Identity Reconstruction in Recovery (Guest post by Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.)

I am excited to bring you a guest post from Katherine Thomson, Ph.D., who contributed some extremely helpful ideas and advice to my 2016 book The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. She also shared great insights and information in three of my podcast episodes so far: Episode 35: Fostering a Positive Mindset in Recovery, Episode 52 on Food Addiction, and Episode 53 on Weight Obsession. 

These three episodes are among my listeners’ favorites, and this blog post expands on an idea that Katherine mentioned in the Positive Mindset episode. She talked about a creative and refreshing way to shift your body thoughts in a positive direction, especially at times when you are feeling very self-critical about your weight. In this post, she explains that concept in more detail and dives deeper into talking about recreating your identity. I hope you benefit from this post!

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Identity Reconstruction in Recovery, by Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.

I was “skinny chic” for all of ten brief months in my early 20s and then spent the better part of the next decade chasing after a body and self that would have been better off put to rest.  For me, recovering from an eating disorder was a painfully slow, tedious process, and it’s only now that I can look back and see the things I could have done differently to cut myself some slack, things that would have sped up the entire recovery process considerably.  

It’s Easier to Recover if you Feel Motivated

People recover from eating disorders using all sorts of methods and techniques.  What worked for me can basically be boiled down to plain, old fashioned behavior modification, using classic tools like setting goals, rewarding progress, and slowly shaping behaviors until they began producing desired results.  Habit formation. I believe this approach works brilliantly when people can turn the process into a game and make it fun. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges in my approach, one I face with clients repeatedly: How can people get excited about shaping a new future if they’re stubbornly attached to the past?  

Because I was attached to the past, I postponed everything, telling myself that I’d do all the things I wanted to do once I was satisfied with the number on the scale, the contents of my fridge, the contour of my cheekbone, and my ability to never, ever – God forbid – eat a pack of Oreos after a stressful family get-together.  The problem with this mindset is that it not only robs you of joy, but it isn’t very motivating.  

How I Discovered Identity Reconstruction

I landed upon the importance of identity reconstruction thanks to a dear friend I met eons ago in an eating disorder support group I attended in my early 20’s.  I had recently gained a significant amount of weight over the course of 12 months. Unbeknownst to me at the time, both the low and high weights were numbers I would never again see on the scale, and I would have felt better if I’d known that.  But all I could think about at the time was how heavy I was and how terrified I was of gaining yet more.  

Each day was a struggle to leave the house and be seen by the world, and many mornings I didn’t succeed.  My wardrobe at the time consisted of half a dozen ankle-length floral skirts from Goodwill paired with dark, long-sleeved tees.  To make matters worse, I was still bingeing fairly regularly and saw no signs that I would or could ever stop. I logically knew it made sense to be kind to my body and that I should I find a way to do so, but I couldn’t bear looking in a mirror, let alone taking candlelit bubble baths or slathering myself with scented lotions.   

After one meeting, I asked a woman in the group, someone I admired who was about six months ahead of me in the process, how she managed to stay optimistic and feel good about herself.  “Dramatic flair,” was her answer, pointing to the miniature french braids at the crown of her head and shimmery scarf looped around her hips. This young woman was artistic by nature (today, she is a professional artist and owns her own business), and it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe she hadn’t always looked the part so thoroughly.  

She took me to her place one afternoon and cracked open a photo album.  Together, we scanned over pictures from her skinnier days. It is very sensitive for someone with an eating disorder to show others photos from all-time-thin days, and I am eternally grateful that she shared this with me.  The photo I remember most clearly was of her riding a bike, skinny arms and legs flexed over the frame of a beach cruiser, and a tensely grinning face with enormous eyes. Her clothing was nondescript: shorts, tank, and flip flops.  I was stunned by how childlike she looked. She was in her early 20s in the photo but could have easily passed for a high schooler. There were no signs of her artistry, her wisdom, her “dramatic flair.” 

I asked a few more questions about how she landed upon her updated personal style, and later that week, I set out to update my own appearance.  I went through my closet and tried on all the items that still fit until I found something that made me feel somewhat elevated: a red v-neck tunic with ¾ sleeves and a hem that hit slightly above the knees.  I straightened my wavy hair, made a center part, and added dark lipstick and large hoop earrings. I looked in the mirror and felt nothing short of relief. I looked older, more womanly, and most importantly, I had driven a wedge between myself and the waiflike ghost that haunted me.  Did I like how I looked? Not really, because my self-judgment ran very deep at that point in my life. But it was a welcome lateral move: I had taken myself out of the harsh lights of self-scrutiny. I could work with this.

Things got Easier

For the next year, I dressed like this pretty much every day. One of the first things I discovered was that there were in fact parts of my body I could like and appreciate at my larger size.  I liked my neck, upper chest, and calves. I hadn’t really noticed them much because I had been so fixated on the hated roundness of my face and softness in my middle. The more comfortable I felt with my appearance, the easier it became to eat in self-respecting ways.  Overeating didn’t seem as worth it, and I didn’t have as much to hide from.

