One of life’s most existential questions: who am I? Throughout eating disorder recovery specifically, this question is thrown around without ever really feeling like an answer is sufficient or fulfilling enough. Remember the concept of black-or-white thinking? Otherwise known as all-or-nothing thinking; essentially the idea that two extremes exist, leaving little to no room for grey area. In this case, black-or-white thinking limits what one’s identity is or can become. It requires that you are ALL of the characteristics that society defines to fit into one specific identity, with little room for fluidity to adopt other traits.
It’s okay to NOT know
Uncertainty was (and may still be) one of my biggest fears. I absolutely hated NOT knowing who I was, especially without my disorder. “Anorexic” became very familiar, easy, and comfortable to associate with. It was how I truly believed I got my needs met, received love from others, and it was how I was perceived by those around me. And let’s face it: with anorexia, everything (falsely) felt certain. I knew when my next meal was going to be according to my rules, I knew what food I was going to allow myself to eat based on rigidity, and I knew the plan that each day would adhere to because of the obsessive-compulsive routine I had in place. Losing that identity when I decided to recover felt like a part of me was being taken away, and I sure as hell wasn’t certain of what I would be left with.
This was a normal feeling to have, and it’s also normal and okay to not always know the answer to everything. If we know everything we are, or are meant to become, what room does this leave us to discover something unplanned or unprepared for? The “not-knowing” phase is both one of the most uncomfortable, and most important stages of identity development throughout and after recovery; this is the phase where you’re free to explore the parts of you that you wish to leave behind, while opening room for whoever it is you’d like to become.
We are not stagnant humans
The all-or-nothing thinking also states that once we become our full selves, then we are likely (or we must) stay that way. Not only does this sound boring, but also unrealistic. Identity is meant to change over time. By remaining the same over time, we’re ultimately limiting ourselves from seeing everything else that we could potentially like to add to our identity. Imagine if I had the exact same identity of my middle school self? Picture this: pure black hair, studded belt, shirts with cartoons on them, and high top converse, addicted to Myspace, had no idea that she could draw or paint, and played the Sims more than she went out with friends. No, there is nothing wrong with any of these things (except the belt, I really was not rocking the belt), but it is not the person I could imagine myself as today. We are bound to change and to transform ourselves, despite anorexia telling us otherwise.
You can be more than one “thing”
Perfectionistic thinking can easily set us up to believe we have to be absolutely perfect at one identity, and nothing else. Before I actually decided to recover, I worked at an extremely “high fashion” store smack dab in the middle of downtown Chicago. The clothes were advertised to look the most appealing on a tall, slender body. I knew I couldn’t change my height, but I was certain that my anorexia would allow me to at least portray that slender body image to perfection. I started to wear all of the clothes that the mannequins donned, and truly started to believe that I was only in this role of a sales associate because of how my body looked.
Jump ahead a few years later when I finally was close to my goal weight after recovering on my own for a year. I became interested in the body-building lifestyle, which meant “out with the old clothes” and “in with the new workout pants and sports bras.” I completely transformed my style, my daily routine, and my perception of what an “ideal” body looked like. Am I making my point clear here? It becomes easy with identity development during recovery and post-recovery to assume we have to be ALL of one thing, because we were familiar with that for so long.
You’re allowed to love yoga but not become vegan. You’re allowed to enjoy getting a new squat-rep record and still love to go out for a few beers on the weekends. You’re allowed to have multiple aspects of your identity that don’t necessarily “fit” by society’s standards, but they work for YOU.