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  • Helly Barnes

Self Identity & Overcoming an Eating Disorder

Self-identity can be deeply affected when you have an eating disorder. This is because over the months and years of having an eating disorder, it will become intertwined in many of your behaviours, thoughts, beliefs, habits, rituals and relationships. An important part of overcoming an eating disorder is letting these eating disordered parts of your self-identity go and allowing a somewhat scary but necessary space to be there of identity no-mans land, while you slowly become who you are without an eating disorder and allow your truly fabulous and freely authentic self to begin to thrive in ways they haven't been able to for so long. In this post, I discuss how and why your self-identity might have been effected with the eating disorder and what you can do to manage any identity crisis that arises when you are making the changes to overcome the eating disorder.

How Does An Eating Disorder Impact on Your Self-Identity?

When you’ve had an eating disorder for any length of time, your brain will develop deeply embedded circuits that drive the addictive behaviours. At the same time, there is what can be considered pruning in your brain of circuits that drive behaviours and thought pathways that you are no longer using. This results in the strongest brain pathways in your brain relating to the pursuit of your drug of energy deficit. At this point, more of your thoughts and feelings will relate to the eating disorder's addictive pursuits and how to achieve them. It’s only natural then that this has an impact on your personality and on your self-identity.

It is possible that over time, you have slowly lost significant parts of your previous sense of identity and developed an identity related to the eating disorder. You might have even begun to label yourself as anorexic, bulimic or perhaps in relation to a strong behaviour that is driven by the eating disorder, for example as a runner.

Career Choices

Some people build their careers around the eating disorder in such a way that it drives a stronger identity and sense of self around their compulsions. For example, people with exercise compulsions might enter jobs in the fitness world, perhaps as a personal trainer or pursuing professional sports. These career choices allow them to engage in addictive and damaging behaviours in a manner that appears applaudable. Restrictive eating disorders and the energy deficit or semi-starved state they create, also make a person's brain food obsessed and as a result, some people enter jobs in nutrition or choose to work with food as chefs or in coffee shops or bakeries. This further promotes a food focused identity, teaching others how to eat or feeding others, while eating restrictively and in very disordered ways themselves.

Social Groups

The social groups you move within and belong to is another way in which you might have created a greater sense of identity around the eating disorder. For example, perhaps you move in social circles with people who are all into a certain sports pursuit, such as running. If the people you spend time with go out running every day, and this forms much of your conversation and how you spend time together, it can promote a strong running identity—despite the fact that for you running is a compulsive habit arising from the eating disorder.

Other forms of community that can have an impact on your self-identity are even those set up to support people with eating disorders. Peer support groups can be invaluable to people who are attempting to overcome an eating disorder, offering support from others who are going through the same or those who have been there. However, they can also strengthen your sense of identity as eating disordered. If these groups become strong forms of social connection, it can then be hard, if you are otherwise quite isolated, to want to move away from them. In some cases, this can result in these groups having the opposite effect to that intended, making it harder for you to want to give up a self-identity that holds onto the eating disorder.

Self-Identity is Powerful

When you identify as something, such as in the ways that you can with an eating disorder, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you self-identify as anorexic or eating disordered, it can leave you feeling resigned to your fate, believing that it’s impossible for you to change. In time, you may not even be able to envision or believe in any alternative identity for yourself.

The medical model of treating addictions and eating disorders can exacerbate this issue of self-identity because it can disempower people. When you are given a label as the patient, it can leave you feeling disempowered when it comes to owning your recovery. Being treated as the anorexic patient can make you much less trusting in your own abilities to overcome the addictive behaviours. This leaves you believing that you must follow instructions, rather than creating your own future goals and aspiring to achieve them on your own terms. Please note though that this point is not being made here to deter you from entering treatment if that is what you need to do. I am just hoping to ensure that if you do enter treatment, that you are aware of the importance of holding on to a sense of your own identity beyond the role of a patient or someone with an eating disorder.

How Do You Address Your Self-Identity?

To address your self identity, please remember that you are not the eating disorder, you are not the addiction and you are not the behaviours you engage in, no matter how compulsively.

Recognise that the eating disorder is giving you a life you do not want and you want your future to be different. Identify all the ways the eating disorder and the addictive behaviours related to it are ruining your life, and take ownership of the fact that you don't want this now. Tell yourself that those behaviours and the eating disorder driving them are not who you are, and they need not be part of your future life.

Build a desire to pursue new goals or perhaps to rediscover old goals or interests and focus on these, using them to help formulate who you are and who you can be. Believe in your ability to achieve more from your life than an eating disorder could ever give you and begin to move towards it.

Consider the Language You Use

Perhaps you refer to 'my eating disorder' when you talk about it, or other people talk to you about 'your eating disorder'. This implies that the eating disorder is a part of you. It can help to begin to think of the eating disorder as something that’s detached from you. Instead, refer to it as 'the eating disorder'. It’s not something you have or want ownership of, and just that change in how you think about it and refer to it can be a powerful way to disassociate from it.

Likewise, when you notice yourself identifying as the person with the eating disorder or even as the bulimic, or any other labels you might attach in that regard, just stop and say to yourself, "That is not who I am now". Then continue to move towards your future with the belief that you have the self-control to overcome these addictive behaviours and to have the future that you are starting to build.

Allow the Identity Crisis

During the process of shaking off the eating disorder identity and building yourself a new and empowering one, it’s likely that you will feel something of an identity crisis. This is when you lose what you have known and grapple to find who you are becoming. It can feel as if you enter a limbo land for a time - a void of not knowing who or what you are. It is not comfortable to feel this way, but stay with it and as you progress, you will build a new sense of who you are. And the new you will be made up of parts of who you used to be before the eating disorder, but with the strength, resilience, knowledge and wisdom gained from having lived with an eating disorder and having been through the tough process of overcoming it.

You can get through this process of overcoming an eating disorder but it is not easy and there are so many layers of complicating factors, of which your self-identity being shaken up and altered is just another to consider and go through. But it is possible and it will be worth it. I believe that.

**For more information on eating disorders and how to overcome one, please don't miss my newly available books,


The information for this post was largely taken from Addicted to Energy Deficit.

If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,

available on this website, all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube.

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Oct 15, 2023

For me, one of the biggest things to grapple with has been the self-identity that professionals' misconception of eating disorders has caused me to develop. When I finally discovered people like you, Helly, who point out the neurobiological basis of eating disorders over any 'deep rooted psychological cause' or the notion it's a 'coping mechanism when things feel out of control', it was revolutionary for how I felt about not only my prospects of recovery, but myself. You'd think it would be welcome, but the realisation that I wasn't a rigid, controlling, deeply-troubled person was profound, as I'd come to identify with these characteristics (albeit that they were a source of deep shame). In actual fact they were symptomatic of…

Helly Barnes
Helly Barnes
Nov 05, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for this comment and reflection. I think that many people get 'psychologised' with eating disorders into believing there is some deep rooted 'cause' and that recovery won't happen unless that cause is addressed. It can be damaging but the positive is that you hae seen the light and now realise your truth... You are not rigid, controlling and deeply troubled. You have an eating disorder... and you don't need to identify with it in limiting and harmful ways!

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