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Grieving and Letting Go of the ED Identity

Updated: Jul 2

Are you ready for change?


Many people feel ready for change - maybe even impatient and fed up that they persistently engage in disordered eating behaviours, despite wanting to change. If you feel this way, you might feel that it is hard to shake dieting and negative self-beliefs that have become such a big part of your life, and maybe even your identity. Having mixed emotions surrounding your disordered eating patterns is a common phenomenon: you want to change, but there is difficulty in letting go of everything you have known and done thus far. Perhaps a part of you feels a need to hold onto the dieting mentality due t

o the fear of the unknown. How can you make sense of these conflicting feelings? 

(Some) Factors Maintaining Eating Disorders


Disordered eating patterns are often characterized by inflexible thinking, attention to detail, pro-dieting beliefs, and challenges with emotional expression. You might find some of these factors in other areas of your life as well. It might be difficult to let go of perfectionist, rigid, all-or-nothing perspectives because it has brought good to your life in various ways. Although this can be true, it is important to recognize how this can function in maintaining your eating disorder as well.


Identity: Grieving your Previous Self 


There are many roles you play or hats you wear in life. Perhaps you are a parent, a student, a teacher, a manager, an employee, an athlete – and you identify with each of these roles that you hold. Maybe you take pride in being the best, and adopt this as a part of your identity. Your culture, your religion, and your values act as a part of your identity. Many athletes who experience injury experience grief as a result of losing previous athletic abilities, and with that, they might experience a loss of community or emotional release when losing their sport. When you find yourself without the hat that you wear so proudly, for so long, it can be devastating. Losing any part of your identity is uncomfortable, difficult, and perhaps scary. Many people might see their eating or exercise habits as a part of their identity. Like losing or letting go of any part of your identity, it can leave you in a state of grieving. 


For many people, disordered eating patterns served a function at some point in life. Perhaps food acted as a source of reliable comfort and allowed for feelings of safety. Perhaps restricted eating provided feelings of control when you needed it most. Perhaps fixation on your appearance provided exterior validation or acceptance that you previously needed. Part of letting go of your previous self is recognizing the function of these maladaptive behaviours and recognizing that you are now in a place in which they are no longer necessary – they no longer serve you, and in fact, are only doing harm. 


To create your new self requires change and letting go of behaviours and patterns that have maintained your previous self. Accepting this and wanting to alter what you have always known, perhaps for your entire life, is a difficult but important part of the process in moving forward and creating a happier and healthier version of you. 


Creating your New Self: the Stages of Change


There are stages one might go through before change can occur, and these can apply in areas of life unrelated to challenges with eating as well. Change is a process that requires self-compassion and patience. It is not possible to heal overnight! Be gentle with yourself. What stage of change are you currently in? 


  1. Pre-contemplation: This stage involves apprehensiveness and denial that there is a problem to be solved. Negative consequences of maladaptive behaviours are not the focus, and one is likely to be defensive of their current beliefs, thinking, and behaviours. At this stage, one sees change as more negative than positive. If you find yourself in this stage, consider this question: “Are my current habits serving me and others in a positive way?”


  1. Contemplation: Problems are identified and acknowledged, and there is consideration for change or a search for a solution. You might experience inner-conflict: “Is this problem worth addressing? Is it as bad as I think?”. Some might put off or procrastinate addressing the issue while in this stage, due to the uncertainty and fear that might come about during contemplation.


  1. Preparation: You’ve acknowledged the problem and that the benefits of change outweigh the losses. You are committed to change and seek out information to make a plan. Behavioural changes begin to occur, even in small ways. Relapse is common and this stage can feel long and difficult, especially if planning is insufficient. 


  1. Action: The action stage is when the most change occurs. Confidence and motivation grows as improvements are made. You are open to seeking and receiving support and assistance and are considerate of barriers or triggers that might cause you to revert back to previous maladaptive behaviours. One cannot skip to this stage successfully. 


You might feel ready for change, or you might feel “stuck” in a stage, unsure where to go from here. You might find yourself jumping from stage to stage – and this is okay. Regardless of which stage you find yourself in, exercise grace with yourself. Like growing pains, everything that requires growth is going to be uncomfortable. 


To seek support in your journey, you are welcomed to book a consultation with one of our therapists. We would be happy to work with you towards your goals using aspects of DBT or Grief counselling!



The London Centre (2020, December 7). The Maudsley Model of Anorexia Treatment for Adults (MANTRA) — The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image. The London

Raihan, N., & Cogburn, M. (2023, March 6). Stages of change theory. StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556005/

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