Sept. 14, 2015, 7:03 p.m.
As a graduate student entering my final year of post-secondary education, I have finally come to accept that it’s okay to not be perfect, not please everyone, and to ask for “me” time without feeling guilty. It took over eight years of battling my inner critic and an eating disorder recovery program to come to this realization. In the past, there were days where all I wanted was to be alone, to avoid having others judge what I ate, to avoid feeling the need to mold myself to fit in, to avoid forced small talk or awkward silences that might come up. The paradox is that all this time spent alone my inner critic was screaming: “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want friends, a boyfriend? You’ll never be good enough for them”. So began the cycle of not being able to appreciate time alone because of harsh self-judgment, but not being able to truly enjoy time with others because of self-doubt and trying to guess what others wanted me to be. Many relationships ended up lacking authenticity and depth – if I let people in too much, they might actually see the real me, imperfections and all.
Now, looking back, I can see that my eating disorder and over-exercise symptoms were a way of coping with the difficult thoughts and emotions related to loneliness, self-criticism, and self-doubt. I internalized the belief that if I looked and acted a certain way, people would like me more. But constantly performing, pleasing, and seeking approval from others was draining and made socializing anxiety-provoking rather than enjoyable. In the worst years of my eating disorder, I spent most days focused on studying for school, thinking about food and planning “meals” (if you can even call them that), and going to the gym (which also involved stepping on the change-room scale). Maybe you are thinking this doesn’t sound that bad, but I was at the gym in first year university every single day. It didn’t matter if I had a hockey game later in the evening, if I had a cold, or even if it was a holiday – I was there on Christmas day, a day meant to be enjoyed with family and friends. I look back on these days filled only with regret – these patterns became ingrained, and soon the time alone felt comfortable, even preferred to being with friends and family. At the time I thought this routine was helping manage my anxiety and stress, but in hindsight it was fuelling it – deep down, I longed for connection and meaningful relationships, but did not know how to develop them while truly being myself.
I just completed a 12 week eating disorder recovery program, and feel that all the pieces of my puzzle have finally come together. I have a caring boyfriend, friends who I see regularly, and a family who has supported me through the ups and downs of my eating disorder. I still have to constantly remind myself that it’s okay to ease up on the rigid rules, habits, and standards I set for myself years ago. I have learned to separate myself from my destructive thoughts and emotions, but I fear that many children, teenagers, and young adults in our society do not have the support or skills to do this for themselves. I have heard countless stories of teasing, bullying, and harsh or helicopter parenting, all which send youth the message that who they are as a person is not enough to be accepted or appreciated by others. It is difficult to form or develop meaningful relationships when you have internalized the idea that your acceptance is conditional, based on what you look like, do for others, or accomplish in your life. For anyone who finds themselves relating to these ideas, I highly recommend reading Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly”. In her words, “Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance...True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world”. As I work towards greater self-acceptance and allowing myself to be “me” around others, I challenge you to do the same. Show off your vulnerabilities, imperfections, and fears, and accept others for who they are, not what they look like or do. The innate need for connection and meaningful relationships is a key part of humanity, and no one deserves to feel that being their true self is not good enough to belong and be accepted.
Jessica is currently in her final year of the Occupational Therapy program at the University of Toronto. She is extremely grateful for the support she has had while battling her eating disorder, and encourages those who are struggling to seek out professional help. If you want to connect, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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