I Got Real—Not Ideal (And It Changed Everything)
In 2013, my Coach asked me the question, ‘What would recovery from your eating disorder look like to you?’ My answer was that if I reached recovery, I would finally ‘be authentically healthy.’ And then, I of course explained how ‘being authentically healthy’ meant having congruence or alignment between how I show up to the ‘outside’ world and how I took care of myself ‘inside’ my body, mind, and soul. What followed from that conversation was a deep process—that continues to this day—of self-reflection, self-development, and self-compassion alongside a coaching relationship I’m forever grateful for. Recovering from an eating disorder that had a hold on me from my young adulthood into middle age was one of the toughest and most influential feats of my life. What I now appreciate is how that experience was really a blueprint for how my authentic lifestyle, livelihood, and legacy would unfold.
Living ‘authentically healthy’ meant I had to get real with myself, which also meant I had to drop the facades, step out from my hiding places and moreover, let go of reaching for ‘ideals’.
What I mean by ‘ideals’ is as Google dictionary says, “a thing regarded as perfect” or a belief, aim, condition, or standard that “exists only in the imagination; is desirable or perfect but not likely to become a reality.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for devoting energy to do or be better, holding a growth mindset, and/or going for ‘stretch’ goals. What I’m not for is when we strive to be or reach a penultimate representation of health, beauty, size, wealth, worth, success, and/or happiness set by some intangible, money-making, and sociocultural external influence.
Some examples of these ‘ideals’ are the thin ideal, the fit ideal, the anti-aging ideal, and/or other 'ideals' of what being a good-girl, beautiful, sexy, hardworking, and/or wealthy are ‘meant to’ look like according to the Patriarchy, beauty industry, porn industry, hustle culture and/or consumerism.
What I’ve learned through my studies, lived experience, and being in personal development fields for 30+ years is that striving for these ‘ideals’ is a surefire way to anything BUT ‘authentic’ health or wealth or worth!
Ideals are simply not real. And what I had to do was get real.
Therefore, being ‘authentically healthy,’ meant I needed to get ‘real’ with myself. This meant living in a way that was sustainable, vulnerable, and often uncomfortable. This meant being honest with myself (and my Coach), and facing my fears, discomfort, and anxiety with attentiveness, patience, compassion, and courage.
I had to learn new coping strategies, to trust the wisdom of my body, mind, and spirit, and how to reconnect to my passions, pleasure, and connection. And ultimately I had to disconnect from the ‘ideals’ I’d internalized for decades!
How We Internalize ‘Ideals’
What I know by ‘getting real’ over the last 9 years is how easy it is to internalize the powerful (and insidious) ‘ideals’ that held me back (and perhaps hold you back, too). We absorb these ‘ideals’ through the invisible layers of influence around us and over time.
I could (and will) write a whole blog on the ‘ecology’ of our identity and sense of self, i.e., how layers of the environment and ecosystem we are raised within translate to our mindsets, body image, work ethic, patterns of behavior and perception of our worthiness and belongingness.
For now, let me say that we learn about the ‘ideals’ through influential messaging from societal structures or ‘norms’, e.g., the age-old 9-to-5 workday or marriage before children ‘unwritten rule’.
Institutions of authority, such as education, religion, and healthcare, contribute to what we adopt as ‘the way it’s done’ - think earning a college degree as a way to ‘get ahead’ or ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. Other influences come through mass media and now social media and become entire global industries—cue the beauty, fitness, or diet industries —insidiously driving how we see and treat ourselves for better or worse.
Then, some of the strongest influences permeate into our minds, bodies, and souls through our cultural heritage, peers, and families of origin, e.g., ‘boys don’t cry’; ‘nice girls don’t talk back’; ‘you can only have dessert if you eat all your vegetables’ or ‘be a doctor; they make good money’.
Many of these layers of influences and their associated ‘ideals’ are centuries old, and are, frankly, outdated.
Others, like the Diet Industry, are perpetually changing to keep us distracted and disheartened by trying to live up to an ever-changing ideal.
Fortunately, some ‘ideals’ are beginning to disintegrate, e.g., ‘good-girl conditioning’, and not all the influences upon us are negative. We can all recall a life-changing historical event, being taught something by an Elder that we still do, or taking a career turn because of a teacher’s positive influence upon us.
What many of us don’t learn early on, is how to filter these influences or how to discern the ‘ideals’ from the genuine or real beliefs, behaviors, and mindsets for authentic living.
What Happens When We Strive for Impossible Ideals
What I find happens to many of us is that we end up following the rules and believing that we can only be liked, employed, or loved if we look an ‘ideal’ way, work as hard as we can, earn a certain amount, behave a certain way, please others before ourselves, and/or speak only when spoken to.
The consequence of this trajectory of striving for ‘ideals’, (especially if you are anything like I was into my 40s) is that we end up lacking confidence, disliking our bodies, feeling hesitant to use our voice, believing our self-worth has to do with looks, weight, workload, wins or wealth… and/or putting our daydreams on the back burner until someday when the planets align (or money grows on trees).
For me, one of the ‘ideals’ I internalized the most from the layers of societal, cultural, peer, and familial influence was a valuation of the thin ideal. This internalized ‘ideal’ started in childhood with pro-diet messages around me, such as a magnetic, googly-eyed, felted cow on the refrigerator saying, “Holy Cow, You Eating Again?” Absorbing that shaming message and many others led to body dissatisfaction, on and off dieting, and self-esteem issues, which eventually manifested as a full-blown eating disorder in college that endured (the first time) late into my first post-graduate degree in occupational therapy (OT).