Turning negatives into positives

Think about it: your unique set of personality traits and life experiences ultimately led down the path of an eating disorder. Yet I can't quite believe that these are necessarily all bad.

My first therapist was kind of baffled at how I could have low self-esteem: after all, she said, look at my resume. Aside from the blinding stupidity of such a statement (I felt worse about myself because I felt so bad when I really shouldn't), there was a grain of truth to her statement. The same traits that made me so exquisitely vulnerable to anorexia, such as perfectionism, obsessionality, and tenaciousness/stubbornness, had also allowed me to accomplish quite a bit. Even if I couldn't see it myself.

And this is, I think, some of the most important work to do in recovery, once you get beyond the basics of learning how to prevent relapse and live with triggers. Learning how to live with your genetics, your personality or temperament that you were born with and that was honed over the years.

Of course, these traits can be very non-functional. Even in grad school, when everything was pass/fail (and once I realized this important little tidbit, which was well into the second semester but changed precisely diddly-squat about my work ethic), I spent many nights frantically working on papers the day before they were due. Why? I couldn't stop researching and reading, fearful that I had neglected some tiny fact that would make or break my paper.

Then again, I got a freelance job because I was the only person who sent in a cover letter without any typos.

It's a fine line, to be sure. But the point is to try and make these things work in your favor, rather than against you. I can probably spend my entire life in therapy trying to learn to be not so anxious and less perfectionistic and such, but no small amount of this is innate. I popped out of the womb this way. So it's up to me to learn how to deal with it.

I'm trying to learn where it pays to be perfectionistic (such as on job applications) and where it might not (organizing my spice racks). I still worry that being less tough on myself will ultimately result in my turning into a fat, lazy blob. And that people will think less of me if everything is not "in its place," and I am not perfectly together.

In an article on ADHD in the New York Times, a psychiatrist had this to say about this disorder:

“It’s not an unmitigated blessing, but neither is it an unmitigated curse, which is usually the way it’s presented,” said Dr. Hallowell*, who has the disorder himself. “I have been treating this condition for 25 years and I know that if you manage it right, this apparent deficit can become an asset. I think of it as a trait and not a disability.”

Of course, that doesn't mean that a person's struggles with ADHD aren't real and valid, but that some of the traits that give them this difficulty may, in the end, also be a good thing, too.

What personality traits do you have that you think might have predisposed you to an ED? How are you making them work in your favor? Do you think you can? Or do you think they can be eliminated in therapy?

*Dr. Hallowell wrote one of the seminal books on ADHD titled Driven to Distraction.

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Anonymous said...

Every day, every post is a new gem!

ASHY91906 said...

As you pointed out, the qualities that essentially led to the eating disorder aren't 100% bad. If it weren't for some of them, I wouldn't be where I am today - good and bad. I was able to get into a good school and have overcome hurdles aside from the eating disorder thanks to being stubborn as a mule (as people like to tell me).

But I'm having such a hard time getting beyond the initial thoughts of Ed. I cannot seem to push him away for long enough to see the traits such as perfectionism and obsession playing a role. All I hear is Ed loud and clear, screaming in my ear and making my head hurt.

Carrie Arnold said...


Well, okay- that's honest. I wouldn't worry about the hows and the whys at this point. Just keep on ignoring Ed and moving forward. Insight (for me) was a little overrated. Even when I did have the insight, it didn't make the behaviors stop necessarily. Only NOW can I look backward and analyze things a bit and see that the perfectionism and obsessions were really playing a role.

ASHY91906 said...

Insight does tend to be slightly overrated, doesn't it? But seriously, I wish that I could push a button and take his voice away. But I guess that that's what recovery does, right? Thanks for giving me a place to post and figure these things out. I tend to think better when I can bounce ideas off of people. And I like this because through you I can see where I want to be. And I can see that it's possible to move forward.

Carrie Arnold said...

Not to toot my own horn, but here's an old post that your comment made me think of:


And very glad to help.

ASHY91906 said...

