We can spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.”
As we practice comforting ourselves in times of difficulty or stress, we hold our suffering with a sense of love. A life worth living includes love, understanding, and compassion for imperfections. You can start small with one small act of loving, kindness, or care toward yourself. Consider simple actions, like listening to soothing music, taking a few deep breaths, or having a cup of warming tea.
Curiosity is also a good next step. As we balance radical acceptance with efforts toward change, practicing skills, and living more in line with our goals and values, we can become curious about what we want in life. Explore questions about your aspirations. What ignites your heart? What brings joy and a sense of freedom?
Research identifies many different categories of meaning in life, including relationships with others, creativity, relationship with nature, personal development, religious or spiritual pursuits, and social or political advocacy.
How can you take one small step toward bringing more of these forms of meaning into your life today? These steps can be as simple as reading a poem or scripture, taking a mindful walk in nature, or signing up for a volunteer activity.
Community and connection are essential aspects of the recovery journey and building a life worth living. We are hard-wired for connection and can never have too much support. In “The Power of Meaning,” Emily Esfahani Smith, a writer on the human experience, identified four pillars of meaning: Belonging, Purpose, Storytelling, and Transcendence.
Woven through each of these pillars is connection to others, a community, a sense of purpose, or a higher power. We need people personally and collectively. Small gestures like a phone call to a friend or a random act of kindness can help foster a sense of connection and community.
The work of recovery goes beyond the symptoms to honor the deeper meaning ways the eating disorder served a function in one’s life. From this deeper place, one can focus on building a life of meaning, purpose, and passion.
Spend some time journaling and reflecting on the possibilities above. Bring it to therapy or group and talk about it. Explore how to make these things personal for you on your journey. Start small and start today.
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 5, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published October 5, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com