In the many years that have transpired since, I’ve been through several identity reiterations.  What I’ve come to learn is that whenever I’m experiencing a period of not liking how I look, it’s nothing more than a symptom of growing pains.  It sounds so cheesy to say this, but I’ve come to appreciate the seasons of life, and I have a lot of respect for how hard it is to struggle toward something that doesn’t yet exist, something that is still struggling to take form.   

Focus on the Future

Today when I work with clients, I press the importance of getting excited about the future.  The goal is to take all that motivation and euphoria that used to be linked to dieting and funnel it into the more expansive goal of self development.  This is a major feat because almost everybody I work with is still trying to reclaim something that no longer exists. More often than not, clients are completely stuck between a rock and a hard place, knowing they can’t go back to restriction but feeling uninspired toward the future.  How many times have I heard people tearfully insist, “I’ll always be fat! I’m doomed to become my mother! There is no point.”   

I try to drill in the idea that everything will be smoother if they can abandon such thoughts.  I know it’s not easy, not at all. It takes discipline to choose not to believe these thoughts.  Let me say it again: It is NOT easy to let go of grief and self-pity.   But doing so will get you everywhere. I tell people that chances are, they will be happy with their bodies and appearance again.  Most people with eating disorders eventually settle into a body that is slimmer than she or he had predicted, but it usually takes time because the legacy of starvation is profound.  Early in recovery, even small amounts of weight loss can set the stage for rebound bingeing.  

Try it out Yourself

How can someone get started on this process and create a transitional identity that allows them to look eagerly toward the future rather than longingly toward the past?  Here are some concrete recommendations and journaling prompts to help get you started.  

  1. Think of a person that you have found to be attractive across a range of body sizes.  Maybe you have a coworker who was very slim before having children and is now larger but beautiful in a different way, or maybe you know someone who used to be a petite gymnast who is now a sculpted rock climber or sultry dancer.  If you can’t think of anyone who fits this description, do searches for celebrities who have recovered from eating disorders.  
  2. Reflect on this person or people and ask: What are some of the uniquely beautiful attributes of this person in their larger form? Do they look more loving? Mysterious? Glamorous? 
  3. Now, it’s time to shift your attention inward.  When you find yourself longing to reinhabit your former, thinner self, which specific qualities are you yearning to experience? Confidence? Delicacy? Grace?  (list at least five) 
  4. Of these five qualities, which of these are actually independent of body size and can just as easily apply to someone medium sized or larger? 
  5. What five things can you do this year to evolve your personal style?  Don’t limit yourself to your appearance. Would you like to be a better conversationalist, learn carpentry, become more ecologically responsible, practice minimalism, learn to surf, or master a culinary artform? 
  6. Think ten years down the road.  How old will you be? How do you hope to be at this age?  Be bold and ambitious. It’s never too early or too late to be a politician or stand-up comedian.
  7. How can you begin branding a new identity using safe, reversible symbols and accessories?  Consider temporary tattoos, ear cuffs, funky shoes, new drapes, or slowly replacing your cosmetics or kitchenware with eco-friendly varieties. 
  8. Now, choose three concrete actions you will take this week and schedule them into your calendar.  Make the time.   
  9. Choose one simple action you will take today before going to bed tonight that affirms the direction you want to develop yourself.  This could be buying a how-to book, setting your alarm 30 minutes earlier than usual, or cleaning out your backpack or medicine cabinet.
Why it Works

I’m a social scientist by training and in heart, and I can’t miss the opportunity to wax theory a bit.  When eating disorders were first being seriously researched in the early 1980s, one of the earliest discoveries was that they seemed to crop up during significant life transitions.  The most common of these tend to be puberty and the year following high school graduation. Subsequently, relapses are most likely to occur after college graduation, once small children are grown, once grown children leave the house, after career changes, after divorces, at retirement, and when people enter assisted living environments.  

What’s going?  At all of these junctures, people are experiencing fear of an unknown future.  When someone is scared of becoming someone with a whole new set of responsibilities and social interactions, what do they do? They become obsessed with trying to reinhabit a smaller, earlier form; and that obsession drives them to take up harmful dieting behaviors that lead to eating disorders.  It feels safe and familiar to focus on getting to a desired weight or body size.  It’s scary to go away to college. It’s scary to retire. And it’s not at all surprising to me that eating disorders are becoming more of a problem than ever among people who are middle aged and elderly because we live in a society that shuns aging.   

By becoming enthusiastic about what lies ahead, we get in touch with personal power again, and this gives us the confidence and momentum to get into action.  From a state of feeling even slightly more empowered, mood improves. Eating improves. Life gets fuller, you have new experiences, you take yourself slightly less seriously, and eventually you’re able to access a wider range of problem solving abilities using experimentation, creativity, and fun.  

Katherine Thomson, PhD is a medical sociologist in Berkeley, California and has been helping individuals recover from disordered eating and recreate themselves since 2013.  You can go to her website endbulimia.com to learn more about her practice and coaching packages.