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When Does “Diligence” End and “Obsession” Begin?

Posted Oct 27 2009 11:00pm

This is my latest post over at WeAretheRealDeal.com. You can read it here or after the jump.

road Disclaimer: I recognize that not everyone who reads WeAretheRealDeal is a dieter or even on a mission to lose weight, so let me get that out there up front that this post *might* not be applicable to some of our readers.

Having said that, I think a lot of our readers have a desire to live an overall balanced life (not just food/fitness wise), so maybe this will resonate with more people than I think?

For many people, there is a very fine line between “diligence” and “obsession” when it comes to healthy living.

You could argue orthorexia (an all-consuming obsession with healthy eating/living) is just as bad a problem as more traditional eating disorders such as binge eating, anorexia, or bulimia.

Having been guilty of straddling or crossing that faded gray line between diligence and obsession a bajillion times myself over the years since starting Weight Watchers in 2004, I can only speak from personal experience when I say that diligence led to obsession for me when it comes to weight/body image/exercise addiction.

The bitter irony is that succeeding at weight loss (positive lifestyle changes like journaling, exercising portion control, making good choices, counting Points, ramping up my workouts) drove me to obsession.And I know now that I’m not alone. Per a ground-breaking SELF study that led to the development of my blog,6 out of 10 women are disordered eaters–many a result of dieting efforts.

Sure, I lost weight pretty effortlessly back then … but then the disordered behaviors began: exercise addiction, calorie-obsessing, Points-obsessing, body dysmorphia, midnight eating and, later, the most serious behavior I engaged in– chewing and spitting (which I’ve been clean of since March ‘09).

So I can’t help but wonder … why are some people more prone to obsession than others?

Why can some people decide to get healthier and drop weight and never have an emotional attachment to the experience or the aftermath … and yet someone like me ends up suffering through years of disordered eating issues?

And how can we, as women, approach a healthy lifestyle without going down the orthorexic/obsessive route?

In therapy (July ‘08-March ‘09), I learned that my anxious, perfectionist tendencies are what drove me to the level of obsession I had … and my therapist urged me to “embrace my hardware” /perfectionist tendencies instead of loathing them; after all, what harm comes from eating well and exercising regularly?

We agreed that those things are positives (it wasn’t hard for me, as a perfectionist, to stick to WW), but how I later approached them wasn’t helping me any. I let thoughts of calories and exercise and food dominate my brain for years.

Over time, I’ve gotten less obsessive, mostly through blogging, becoming more self-aware, and, most importantly, making a conscious decision to stop obsessing (cognitive behavioral therapy tactics worked here) … this meant forcing myself into previously uncomfortable situations, learning to dine out as a “normal person” versus a “disordered eater,” cutting back on exercise a bit, trying to relax more in social situations).

But though it hasn’t been an easy road to walk, and at times, I find myself falling into old habits (mostly of the over-exercising variety).

Being diligent isn’t a bad thing for everyone, but depending on the kind of person you are, you might need to treat with caution.

Crossing that line into disordered eating is not hard to do if you’re hardwired a certain way (read as: anxious, TypeA, have perfectionist tendencies), and I’ve learned the hard way, through my recovery journey, that the benefits of being diligent can outweigh the costs – if you’re not careful.

Now I know better, and hope to continue to serve as an advocate for those, like myself, who fell into the dark, shameful, scary, hush-hush world of disordered eating that no one likes to talk about … but is very, very real.

So my questions to you are these: if you have managed to change your lifestyle, did you do it without any disordered eating issues occuring? How did you avoid falling into the disordered eating trap? What advice do you have for those embarking on their “get healthy”/”get balanced” journey (note I’m not saying “weight loss journey” since it’s not applicable to everyone) without crossing into that dark DE territory?

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