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).
Eating Disorders Thrive on Striving, Secrecy & Shame
Fortunately, I have an Inner Wise One who shows up at auspicious times. This inner wisdom got me to seek professional help just before going on a mental health OT placement. Six months later, I started my OT career with a letter to the licensure board from my psychologist saying I was “discharged recovered.”
It was the early 1990s and eating disorder treatment was in its infancy and thus, rather inadequate. Consequently, I could not sustain recovery and was not prepared for relapses (which I'd eventually learn are common occurrences early in recovery). While I could eat more ‘normally’ at times, and binge and purge in various ways less, my mindset and inner worth weren’t yet free from the ‘thin ideal’ and other high-pressure influences still pervasive in society at that time.
Eventually, I’d lapse back into my eating disorder and its dangerous coping strategies.
My harmful eating disordered behaviors weren’t super obvious and instead, my inauthentic ways of eating and exercising meant my size and shape were often admired.
Rather than speak up or seek help for my inauthentic representation of health, I let the ‘ideals’ take over again. I stayed silent and instead, kept trying to ‘fix’ what I thought was wrong with me because I believed with my credentials, clinical skills, and research knowledge, “I should know better" or be able to “do it myself”.
That idyllic and inaccurate belief morphed into years of on/off symptoms, secrecy, and shame.
On the outside, I looked like I had it all going on personally, professionally, and as a person in a privileged-sized body. While on the inside, I doubted my skills, qualifications, and deservingness to reach real recovery and live authentically, i.e., to get real, not ‘ideal’.
Deep inside though, I knew how NOT ‘real’ and NOT ‘ideal’ my health, lifestyle, confidence, comfort in my livelihood, and looks were. I longed to be ‘authentically healthy’, free from ‘ideals’, which meant being free from distracting thoughts of what I would or could eat, being able to enjoy life’s pleasures guilt-free, feeling reconnected to my body and soul’s wisdom, and moving forward with the passion projects I day-dreamed about (like building this business).
Fast forward two decades, which included earning a PhD and becoming a Certified Life/Career Coach. I found myself as a 44-year-old with no husband, no kids, no pets, no mortgage, and a job offer at a University in Australia.
I went. I mean, why not? You could say among the countless ways I tried to overcome my eating disorder (besides being honest with helping professionals) was trying to cross the International Dateline without it! Spoiler alert ... it didn't work.
My Belief in Coaching (& What This Means for You)
Thankfully, that Inner Wise One was there again, whispering to me to take the steps to tackle this long-standing ‘ideal’. Among the steps I took to get into real recovery this time was a step to hire a Coach specializing in recovery from bulimia nervosa.
Now this Coach didn’t have a magic wand or anything, but she did see what was possible for me. She’d overcome something similar. Therefore, she had a way of relating to me that made it safe for me to finally use all the tools, know-how, and intuition I had locked up in me under layers of those unhelpful influences, doubt, and self-sabotage.
Turns out, there really wasn’t much wrong with me, but there was a whole lot wrong with what influenced me and my perceptions of myself.
With my Coach’s help, I got really real with myself.
My commitment to recovery meant I could finally see how disingenuous the societal, cultural, peer, and familial messages I bought into (literally and figuratively) about my body, mind, and self-worth were.
I read books, revisited tools I’d learned in my earlier treatment, and started exploring research in the field of eating disorders. Most of all, though, I had a compassionate Coach, i.e., an accountability partner, in my corner for when I got uncomfortable experimenting with 'living authentically'.
Eventually, months into recovery, I started speaking up about my eating disorder outside the confines of an online support network or with my Coach. Speaking about my experience shrunk much of the shame I’d felt when I knew how misaligned the look of my life and well-being were in public in comparison to how I perceived and treated myself in private.
Opportunities opened for me to begin research on the nuances of having and recovering from eating disorders, which has led to opportunities in speaking and advocacy as an Expert with Lived Experience.
The freedom I felt from ‘getting real’ inspired me to want to help others stop chasing ideals and get real too.
With my training and credentials in sociology, OT, and Life Coaching, I knew I could move into working in treatment centers with people seeking recovery from eating disorders. . . however, I felt called in a different direction.
I was drawn to find a way to intercept the influences that led to eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, self-doubt, low self-worth, and other ways of striving for ‘ideals’ that hold any of us back, not only those who develop eating disorders.
By this point, I’d invested in professional Life and Career Coaching in the past and Recovery Coaching, and was experienced as a Life Coach. I knew firsthand that coaching worked. Therefore, my way to help others get real would be in the coaching field. While I was already certified as a Life Coach, I wanted specialty training to fulfill my mission.
After researching 4 coaching programs, I chose to become a BARE Certified Coach. BARE is a movement that equips its Certified Coaches (and the 6 of us in the world who are BARE Master Certified) in the trademarked method to help clients feel confident, powerful, mentally and physically strong, and ready to push back against sociocultural bullshit and seize opportunities to be seen and heard.
Hiring my Coaches were some of the best investments in myself I ever made.
And now, I want to be your best investment.
Today, I am in strong recovery from an eating disorder, and I am highly certified, qualified, and experienced to coach, teach, guide, and inspire clients (like YOU!) to drop the 'ideals' and get real – to unearth their worth, step into their power and finally live authentically.
What started as my mission to free myself from Diet Culture, the Patriarchy, Imposter Syndrome, people-pleasing, fear of trying, over-striving, and postponing MY passions is now at the core of my lifestyle, livelihood, and legacy.
If my story resonates even a little, then please know it would be my greatest privilege to work together so you can get real. Let’s connect! Book a free Discovery Call.
Elysa p.s. if anything in this story is distressing, please seek support and/or professional help. For information about eating disorders and recovery in Australia please visit Butterfly Foundation and in the USA the NEDA.