One of my clients, a PR manager in her late thirties I’ll call Mel (who gave me permission to share her story), once told me that being thin was the only thing she had ever been good at.
From childhood onward, Mel had lived in her older sister’s shadow, seeing her sister be praised for being beautiful, smart, funny, athletic, and talented. Mel felt like she never had anything special to offer, and never really found her “thing”— the thing she excelled at; the thing that made her stand out.
That was true up until her senior year of high school, when Mel discovered that she could stop eating.
It started as a friendly diet competition among her friends, but she soon discovered that she had more willpower to resist food, more endurance to tolerate hunger, and more success at weight loss than her friends. It felt so good to be better than everyone at something, and she felt truly proud of herself and her “accomplishments” for the first time.
In college, her eating patterns developed a fully blown eating disorder. Having never found anything else she excelled at, Mel spent all her time obsessing over her body, weight, food, and exercise. It became her entire identity: starving herself was the one thing she knew how to do well, the one thing that made her feel confident and proud.
Her thinness was also (heartbreakingly) the only thing that people regularly praised and celebrated her for. For years, family members and strangers alike would gush about how “good” she was for being so thin, praise her narrow waist and toned “arm goals,” and ask her for nutrition and fitness advice under the assumption that she was extremely healthy.
When Mel finally had to go through eating disorder recovery (after suffering extreme health problems caused by her eating disorder), she found that she had to gain some weight. And as she gained weight, going from “extremely thin” to “normal thin” to “average or slightly chubby” as she put it… all that praise and attention and compliments just… stopped.
This was a devastating realization, and one that I’ve seen play out in a lot of clients’ stories: by recovering from a disordered relationship to food and exercise, they have to give up the one thing that made them feel special; exceptional; proud; worthy.
Due to the sudden and complete collapse of Mel’s identity during recovery, she was still struggling with the loss of her very thin body by the time we started working together, because she still hadn’t found anything else she was “good at.”
Some of our work together involved shifting from a fixed to a growth mindset, identifying and moving toward alignment with her core values, and restructuring how she thought about a person’s value.
But one of the biggest aspects of her healing revolved around self-discovery. What did she feel, think, like, want, or need? What made her worthy of love if not being better than other people at something? What was she most passionate about, and why was she put here on earth?
Mel had to both navigate the ego-death that comes when dismantling a hierarchical concept of worthiness (aka the idea that you’re only worthy if you’re better or special), AND learn how to value and cultivate parts of her which had previously been overlooked.
This last part was where the work started to pick up momentum.
She took up a handful of craft projects, because she had always loved to be creative, but gave up crafting years ago because she “wasn’t good enough” at it.
She started going for easy hikes because it felt good and helped her connect with nature, instead of judging herself for being too out of shape and not “outdoorsy” enough for that kind of thing.
She pushed herself to make more connections and friendships outside of her marriage, despite previously identifying herself as “too awkward to make friends.”
She stepped into a leadership position at work, discovered she didn’t like her new position, and then went in search of a different firm whose workload excited her more.
None of this was comfortable, but by taking action toward her values, interests, and desires, Mel started to identify as brave, creative, determined, and even powerful. While she will be the first to tell you she still wishes she could do all this while also being thin (sometimes the urge never goes away), the more Mel drew feelings of worthiness and pride from areas other than her body, the less important being thin started to seem.
If you identify with Mel’s story, you might resonate with the High Achiever body image avatar, and you may discover that you also need to rebuild a sense of identity and worth in order to find body neutrality. After all, if your concept of self-worth is currently based on the idea that in order to be worthy you must be relatively better than other people in some way, then you can only feel worthy if you are exceptional.
So how do you start building a more resilient and permanent feeling of confidence and self-worth? Start by adding to what’s already there; by diversifying the areas from which you draw identity, confidence, and pride!
It’s practically impossible to stop caring about being thin, if being thin was the only thing you felt ever made you good or special. So instead of trying to stop caring about that, I recommend trying to add more sources of pride, accomplishment, and self-expression to your life!
Cultivating a diverse and resilient sense of self-worth requires valuing, cultivating, and developing the parts of yourself which have nothing to do with:
How you look
Your social status
Comparison to or competition with others
How other people treat you
What other people think of you.
Think of your sense of self-identity or self-worth as a table. When that table is held up by only one or two legs, and then one of those legs gets knocked out, the whole table is going to fall over.
This is what happened to Mel: she had only one table leg, and when it got taken away she collapsed and had to start from scratch. This is a very destabilizing and stressful experience.
If you’re looking for a stronger and more resilient sense of your own self-worth outside of how you look, start by building a table with five or six (or more!) sturdy legs. Once your table is securely stabilized over many sturdy legs, then you can start challenging yourself to remove the legs that no longer align with your values.
What legs do you want to add to your table? Focus on developing parts of yourself that are unrelated to body, appearance, perfection, status, or comparison.
What makes you curious or interested in learning more? Pursue that. What makes you energized or excited? Do that. What makes you lose all track of time? Make that a part of your daily or weekly cycle. What did you want to do when you grew up, when you were a kid? Find ways to express that now. Tune into what you think, feel, want, and need, and let that new sense of yourself guide your exploration.
You were born to do far more with this life than get/stay thin.
Remember also that you don’t have to be “good at” something for it to be worth doing. We’ve all been conditioned to believe that only people who are exceptional at something are worthy of doing it, but this approach robs us all of the opportunity to engage in meaningful and joyful experiences.
Let yourself suck at stuff, and focus on the experience of it rather than the outcome.
You’ll get better at anything you do repeatedly, so just focus for now on what you want to do repeatedly. Spend your time, money, energy, and attention purposefully nourishing and expressing parts of yourself that have been long neglected, and with time and repetition these things will become a part of your self-identity and worth.
By doing this consistently over time, you will discover that the feelings of pleasure, meaning, satisfaction, and pride which once came from controlling your food/weight/body will start coming from other areas.
When this happens, your table has become safe and sturdy enough to take one leg off and examine it, or maybe to just whittle it down a bit. And if you’re a High Achiever who has been using your body to feel “special” and worthy like Mel, this is absolutely crucial.
Sending you big love,