Gloria has been in recovery from an eating disorder for years, but she feels hopeless. “It’s just that I have all these personality traits that doom me to a life with this problem,” she says. “I don’t see how I can possibly escape from my eating disorder because I’m such a perfectionist.”
I completely understand. Our personalities are a very important part of our identity. And it’s true that certain personality traits are associated with eating disorders. Eating disorders are “biopsychosocial,” which means they have biological, psychological, and social causes. Personality traits are some of the psychological causes of eating disorders. The stronger a trait is, the more likely it will be considered a “maintaining factor” in an eating disorder. In other words, a trait like perfectionism can drive an eating disorder to develop. And if it’s unmanaged it can also makes the eating disorder more likely to stick around.
However, I think viewing personality traits as purely negative is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Many people like Gloria feel like being labeled “perfectionistic” is a life sentence. This does not help Gloria achieve recovery. And in fact, it keeps her focused on what she doesn’t have rather than what she does have. A strengths-based approach to eating disorder recovery is much more hopeful and helpful.
Emotional Regulation Worksheets
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Personality traits associated with eating disorders
There are several key personality traits associated with eating disorders: perfectionism, obsessive-compulsiveness, neuroticism, negative emotionality, anxiety avoidance, low self-directedness, low cooperativeness, high impulsivity, sensation seeking, and novelty seeking.
These personality traits are commonly perceived as negative and seen as weaknesses. But every personality trait contains both strengths and weaknesses. And continuing to focus on weaknesses keeps people stuck in endless loops of self-recrimination.
NOTE: self-recrimination does not help people recover from an eating disorder.
A strengths-based approach to eating disorder recovery
Of course the so-called negative personality traits have downsides. But that’s because great strengths cast long shadows. Research shows that focusing on weaknesses is de-motivating. Conversely, focusing and building on strengths is motivating. It’s better to focus on what’s right with someone than what’s wrong with them.
“Many health systems have traditionally adopted a view of mental disorders based on pathologies and the risk individuals have towards mental disorders,” says Huiting Xie. “However, with this approach, mental disorders continue to cost billions a year for the healthcare system.”
The deficit-based approach to recovery damages recovery because it is inherently unmotivating. If Gloria believes she has a “fatal flaw,” she’s unlikely to embrace the resources available and fully engage in the recovery process. However, if she is confident that can apply her natural and intrinsic strengths to recovery, she’s more likely to embrace recovery.
A strengths-based approach to eating disorder recovery doesn’t pretend there aren’t difficulties to be faced, but it mobilizes a person’s strengths rather than focusing on what is wrong with them. Mental health issues like eating disorders can be seen as a normal part of human life that can be managed and overcome. This treatment approach focuses on a person’s abilities rather than their shortcomings, symptoms, and difficulties.
Here are four personality traits and examples of how we can take a strengths-based approach to eating disorder recovery:
Perfectionism meaningfully and consistently predicts employees who are more motivated on the job, work longer hours, and can be more engaged at work. These strengths can clearly lead to eating disorder behaviors if they are focused on eating and body weight. However, they can become a driver of eating disorder recovery, too. For example, if a person with an eating disorder focuses on their strength of being highly motivated, they can become deeply engaged in recovery.
Typically treatment focuses on the negative fact that a person has become overly-engaged in their eating disorder behaviors. A strengths-based approach means we focus on their ability to deeply and passionately engage in things that matter to them. If they become deeply and passionately engaged in recovery, they can do anything!
People with obsessive-compulsive personality traits are often confident, warm, organized, and high-achieving. They have meticulous standards of behavior and high expectations that can benefit them in every area of life. When these standards are applied to eating and body weight, they can drive eating disorder behaviors. However, this person has a strong ability to organize and make strategic decisions. When this strength is harnessed, they can become strongly motivated to recover.
This trait likely drives the people who “spontaneously recover” from their eating disorders. This really happens! Some people wake up one day and decide they don’t want to have an eating disorder anymore. Once an eating disorder no longer fits their rules of “good behavior,” recovery can be easier for people with this trait.
Emotional Regulation: A Guide for Parents Who Have Kids With Eating Disorders
Teach your child emotional regulation skills when they have an eating disorder
- Recognize the signs of emotional dysregulation
- Calm your child down, fast!
- Teach your child to self-regulate
The word “neurotic” is one of the worst-sounding personality traits, but, like all personality traits, it has strengths. People who have a more “neurotic” personality tend to be intelligent and funny, have more realistic expectations, and have greater self-awareness. They are also highly creative thinkers and tend to possess more emotional depth. Their emotional depth is likely what makes people with neurotic personalities more susceptible to eating disorders. Because they are more sensitive, they are more likely to need coping strategies for their big emotions.
However, when their creativity and intelligence are applied to building healthy coping strategies to replace their eating disorder behaviors, they can find deep and meaningful recovery. Additionally, embracing their neurotic tendencies can provide tremendous freedom and allow them to embrace themselves as they truly are, rather than try to fit into a socially-acceptable version of themselves. Recovery requires a person to embrace their body as it is. And it also requires embracing their SELF as it is.
4. Negative emotionality
Most personality traits arise as a combination of nature and nurture. But negative emotionality is a personality trait that is usually hardwired in the brain. We are all born with brain structures that determine whether we have a generally negative or positive temperament. And we have no control over our natural tendency towards negativity. Assuming that a negative temperament is bad is harmful and inaccurate. Negative emotions are adaptive, normal, and necessary. They are also highly motivating. Negative emotions prompt us to take action and provide valuable information about the inner and outer environment.
Someone with a more negative emotional state is better positioned to recognize when something is dangerous. Once danger is identified, they are motivated to build new skills and stop risking endangerment. But this is not a matter of “scaring people straight.” Adding more negativity to someone with negative emotionality will not support recovery. Rather, we need to support people in tuning into the messages their negative emotions are trying to send them. We can empower people to listen to their negative emotions with critical insight and use their intelligence and creative problem-solving abilities to embrace recovery.
Seeing personality traits as negative when treating an eating disorder is unmotivating and unsuccessful. Instead, seeing personality traits as strengths can support recovery. They can help a person find greater motivation and success.
That’s what happened to Gloria. “I found a new therapist who focused on my strengths and empowered me to claim recovery on my terms,” she says. “With her I found that my perfectionistic tendencies were actually exactly what I needed to recover.” She is now engaged in the process of recovering. And Gloria feels more hopeful and optimistic now that she’s using a strengths-based approach. By embracing her personality rather than rejecting it, she’s embracing recovery.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource that supports parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate their kid’s eating disorder recovery.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.
Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply-feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.
2 thoughts on “A helpful strengths-based approach to eating disorder recovery”
I love reading your posts. You have no idea how realistic & straight forward they are. I have an adult daughter with ED, but, she is 35, and certainly on her own for managing her ED. BUT, your posts/ articles can truly help anyone dealing with life issues
Thats so nice of you! Thanks for letting me know! xoxo