Eating Disorder Traits as Strengths in Recovery

The focus in the eating disorders field (indeed, in all of psychiatry) is usually on diagnoses, symptoms, and related impairment. There has been little research, or even discussion, about negative traits that were present during the eating disorders illness, which can be utilized for positive effect during and after the eating disorder recovery. This is particularly important in that, for the majority of people, these traits will persist throughout their lives regardless, and efforts need to be made to ensure that these characteristics are employed for good vs. evil. In addition, Walter Kaye, MD, has noted that these traits may confer advantages in professions.

Jenni Schaefer, BA, and Jenny Thomas, PhD, collaborated on their book, Almost Anorexic. In it, they provide a table of general eating disorder traits (e.g., perfectionism, obsessive-compulsiveness, sensitivity to emotional pain, intelligence), anorexic traits (e.g., persistence, low risk-taking, attention to detail, preference for routine, ability to delay gratification), and bulimic traits (e.g., impulsivity, risk-taking, need for new experiences, intolerance of routine). As an exercise, they request that individuals check off the traits that fit for them, identify their goals for the next 6 months, and then list the traits that will help them pursue their goals. 

Given my personal history of anorexia, I identify with all of the anorexic traits, as well as all of the general eating disorder traits. Having been in recovery since 2012, I am doing my best to channel all of these characteristics in a productive manner, which benefits my work processes.

Persistence

Persistence has been a key factor in my educational pursuits through graduate school, my daily practice as a professional ballerina, pursuing meaningful research studies on eating and bipolar disorders, cultivating relationships, and currently, creating the type of life that I want to live.

Low risk-taking

Low risk-taking dominated my life in anorexia, to the point where I missed out on a lot of fun adventures. Now in recovery, I take more calculated risks (e.g., choosing which projects to do).

Attention to detaiL

Attention to detail has always been important to me. In school, I maintained a 3.8 GPA due to my tendency to make sure that everything was correct. Today, I am the person in our research groups who handles the minutiae of planning presentations, and editing/submitting papers.

Preference for routine

Preference for routine gave me a sense of security in anorexia; each day, I went to school, then ballet, then did my homework. Now that I have a 3 year old daughter, I understand the benefits of having a basic routine for her and myself in terms of her sleeping, feeding, playing, schedule. We are both more regulated and pleasant to be around when we are in our routines!

Ability to delay gratification

Ability to delay gratification was a hallmark characteristic of my anorexia; I was able to avoid food, and wait for the “reward” of a lower weight. Today, I can focus on other long term goals.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is an ongoing trait that defines me. For my entire life, I have diligently worked at doing things to a very high standard, correspondingly trying to please others with my results. This has resulted in a lot of professional accomplishments, which have benefited my colleagues.

Obsessive-compulsiveness

Obsessive-compulsiveness goes hand in hand with my perfectionism. In order to achieve my goals, I had to narrow my focus, and dedicate time and effort to the steps necessary for the projects. This single-mindedness, though, meant that I was able to complete tasks quickly.

Sensitivity to emotional pain

Sensitivity to emotional pain has been a double-edged sword. I felt very “raw” when I had anorexia, and tried to numb it by starving. However, I was also able to detect those emotions in others, connect with them, and respond in a way that was helpful for me as a therapist.

Intelligence

Intelligence allowed me to rationalize my anorexia as a way to cope with my overwhelming emotions, and express my pain to others through my body (vs. my words). Despite my severe malnourishment, though, I excelled at school, ballet, and work, which enabled me to continue to function well in the eyes of others. In recovery, I am grateful that my now nourished brain is able to think clearly, make decisions, and focus on important life goals vs. those of anorexia.


References: 

  • From Clinical Practice to Brain Research and Back-Anxiety in the Assessment and Treatment of Eating Disorders. Walter Kaye, MD, UCSD, Heather Hower, MSW, Brown University, Guido Frank, MD, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
  • International Conference on Eating Disorders (ICED) 2018 Workshop Presentation.
  • Almost Anorexic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Relationship with Food a Problem?
  • Jennifer J. Thomas, PhD, Harvard Medical School, Jenni Schaefer, BA.
  • Table 3. Matching Your Positive Traits to Life Goals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: HEATHER, MSW, LICSW, QCSW, ACSW

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Heather, MSW, LICSW, QCSW, ACSW has served on the Board of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) since 2013 (including the Development Committee, Research Advisory Council, Conference Committee Co-Chair), and collaborates with her NEDA colleagues on Eating Disorder research studies, papers, and presentations. Through her position at Brown University Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, she has also been collaborating with her local Rhode Island Hospital/Hasbro Children’s Hospital Eating Disorders Partial Hospital, Outpatient, and Home-Based clinical programs since 2013.  Heather had Anorexia Nervosa for 23 years, and has been recovered since 2012. 

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