Believing Society’s Illusion of Control
Who you are without your eating disorder? It is very appropriate yet haunting question that guides those of us in recovery. Maybe it’s because our lack of personal worth, acceptance and understanding made us so susceptible to developing our eating disorder to begin with, at least is was for me. I quickly and easily attached myself to my eating disorder and did so for long because I didn’t know who I was – as well as an equally intense awareness of who I wasn’t. Anxious and insecure, I was hungry for a sense of pride and an identity that represented strength and control. Anorexia gave me something I could finally feel successful at and I ran straight into with gusto. It seemed to have all the answers I was searching for. What a long road it has been for me to change that mind set.
Our society cultivates and fosters such things as eating disorders and other types of addictions. Although it’s necessary to learn one’s abilities and limitations – our society overly encourages and often functions on our willingness to compete with one another for feelings of success. Schools foster it from the beginning. Rather than supporting individuality our society encourages competition within conformity. It’s fosters the illusion of control. We’re taught that the better we are the better our lives will be. So, we are work harder in order to get the edge we need in order to rise above the rest. We work hard to attend the best schools, get the best grades, and we ‘dress for success’ to appear better than the rest. We are promised that hard work will get us the happiness we all think we desire. We are bred to believe that the accolades and awards will reveal that we are happy. And all billboards, advertisements and social media constantly barrage us with messages about how our lives would be better, happier and more successful if we would only buy some product, go on a cruise ‘to get away from it all’ or have a face lift to look younger and therefore better. It’s exhausting to fight against all the messages telling us we’re ‘not good enough’ the way we are and that rather than happiness, it’s meaning that we actually desire.
"You’ll rescue me right?
In the exact same way they never did.
I’ll be happy right?
When your healing powers kick in."
After leaving for college, I found that my fragile, and inexperienced self could not resist the tempting belief that ‘hard work leads to success’ however, despite my hard work, I was not a good student. Attending a Christian university and struggling with my own beliefs, I found I wasn’t a good Christian either. It seemed I was primed for developing anorexia as it was a way for me to prove my worth and gain this elusive happiness I was supposed to be satisfied by somehow. By controlling my body – the one thing I felt no one else could influence- I would be attaining success, it was a kind of nirvana, a substitution of sorts, for what I was otherwise unsuccessful at. In addition, Anorexia seemed to also protect me from perceived rejection. For example, I fiercely but falsely believed society’s teaching that controlling myself brought with it others admiration. For someone with low self- esteem, this felt like winning the lottery. Sure enough, the more I worked the more weight I lost. I was fulfilling society’s standard of excellence. I was, for the first time, untouchable to my fear of incompetence and failure to achieve happiness and success. But deep within me nothing changed as I could not shake the belief that I was incapable, just on my own, to create a successful life for myself as I believed that I had to be someone I obviously wasn’t. So, I naively continued to believe in the eating disorders power and I held on strong. Like Frodo with the ring, I could not let go of the eating disorders precious power of invincibility. I believed it fed me the power I was starving for. However, the eating disorder served as both distraction and avoidance for the things that would have helped me learn to trust myself. Low self-esteem and social anxiety that accompanied my eating disorders made me focus even more inwards on my perceived weaknesses and furthered my belief that success with my body would be the answer to my lack of confidence.
Eating disorders are a way of holding onto something we think we know and a way of resisting change. Fearing failure, I avoided and resisted change. Because I believed that I was incapable on my own, anorexia offered me a way of feeling capable and successful. An identity through which I could achieve success. As I became successful at losing weight, I found that enough was never enough. The belief was addictive.
"You’ll complete me right?
Then my life can finally begin
I’ll be worthy right?
Only when you realize the gem I am?"
With what seemed my saving grace, through anorexia, I finally permitted myself to feel successful. I had come to fully believe in the illusion that to be successful in the world I MUST be good, even more than good-I MUST be the BEST at something. Thus, my new-found ability to restrict myself seemed to be the answer.
It has taken me so very long to finally believe that it was not the eating disorder at all that gave me power, rather, it is my own will and spirit that are the foundation of my strength and abilities. What I have learned the most throughout my long road is that what I am really recovering from is my own sense of inherent value as well as learning that it is actually meaning I desire rather than success. I have learned that who I am (and often, that has come from learning who I am NOT) has given me more of a sense of meaning than success in starving, comparing and competing with others ever did.
