Identifying Core Values, in Eating Disorder Recovery

Finding life/ meaning beyond an eating disorder

Recovery involves a great deal of self exploration and a deep development of self -awareness, a level that most people will not their entire lives. This is something to be grateful for.

When I first started treatment for anorexia, I remember my therapist drawing out two pie charts. She asked me to fill in the blank circles with what was important to me in life and as a person. Her point was to show me how warped our thinking becomes when we are living with an eating disorder.

My pie at the time is a world apart from the one I would draw today.

The original pie was occupied by over valued pre-occupations with food, fear of weight gain and then tiny snippets of other aspects such as family, friends, career, “hobbies’ (at the time it was labelled as hobbies rather than individual interests because I didn’t have many besides controlling my food and shape) now this would include things like, creativity, art, writing, yoga, running, being outdoors, travelling, my veggie patch, puzzles, learning and discovery. My point being it’s a lot bigger and I have reconnected with individual interests and no longer struggle to think of what my “hobbies” actually are. Recovery involves increasing self awareness and discovery.

I wrote a blog on “you are not your eating disorder” some months back. Whilst I still believe this to be true, it is somewhat simplified because much of our identity is unveiled to us as we move through recovery.

When I was first asked, “what are your values?’, by my therapist I had the default answers, but they weren’t the core. I’d long lost touch with what they were. I suppose I identified as my eating disorder.

I had my values I would spurt as if off of a script because I felt they were what they “should be” I had my values that came from my eating disorder, but truthfully at the time I had no clue what my “true” values were.

Personally discovering and reconnecting with “my” virtues and traits has been instrumental in my recovery. There’s a sparcity in research pertaining to the use of connecting with values and eating disorder recovery but I believe for many of us it could be the missing link.

We know that eating disorders can be ego-syntonic ( we believe our actions, beliefs to be appropriate and congruent with our central personality, in contrast to ego-dystonic). Meaning many of us “value our eating disorder, see nothing wrong with it” and it helps to explain the resistance to give it up. This is where the whole rhetoric “you are not your eating disorder comes in, but to begin with we often view this as synchronous with our identity. Through the self exploration we bring the ego-syntonic values into question, essentially resulting in dissonance between the contradicting values.

I’ll use my own example, when I used to turn to restriction, I’d escape the negative emotion I was trying to avoid and feel a sense of mastery of control, in the early days anyway. All of these appeared congruent with my core values; self control, self discipline, hard working, dedicated. But the more I explored what my true values were, I could see there was an incongruence. It was bringing these values to the surface that helped me move past the ambivalence I felt towards recovery.

Some of my own values and how honing them helped motivate me in recovery..

1. Honesty and integrity. I don’t think I need to expand, I became extremely deceitful in order to protect my eating disorder. I could see that lying was causing a great power struggle. Giving myself permission to become my authentic self, learning to communicate with myself and support helped me to align with these values and realise living with anorexia was not living as my authentic self

2. Compassion, forgiveness, courage, perseverance, curiosity are some of my core values. Part of my self healing work has been to learn to set boundaries, to have an “off” switch, developing the compassion towards myself that I show others and practicing self forgiveness.

3. Solitude is important to me, I can be at home in my own company. I try and nurture this by following my morning routine where I get up slightly earlier and have 30 minutes to myself. I often use this time to journal and check-in. Expanding on this further I’m someone who needs routine to keep grounded

4. Connection is important to me, although I need time on my own, I thrive on connecting with others. My family, friends, other people in this community. This was incongruent to how I was behaving with my anorexia, I become isolated, withdrawn. I believed my behaviours were helping me connect, enabling me to control anxiety around social events for instance. However, what actually happened is I avoided the social events, I pushed people away. Highlighting the conflict of the ED value and my own.

Some food for thought…perhaps journal prompts

If you’re in a place where you are still trying to figure out your values, something I found helpful to start with, was thinking of people I admire. What is it about them that I admired?

What are some of your character traits? How do they help you or hinder you?

What are some things you believe in?

Identifying our core values helps us make decisions about the future, they shape our relationships are central to who we are. They help us to understand that when we are acting out of alignment to our core values it brings about distress and often maladaptive behaviours. This is why I truly believe connecting with our core values assists us with developing coping skills for situations and finding inner peace.

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