3 Lessons My Eating Disorder Taught Me About Life

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This article first appeared on Happify

I used to wake up many mornings (or lie awake many nights) wondering how my life might have been different had I not struggled with an eating disorder in my younger days. I might have gone to an Ivy League university. I might have become a decision-maker on Wall Street. Or a change-maker in Silicon Valley.

These kinds of thoughts never come without a surge of regrets, and a certain hopelessness when we can’t see beyond what’s immediately in front of us—or are consumed by what’s far behind us.

I think few of us have escaped these beleaguered feelings. After all, an eating disorder is nothing other than fear in its very worst form. Like most fears, it isn’t aligned with the life we truly want for ourselves.

For instance, an eating disorder will go to any lengths to keep you from everything you’re capable of doing—it’s especially jealous of your talents and accomplishments. And it will happily disillusion you all the way to your deathbed. I know because I was almost there three times over four years.

Regular fear is no less controlling and will also keep you from your biggest and boldest life. It’ll make you play small; it’ll make you say no to opportunities that delight your soul, and yes to everything that takes you away from what’s important. Plus, it’ll justify your decisions for you so you don’t feel angst about the path not taken.

But only for so long. Somewhere down the road, you’re bound to hear the soft voice of your soul, feel a certain restlessness for the life inside of you that longs to be lived. I don’t know if that’s where you are, but that’s where a lot of us give up. We regret our choices and decisions and feel doomed. We pine for an imagined life that might or might not have been possible and feel worse about ourselves. Every time we feel the spark of possibility, our fears rap us on the head and remind us to stay put.

That’s where I was some years ago. I’d been living in a future that couldn’t be, and I was tired of the pain that came with it. My eating disorder might have left a long time before, but boy was it still keeping me from embracing my best life possible.

So, I decided to make peace with my eating disorder. I decided to accept it as part of my past so I could learn the lessons it taught me. I’ve distilled them down to three. I hope they bring a sense of belonging and direction to anyone who is dealing with their own version of fear, frustration, or regret.

Lesson 1: Know When There Are 3 in a Relationship

Relationships are terribly hard when fear takes the reins. You’ll always know it in your body because it’s the place of all truth. When you feel all knotted inside, when words get stuck to your throat, when you feel constrained and can’t see the person before you.

The real you feels very different. It feels warm and expansive. It can say “I love you” without expectations and inhibitions. It can look beyond judgment to what’s good in others, let go of a hurt that’s past its time, and of triggers that make you behave in ways that don’t make you proud. It can hold a child in the midst of a tantrum without telling them what to do and how to behave—and it can do the same for your own inner child.

I wish I could say it’s easy to switch to your real self when your fear is running the show. Isn’t it so much easier to blame, to offload our hurts onto others, to beat down on ourselves for what we said or didn’t say? But I know that when you connect to your body and recognize your fear, you’ll find it much easier to show up as who you are. And I promise you that when you do, you’ll be amazed at how natural and joyful it feels.

Lesson 2: Go Back to Basics When Perfection Becomes Your Life

I’ve seen way too many highly competent, incredibly accomplished people waste away their lives trying to perfect everything they do, especially at work. I did it for years—that was the compromise my eating disorder made with me. It agreed to leave if I always outdid everyone else and never, ever made a mistake. Eventually I got stuck. And that’s where so many of us live: doubting, comparing, perfecting, procrastinating, and eventually giving in to the feelings of inadequacy that underlie it all.

If that’s you, you’re disconnected from your strengths, your unique perspective, the gifts you were meant to find and give back to the world. Go find them, not in the noise of what you should do to get more power, prestige, possessions, but in the silence of introspection, of searching for the moments that ground and delight you.

Because the world doesn’t need your tired, exhausted self, nor your perceived inadequacies. It needs your gifts, your strengths and sources of joy. You will still strive and struggle and fall as you bring them out into the world, but what a maddeningly joyful ride it’ll be!

Lesson 3: Don’t Rush Through Life—It’s Short As It Is

I try to remember this lesson as often as I can, and especially when I feel disconnected with life. Because fear makes us rush; it makes us run for our lives, but really, it’s making us run away from our lives. Many of us have been doing it almost from the moment we were born. And we arrive at adulthood strangely disconnected, lacking a sense of belonging, numbing everything that’s painful, uncomfortable, and scary. We miss out on the beautiful paradox that is life: a tango of sadness and joy that ultimately gives existence the rich coherence of meaning and wholeness.

When I’m struggling, I try to remind myself that there’s no growth without failure, no love without hurt—and maybe you’ve experienced that, especially if you’re a parent. Take it all in, because you’ll also open up to sunshine and laughter, to the innocence of life and the goodness in people.

Don’t take this lesson lightly, because you won’t want to end up one day asking yourself, did I experience life at all? Did I feel the breeze on my cheeks, or notice the tear in my child’s eye? Did I get to be part of the great drift and swirl of life, or did I live it from the sidelines, a child sent off to bed early while the band played on?

These three lessons have opened my heart in a way I never knew possible. They’ve made me understand gratitude, not in my head, but as a movement in my heart—for the people around me, for the gifts within me, and for the opportunity to experience the magic of life.

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