“But this won’t work now the way it once did
And, I won’t keep it up even though I would love to
Once I know who I’m not then I’ll know who I am
But I know I won’t keep on playing the victim”
When I sit with my clients who struggle with eating disorders, I understand how they cannot see beyond what they are perpetuating. They have been brainwashed to believe the ‘if only’ and the ‘get it right’ religion of success. They have heard that a perfect body will get them love, acceptance, admiration, control and a way to avoid all failures. What precious illusions we believe. What I have come to know is that the inner peace that comes with perseverance for self-acceptance and self-love and making meaning from life’s vast experiences is the only thing that sustains us and the belief in perfection merely temporary. Perfection is never attainable as it doesn’t really exist- it is simply an illusion. The eating disorder, as it symbolizes society’s standards, doesn’t want you to know this because then you won’t be as controllable. It is a lesson about what we choose to believe about control. Society teaches us that our value and worth lie in our ability to control and that control leads to what it keeps reminding us that we need--success and happiness. For someone who lacks a strong sense of capability, this creates a real problem as it only reinforces insecurity. When we believe in the illusion that we NEED control to thrive, anorexia is the perfect solution. It fits really, we are simply believing what society has taught us to believe. However, as I have been repeatedly told myself, so it’s worth repeating…it is an illusion, for in the end, it is we who are the ones controlled.
“These precious illusions in my head
Did not let me down when I was defenseless
And parting with them is like partying with
Invisible best friends.”
If we want to be free from control, we must learn that it is our willingness to develop our authentic and unique selves that we find and create meaning. It wasn’t until I began letting go of what didn’t work for me and accepted that it didn’t have to that I began to see that all along it was not I who had the problem with defining my life’s meaning but rather society’s. I am learning that it is my choice, right, responsibility, to ignore it and choose for myself. Believing what I was told would make me happy, didn’t. By becoming thin—I had achieved society’s coveted definition of success and although proud I wouldn’t say I was necessarily happy or that it gave me any meaning rather it was a means to an end.
Recovery from brain washing has taught me that success does not equal happiness. It is up to me and me alone to learn what brings me satisfaction in this life. No one else should have that right or the arrogance to convince you otherwise. It is my decision to believe that they can just as it was my decision (although unknowingly) to believe that the control of anorexia would give me what I sought. I have learned that the only control there is lies within my beliefs, my choices and the decisions I make. Do you want to live and believe society’s definition of success that only through perfection will you be enough or do you want to believe that this world, just as your eating disorder, are mere illusions and distractions of what is real? Do you want to believe that within you lies the awareness of what will bring you meaning, make you happy and experience your own definition of success? It is your inherent right to learn it for yourself. Fight for your own choice in what you believe. For within your beliefs in yourself you will find something much more meaningful than the control, success and happiness you once sought in the world. I have learned that the connections I have with others, my awareness of synchronicities that occur in my life revealing to me more and more that I matter and that validates the difference I make in the world. This connection and the love that I experience from the way I live is the satisfaction and meaning I starved for as I sat at society’s table.
“I’ve spent so long firmly looking outside me
I’ve spent so much time living in survival mode
But this won’t work now the way it once did
Cause I want to decide between survival and bliss
And though I know who I’m not I still don’t know who I am
But I know I won’t keep playing the victim.”
*Lyrics taken from “Precious Illusions” by Alanis Morrisette
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jean Dixon, LPC-S, CGP
Jean Dixon, LPC-S, CGP is a psychotherapist specializing in Eating Disorders, inner child healing, personal and spiritual growth, personal healing and as an HSP and empath, Jean loves empowering other Highly Sensitive People honor their uniqueness more fully and deeply. Finally, Jean is passionate about using experiences such as recognizing signs, symbolism, synchronicity, yoga and creativity to help people develop and honor their deepest selves. She maintains two offices within the Houston area (Houston Heights and The Woodlands Tx). Jean is passionate about helping people develop and honor their most authentic selves. As a Certified Group Psychotherapist she frequently offers group therapy.