My personal definition of empowerment is feeling in control. This is not to be confused with the punishing kind of control that we achieve through eating disordered behaviours (which for me resulted in a vicious satisfaction alternated with crippling despair at the fact that I wasn’t achieving enough, wasn’t thin enough). The control that empowerment brings is the joyful sort – the sort in which you are able to exercise moderation and restraint in a healthy way, to avoid under-eating as well as over-eating. The sort in which you are able to push yourself to do things which may be outside your comfort zone in order to determine what your limits are, what you want, how to create a life worth living. The sort that brings with it a sense of emotional freedom.
Even though freedom and control sound like conflicting states, when balanced correctly they actually support each other. We need that sense of control to identity when we are doing too much, and take some time out to nurture or restore ourselves – to recreate our sense of freedom. On the flip side, we also need to be able to manage our freedom so that we don’t find ourselves running too wild – taking risks, behaving in a way that could maybe trigger us or undermine or recovery.
I remember when I finally decided that I wanted to recover from my eating disorder – not to please my doctor or therapist, not so I could escape the regular weigh-ins and go back to smug and absolute stringency, and not because I thought I should...but for me. Because I wanted to be happy. I didn’t want to continue to live in the rigid grid of rules and numbers I had created for myself. I wanted to be able to be impulsive on occasion. To just decide to go somewhere or do something without having to plan every last excruciating detail. I wanted to say yes to invites because I wanted to go rather than feeling that I had to go because declining meant saying no, which terrified me. I wanted to write because I loved to write and not because I had no-one to talk to, or needed to figure out weight loss or diet plans for the next day, week, month. I wanted to laugh instead of being brutally cruel to myself, I wanted to share with and be kind to others instead of being numb, needy and painfully shy.
That was probably the first time I’ve ever felt truly empowered. When I looked hard at myself and my life and decided that both needed changing for the better, and the only person who could do that was me.
Empowerment is an amazing feeling. You realise that you are capable. That you can achieve your goals even if you struggle along the way, even if they seem insurmountable at times. But it’s important to remember that empowerment is also a process.
It’s a little like happiness. Sometimes we feel happy for no reason, which is wonderful, but usually it’s because we’ve put ourselves in a situation which has allowed us to be happy. Maybe we are socialising with friends, maybe we are reading a new book with a cup of tea or taking a bubble bath with a glass of wine. And it’s the same with empowerment – we need to not feel defeated if we don’t feel that rushing sense of empowerment every minute (sort of like, ‘If I’m not happy, I must be sad’ – ‘If I’m not feeling empowered, I must be helpless’) but instead focus on the things that do make us feel powerful and capable and strong. The people we spend time with. The activities that energise us. The books we read, the TV shows we watch.
Jumping out of a plane might make you feel empowered, but the little things are just as important. Defining a boundary. Eating something your eating-disordered brain may be telling you is too rich, too sticky, too high in calories. Sometimes just getting out of bed when all you want to do is hide under the covers –that is empowerment.
And like anything else, there will be slips and stumbles along the way. Empowerment isn’t about living a life in which you are suddenly and miraculously unable to do no wrong. Empowerment lies not just in making the right decisions, but in learning from our mistakes – in getting back up from those slips and stumbles and trying again. And again. As many times as it’s necessary.
Empowerment is yours, whatever stage of recovery you might be at. It doesn’t have a timeline. It doesn’t have criteria. You create it. And then you nourish it.