Haha I liked it. And seriously that is what it freaking sounds like. Actually it is like being on an airplane. Ed and white noise. Nothing else. Sometimes even if I wanted to respond I'm not sure that I would be able to hear myself. But maybe soon I'll be able to take off those ugly ass ear phones!

Katy said...

You hit the nail on the head! "It's a double-edged sword" is practically my therapy slogan, and when I read that ADHD article I wanted to jump up & down. In my earlier therapy I heard a bit too much of the idea that not only COULD I get rid of certain traits, but that I should WANT to. (There's an incredible irony in someone telling you to "love yourself" while also telling you that major parts of that self need to be eliminated. I hate touchy-feely BS & I hate being talked down to!)

I LIKE that I'm perfectionistic & intense & stubborn & persistent & competitive & incapable of making an impulsive decision. Those qualities may have "fed" my ED (and sometimes they're a huge pain in the ass) but they've also served me pretty well. For better &/or for worse, they're part of who I am and the idea that I can change them is as ridiculous as the idea that I can permanently change my body proportions through sheer force of will. (And we all know how ridiculous THAT one is!) I like my double-edged sword, I just have to learn how to swing it AWAY from myself. (Hehe, I know, it's corny, but it works!)

I have a lot more thoughts on the topic, but since this isn't my blog and I can't make my thoughts come out quite right at 2 AM (ahem...perfectionsim...) I think I may have to write a post on this on my own blog later...

Carrie Arnold said...


You're right. I think we should be focusing less on how to eradicate these seemingly innate personality traits of ours (which may not even be possible) and figure out how to make them work in our favor.

You know, use them for good and not evil. Unless of course we feel like it. ;)

MelissaS said...

i can't believe how much i've thought about this post since i read it yesterday. nothing came to mind quickly. but i think the best thing i've learned is that i'm quite a survivor -- from my rough childhood through a very, very troubled adulthood. i keep getting back up, and i guess in a way i must believe in myself, because i keep trying and somehow going forward. thanks for getting me thinking and finding something to respect in me.

Anonymous said...

my therapist (well counsellor where I come from: Ireland)tells me that i have like, a lot of strength, and that in future i'm gonna use it positively instead of turning it against myself. urgh, i feel like i'm being kind of big headed even saying that. But since she has said it to me, thinking about it has kind of helped me. I think strength is another quality that people who are likely to get EDs tend to have.

Also, some of the literature will tell us that we tend to be really caring and concerned about society, etc.

I think they're pretty good and powerful traits to have, especially when we can use them not against ourselves, just think how awesome we can be!


Sarah said...

I totally agree with the 'fine line' on traits being negative and yet positive, its all in perspective. Its like being lost, and only having a map. Its a choice to feel hopeless about finding your way, convinced the map is lying, or you could be patient and learn how to read the map, and have trial and error while finding your way. (and not beating yourself up if you can't get there the first time!)

My good qualities my ed turned against me were my OCD, perfectionism, need to please others before myself, and one of the worst-having quality time by myself. I'm embracing these qualities and making them work for me and not against me.

Anonymous said...

It's incredible that this exact issue has been on my mind so much lately and it's what I discussed with my therapist on the day you posted this entry. I seem to be struggling so much against my own personality, unable (and I assumed unwilling) to accept my traits. But this gives me hope that I could take a different perspective on myself, and learn to use what benefits me while ignoring only the self-destructive elements of these traits. As always, food for thought from this blog... thank you so much :)


Anonymous said...

Carrie, after reading your recent post about your suicide attempt, I followed the links to your earlier posts about the experience. The contrast in your voice from then to now is striking! I feel so much strength and self-acceptance in your current writings-- though of course the doubts are there, too. But for someone who is not nearly so far along as you, following the trajectory of your recovery is deeply inspiring.

Crimson Wife said...

Perfectionist? Check
Anxious? Check
People-pleaser? Check
Tendency towards black-or-white thinking? Check
Tendency to bottle up emotions & put on a happy face? Check

If that's not a classic bulimic's personality, I don't know what is :-(

Anonymous said...


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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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