Why You Need to Question Your Ideal Self in Recovery

ideal self - image of a person on a swing, sun is shining from behind them, their hair is blowing behind them and the ocean is in front of them

I have learned, in the six years of recovering from an eating disorder, it’s necessary to question parts of my ideal self in order to keep my momentum in recovery.

I am a shy, apprehensive person. When an opportunity finds me, or a creative idea presents itself, I become flushed and slightly uneasy. I have a habit of doubting I can follow through with an idea and make it real. 

My ideal self

My ideal self is visibly self-assured, relaxed and playful. She beads earrings, writes short stories, and messes around on the guitar. I imagine she is uninhibited when she laughs and creates and speaks to people. 

This is not a bad ideal self to try to model after. An ideal self is not necessarily the cause of an eating disorder.

Something happens, though, when the route to the better version of ourselves leans heavily on our appearance. 

The important essence of my ideal self is the way she feels. The way she acts and what she does with her time. These are things I can work on. For example, instead of getting caught in the mirror body-checking, I could redirect myself to a macrame project that I’ve put on hold.

My first ideal self was formed before I had the words to name how I would like to be in the world. I was eight years old when my attention dropped to my plate, and my stomach. Dieting seemed like the first step in the direction of feeling better in my body and in my life.


My anchor through years of an eating disorder was hope. I hoped my ideal self was still reachable, even if at that moment I was miserable. And I hoped the only reason I didn’t feel more self-assured in my body, was because I hadn’t disciplined myself enough yet. My ideal, easy life seemed to always be a season away from arriving, but it never came. 

In recovery, I have to remind myself consistently that my actual ideal self surfaces when I nourish my heart’s desires. Which have nothing to do with my appearance.

I have had to (reluctantly) let go of piles of clothes that were saved for a false ideal self. I’ve had to let go of the gym membership, where my false ideal self was strong.

The most difficult part of my on-going recovery is seeing my body, every day, as I am. I still examine my reflection in every mirror I walk by or pause in front of. And I still sit on the toilet and tug up my shirt to look at my stomach. I’ve had to find a new way to look at my body, because I can only observe it and try to appreciate it. I can’t go back to making plans to change it.

Recently, I was stretching. I looked at my bare legs in front of me while I held the tips of my big toes, and noticed the sprigs of dark hair I missed around my ankles. With curiosity I looked and watched how my skin diffused and reflected soft evening light that came in through the window. I remember thinking, I’ve just started to come back home to my body.

The ideal self is often made up of a nest of old, gathered, borrowed ideas.

Many of these ideals will not serve us anymore as we move further into recovery.

Check in periodically with your ideal self, and let go of what does not feel authentic to you anymore. 

Ask yourself: What have I wanted to start, or to try, or to finish, in the time and energy I will be reclaiming? Let those answers guide you further into recovery.

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