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How My Eating Disorder Desires Challenge My Values

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“We belong to what we value, not what we desire.”
– A cool guy I know

I love that statement — it really resonates with me. I spend time and energy, make commitments and secret pacts, with the things I value. Not with the things I desire.

Sometimes what I value and desire are in alignment. I value spending time with my children and I desire they all come to family dinner on Sundays. Too easy. I invest the time and energy into making it happen, whether or not they want to come. And I believe one day they’ll value it too.

Sometimes what I value and desire are at odds with each other. I value my appearance, but eating disorder desires outbid healthy self — every day of the week. The value is trumped by a far more primal value — to feel safe. To feel secure. Numb. So my value on physical appearance becomes a desire and my resulting behaviors sabotage any chance of meeting that need.

I’m incredibly ashamed of my obsession with appearance. It’s so shallow and not a quality I apply to anyone else. I couldn’t care less if you’re tall, short, fat, thin, freckly, pale, old, young, dark, spotty. It doesn’t matter. What I value in other people is integrity, honesty, vulnerability, kindness, intelligence, creativity. A crooked nose, wrinkles, stumpy legs or saggy boobs is of no consequence. Yet my personal appearance remains something I cannot accept.

Too fat, too tall, too freckly, too pale, too grey, too old, too ugly. 

My eating disorder desires are so embedded they have become a part of my identity.

  • Eat everything you see — you never know when food will be available again.
  • Don’t eat anything at all — if you start you can’t stop.
  • Don’t let people see you eat — eating is shameful.
  • Food = fat.
  • All food is delicious — don’t stop.
  • All food is delicious — don’t start.
  • I can’t deal with this emotion — eat until I’m numb.
  • I can’t deal with this emotion — starve.

There are aspects of my life where values are really clear. I know how to nurture those values and desires. Relationships, creativity, travel. But when it comes to food and eating, weight and appearance, I have a deeply rooted obsession that kills the desire to value things most take for granted.

I can’t really adequately express how little I care about these things; these fundamental human needs that motivate most people to make a change if one of them becomes threatened. But for those of us with little or no care for our health and wellbeing, it is difficult to become motivated to change. I desire mental peace, a strong body and healthy self-esteem. But I don’t value them enough to make the necessary changes.

I belong to the eating disorder’s values.

The photo above was taken about six years ago. I was 47 at the time. My desire was to have images of myself where I wasn’t fat and ugly, which aligned with my value of personal appearance. I wanted to be glamorous for a day, so trotted off for a glamour photography shoot where I was pampered and made to feel special. They slathered me in three tons of makeup, straightened my hair (which I hate) and had me stand at flattering angles under flattering lights. The photos look nothing like me. I don’t really like them. When I looked at the photos I realized what I really wanted, was to actually be glamorous and beautiful — not just dolled up and delicately photographed in order to capture an image that isn’t my likeness.

Sometimes I desire things I don’t need and shouldn’t get. A lovely new pair of shoes. Pink bluetooth headphones. New gym gear from Lululemon (it was on sale!). Clearly these desires align with a value that isn’t necessarily good for me, or our bank balance. They meet an emotional need in a way that caring for my body does not.

I have studied ACT courses, I do DBT classes and I’m always in search of new psychological and spiritual pathways to heal me. But nothing can heal me — I have to heal myself. And the simple quote above made me realize I’m unlikely to consistently pour energies into something I desire, but don’t value.

  • I desire dance lessons — I don’t value them.
  • I desire to play the piano — I don’t value it.
  • I desire a spotlessly clean house — I quite clearly don’t value it…

I see other people desire things they don’t value.

  • They turn up to the gym twice then never come back.
  • They start a savings account but never put money in it.
  • They say they’ll meet me for coffee but they never turn up.

My next task, it would appear, is to take a long hard look at what I truly value and see what needs a new perspective. I can’t fully recover from mental health issues for the sake of other people — that’s their value and desire, not mine. I have to do it for myself because I’m the one doing the hard yards.

What’s valuable to you? What do you desire, but don’t value enough to follow through? Am I truly unique, or do you also have values and desires that don’t always align?

I desire to lead a valuable life. Now I just need to value this desire.

Photo courtesy of the author

Originally published: January 29, 2020
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