Good morning! Today is Thursday, and I’m connecting with Amanda‘s Thinking Out Loud linkup to share some of my thoughts with you all. Today, I’m thinking about cognitive dissonance, a concept that I have had to confront again and again in recovery. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, cognitive dissonance occurs in an individual when they hold conflicting beliefs surrounding the same thing, or when new information conflicts with firmly held beliefs. It’s a term that I learned in college, but only recently have I begun thinking about how it relates to my recovery.
When I lost weight and was not automatically happy, I experienced cognitive dissonance. I had always believed that weight loss would lead me to happiness, but I found myself in the prison of an eating disorder instead. When I developed anorexia despite the fact that I had been overweight, I experienced cognitive dissonance. I did not think somebody as overweight as I was could become anorexic. When I learned that I was starving my body long before I was clinically underweight, I experienced cognitive dissonance. I could not believe that my body needed food when, in my mind, it still had so much weight to lose. Each time that I have learned new information that conflicted with what I believed about myself, I have had to reevaluate my belief system. All of these recovery realizations have rocked my world, and I am left with an entirely new perspective on health and weight, something for which I am truly grateful.
Although the dissonance experienced within myself has posed plenty of challenges, I have become acutely aware of how my recovery causes cognitive dissonance in others as well. As an example, my dad and I had coffee the other day and he commented on my stepsister’s weight loss. He said that she has been exercising for an hour and a half per day, has lost weight, and looks good. Needless to say, his remarks irritated me.
My dad can be a bit of a buffoon, and I’m used to him making comments without thinking them through, but this time I decided to voice my frustrations to him. I explained to him why his comments were upsetting to me. I told him that I have a problem with people gaining societal approval simply because they have lost weight, and I told him how hurtful it was to me when I was in the depths of anorexia and people still complimented my weight loss. His response was one of defensiveness, rattling off the things we have all heard before about overweight people being unhealthy, how unlikely it was that my stepsister would develop anorexia, claiming that he was only happy because my stepsister was becoming healthier and happier.
I then said something to my dad that I could tell blew his mind a little bit. I said, “I have lived at both ends. I have been overweight and underweight, and I can tell you definitively that being underweight is 1,000 times worse than being overweight. I wanted to die when I was underweight.” I said those words frankly and boldly, because that is the absolute truth, and my dad’s reaction told me just how much dissonance I had created in him by sharing this information. Dumbfounded and clearly incredulous, his only response was, “Really?!”
My dad, like so many people in this country and in this world, holds the belief that weight loss makes people happier. He holds the belief that being overweight is more dangerous to one’s health than being underweight. He holds the belief that, to some extent, dieting and forced exercise are worthwhile pursuits. And, unfortunately, he does not hold these beliefs alone. I would venture to say that the vast majority of people in the United States would agree with at least some of these ideas. As individuals with a history of disordered eating, these mentalities will be encountered by us regularly throughout our lives.
After our coffee date, I was not entirely sure how to feel. Initially, I was angry with my dad, annoyed by his ignorance. But then I realized that I used to believe the same things that he still holds on to. The experience of anorexia has created my own dissonance that I have had to work through, and I need to be patient with him as he confronts his long-held beliefs.
So, the next time we had coffee, I took the opportunity to educate him rather than close off from him out of pain and irritation. I explained in great detail why I think the diet mentality is damaging and, in fact, contributes to the so-called “obesity epidemic” rather than solving it. I explained why I am bothered by weight loss being seen as inherently healthy when it is often desired not for health reasons, but for society’s approval. I explained that his comments were not upsetting because I feared my stepsister would develop anorexia like I had, but because I was saddened at the thought of her spending the rest of her life believing that she needs to lose weight to be happy. I explained a good bit of the newfound recovery perspective that I have adopted, and explaining myself felt far more empowering and rewarding than staying quiet and resenting my dad for his ignorance.
In recovery, we will come across countless people who believe in the diet myth that nearly destroyed our lives. Although we do not owe our stories to anybody, creating some cognitive dissonance in others can be a gift of recovery. We have these experiences that others have not had, and our experiences can empower us to educate and help our loved ones see the new perspectives that we have fought to gain. The way our society sees bodies and self-worth is horribly askew. Let’s use the wisdom that has come through our pain to shake things up a little bit, shall we?