While biking to work this morning, I was thinking about the origins of the many beliefs and patterns that fueled the development of my eating disorder. Previously I thought everything had set in around seventh grade when I decided that dieting and losing weight would drastically improve my life. However, after further reflection, I realized that many of the ways of thinking that eventually lead to my eating disorder began much earlier than that.
For instance, I remember a specific moment in sixth grade when I sat down one afternoon to make a list of all the things I needed to achieve in order to become popular. In my sixth-grade-mind being popular was pretty much the ultimate conquest and goal of life. I like to think I wasn’t alone in this struggle, which is simultaneously comforting and sad. While this list was probably a couple dozen items long, to this day I still remember about four of the tasks I scribbled on my to-do list for popularity:
- Start shaving my armpits and legs (even though my hair was hardly visible and I still think I was too young to be concerned with this. Plus, who even says women should be required to do this shave at all?!- That’s a whole other blog post for later).
- Start wearing deodorant (not because I smelled bad but because all the cool girls in school wore Secret Va Va Vanilla deodorant and I didn’t).
- Get new low rise pants (because I didn’t know the “rise” of my pants was an important factor before the first day of middle school when I entered homeroom strutting khakis pulled up higher than Steve Urkel’s).
- Get this belt:
You see, in sixth grade while I had already received the “women should be small and thin message”, this wasn’t something necessarily on my radar at this point. The pressure to lose weight didn’t gain momentum in my life until around seventh grade; however, that didn’t stop me from coming up with countless other obstacles that I needed to overcome in order to be popular/cool/worthy/etc. The tasks on my Popularity To-Do List seemed so significant in my life at the time, and very few other things mattered to me. It’s crazy to me just how profoundly that damn belt still sticks out in my mind today as something associated with my self-worth because in sixth grade my popularity, or lack thereof, determined my worthiness as a person. And being someone who was never popular in school, I consistently regarded myself with little to no self-worth.
To me, popularity determined my likeability, my approval rating, my peer acceptance, and, consequently, whether or not I was okay. It’s so hard not to let this effect take place, especially as a sixth grader. Even now, at the age of twenty-seven, I often feel bombarded by messages from TV, magazines, movies, coworkers, and peers telling me what things I need in my life, how I should look, or who I need to be in order to be cool/popular/successful/happy/worthy/okay.
Knowing how hard it is for me to ignore and rebel against these messages as an adult, I have so much empathy for the eleven-year-old me who just wanted to shave and wear a rhinestone belt to fit in. However, I know now that what she really wanted was to feel worthy and okay for who she was. Instead, she felt the need to become someone else.
As I continue to think back on my life, I notice times when this pattern popped up at even younger ages. I remember “needing” to have particular school supplies and a Jansport rolling backpack before starting fourth grade or else I would miss my potential opportunity to finally become the “cool girl” (which didn’t happen anyway). I can recall so many moments spent creating mental to-do lists of things I needed to do or gain in order to be okay with who I was.
I now recognize this thought pattern as one of the main driving factors of my eating disorder and I’ve worked hard to fight it over the past many years of my recovery. However, even today I catch myself in it. I notice the passing hopes and wishes for achievement, status, and success in life, which is perfectly okay as long as they’re not tied to my self-worth and happiness.
Since recovery, these sorts of thoughts have fallen along the lines of “I’ll be okay when I am in a loving relationship” or “I’ll finally be happy when I am settled in my career”. While these may seem healthier than the I’ll -be-okay-when-I-lose-‘X’-pounds type thoughts, they still tie my self-worth up with some external achievement or occurrence.
I’ve heard this pattern of thinking described as “The Cinderella Complex”. It’s the idea that some distant, magical, happy ending will be the solution to all of life’s suffering and suddenly fix everything that feels not good enough in life. It sounds great to me, and I’ve bought this notion time and time again. However, what I usually found was that every time a reached some achievement or crossed off all the items on my Popular/Success/Happiness To-Do List, I usually felt the exact same as I did beforehand. Nothing magically changed in my life or felt different. In fact, I noticed that I usually created some new far-off task or occurrence that needed to happen next in order for me to be okay and truly good enough.
That’s just the nature of the Cinderella Complex- it’s a never-ending trap. There’s constantly something we could be doing better or more of– more to achieve, more weight to lose, more money to earn. It just never seems to feel like enough. And there lies the paradoxical solution to this never-ending cycle! The answer is simply realizing that no external source of validation makes us actually feel good enough.
Self-worth starts with the word “self” for a reason. It comes from within us, not some external source or achievement. It’s a felt sense of worth, acceptance, and compassion for who we authentically are no matter how cool, popular, thin, rich, smart, talented, or successful we might be. Trust me, I’ve searched for self-worth in many things/people/accomplishments, and I’ve never found it outside myself.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes that really resonates with me at this current stage in my life.
If you persistently seek validation from others, you will inadvertently invalidate your own self worth.