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June 13, 2023

How to Unlock Your Hidden Strengths and Recover from an Eating Disorder

Written by Dr. Gia Marson

“Hope is the cornerstone of recovery from eating disorders. It is the belief that change is possible and things will get better, and this hope can help you take the necessary steps to get there.”
—Jenni Schaefer

Eating disorders are serious life-threatening mental health problems. According to research, approximately 30 million people in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their life. That translates to around 10 percent of all Americans.

Whether it’s anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder, these conditions are harmful to your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. However, the good news is that recovery is possible. Many people have recovered from eating disorders and are living happy, healthy, meaningful lives.

“Give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light.”
—Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”

Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or social status. These issues can manifest in different ways and are often accompanied by anxiety, isolation, obsessive thinking, compulsive behaviors, difficulty naming emotional states, impulsivity, sadness, or shame. However, while eating disorders can be challenging to overcome, it’s essential to understand that they don’t define you. You have strengths, talents, and abilities that can help you cope and heal, even during difficult times.

Focusing on your positive qualities can help you feel empowered and build resilience, self-esteem, and connect with a sense of purpose.

Understanding the Strength-Based Approach

“Positive psychology is about recognizing and cultivating the potential for positive emotions, building psychological strength, and reverberating this strength throughout life.”
—Barbara Fredrickson

The strength-based approach perceives individuals as complex and multifaceted with strengths, weaknesses, and unique experiences. Instead of viewing people only according to their diagnoses or symptoms, this approach focuses on identifying and building on positive qualities, such as resilience, creativity, empathy, humor, or perseverance. This approach recognizes that even if somebody is struggling with mental health issues, they carry within themselves the potential for growth, learning, and self-improvement.

Identifying Your Strengths

“Strengths are like an octopus at the bottom of the sea: difficult to spot, easy to miss. When you focus on strengths, you see possibilities; when you focus on weaknesses, you see problems.”
—Martin Seligman

To adopt a strength-based approach, it’s essential to identify your strengths accurately. While most people know their weaknesses or areas they need to improve, they may not be aware of their positive qualities. You can start by reflecting on your values, passions, and interests. You can also ask for feedback from people you trust, such as friends, family, or coworkers. If that sounds challenging, try using a free, online strengths survey, VIA. Once you identify your top five strengths, you can begin to lean on them to change your relationship with food. 

Enhancing Your Strengths

Once you’ve identified your strengths, you can work on enhancing them. Here are some tips:

  • Practice your strengths regularly, even if it’s in small ways. For instance, if your strength is creativity, you can paint, write, or cook regularly, even for a few minutes.
  • Curate a supportive network. Surround yourself with people who appreciate and encourage your strengths. You may want to join a group or a community that shares your interests or talents.
  • Learn new skills related to your strengths. You can take a class, read a book, or watch a tutorial that enhances your abilities.
  • Incorporate mental wellness. Use your strengths to tackle your mental health issues. For example, if your strength is humor, you can use it to defuse stressful situations or cope with negative emotions.

Benefits of a Strength-Based Approach

A strength-based approach to mental health has many benefits. Some of these benefits include:

  • Promotes a positive, compassionate, and empowering perspective on mental health
  • Enhances self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-worth
  • Cultivates a sense of purpose, identity, and meaning, even during difficult times
  • Fosters creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills
  • Reduces stigma, discrimination, and social isolation by focusing on how individuals shine and their abilities, rather than on their diagnoses or labels

Applying a Strength-Based Approach to Eating Disorder Treatment and Recovery

Here are some ways you can apply the principles of a strength-based approach to your treatment and recovery plan: 

Believe in Yourself

Recovery from an eating disorder can be a long and difficult journey, but it’s important to believe in yourself. You have many strengths you can harness that will support you along the way. Remind yourself of your capabilities and your worth. You are not defined by your eating disorder. You are a unique individual with strengths and talents.

Find a Support System

Facing life’s difficulties is something we all have to do at one time or another. Recovery from an eating disorder is one of those times and it should not be done alone. Surround yourself with people who care about you, know what you are capable of, see the best in you, and are willing to support you.

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”
—C.S. Lewis

The individuals in your support system do not have to have had an eating disorder to be helpful; they only have to be aware of how hard it can be to have an illness or a barrier to their own happiness. This person can be a family member, friend, someone in a treatment group, or a therapist. Having someone to talk to can make a meaningful difference in your recovery process. No matter how many strengths you have, you will feel even stronger when you have a relationship network to rely on. Your support system can encourage you, keep you accountable, and help you through the tough times.

Identify the Factors Maintaining the Eating Disorder

Understanding what is maintaining your eating disorder is a key component of recovery. You may identify emotional, environmental, biological, or social difficulties that are associated with your eating disorder behaviors. Try keeping a journal to identify how you will use your strengths to cope with them. It’s important to be mindful of your emotions and your environment. Having a plan in place can help you manage your triggers and prevent relapse.

Develop Healthy Habits

Eating regular and balanced meals, getting enough sleep, and engaging in physical activity that you enjoy can be difficult to tackle directly. Instead of getting overwhelmed by taking on too much too fast or avoiding it all together, use your attributes that have led to success in other areas of your life to establish new, healthy habits and make them a part of your daily routine. When you get some traction going, celebrate your wins as a strategy to build a positive self-image and improve your overall well-being.

  • Self-awareness: Understanding the underlying emotions and beliefs related to an eating disorder is essential for recovery. What strengths will help you with this?
  • Positive self-talk: Learning to talk to yourself in a supportive, compassionate way can be a powerful tool in overcoming an eating disorder. What strengths will help you with this?
  • Stress management: Developing healthy ways to manage stress can help reduce turning to diets or food to cope, and it can prevent relapse into unhealthy eating habits. What strengths will help you with this?
  • Empathy: Showing empathy toward oneself and being able to recognize the feelings of others is important for developing meaningful relationships. What strengths will help you with this?

Seek Professional Help

Recovery from an eating disorder can be a complex process that requires professional help. Seeking help from a therapist, nutritionist, or doctor can provide you with the right tools and resources needed for recovery. These professionals can guide you through the recovery journey and help you build a healthy relationship with food and your body. Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness, because it calls upon your compassion, gratitude, values, and desire to succeed—what’s not strong about that?

Your Strengths Are an Important Part of Your Identity; Whereas, Your Eating Disorder Is Working Against You

“Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.”
—Christian D. Larson

By separating your identity from the eating disorder and identifying and aligning your identity with your positive qualities, you can build resilience, self-esteem, a feeling of empowerment, and a sense of purpose. At the times when you’re struggling with eating disorder thoughts and behaviors, remember that you’re not alone—and there’s always hope. 

Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. It takes time and a lot of work, but it’s worth it. By finding a support system, believing in yourself, identifying your triggers, harnessing your strengths to cultivate healthy habits, or seeking professional help, you can unlock new possibilities in your recovery from an eating disorder. Remember to be patient with yourself and celebrate your progress. You are capable of achieving full recovery and leading a happy, healthy life.

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