The Power - and Complexity - of Positive Passion

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

We live in a how-to world that trains us to demand quick fixes and instant solutions. So it should come as no surprise that people in the grip of eating disorders want to know "how to" recover. But this question reflects an assumption that there is a single, one-size-fits-all solution for these deeply internal and complex problems. As anyone who has experienced or studied them knows, there is no single way in to an eating disorder. How could there be a single way out?

I fully understand the hunger behind this comment. Just tell me what I have to do to get free of this suffering! But ultimately, freedom comes with self-awareness and self-acceptance. Because each of us has a different "self," shaped by a different temperament, interests, desires, and experiences, we must each find our own ways to the pursuits and passions and people that best nourish us.

The desire for a prescription also reflects the black-and-white thinking that gives rise to eating disorders in the first place. We get into trouble because we embrace what researchers call the "overvalued ideal" of perfection as suffering. This notion of perfection, I believe, lies closer to the true heart of eating disorders than the ideal of physical thinness. And we take it directly from our Western religious and philosophical traditions.

I've been reading the extraordinary new book by Sharon Begley, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, which traces the efforts of scientists to understand why and how Buddhist traditions physically change the brain to make people happier and more peaceful. Early in the book, I was struck by Begley's observation that Buddhist traditions equate perfection not with faith, but with insight; and the ultimate goal in Buddhism is for all sentient (feeling) beings to achieve release from suffering. That goal applies not to angels in paradise but to all of us here on earth.

I'm not suggesting that we all become Buddhists, but I am suggesting that we consider how our bodies and minds mirror the cultural messages that surround us, not only in fashion magazines but in our schools and churches and homes, and that we recognize that we can choose which values and assumptions to mirror, and which to question. Just because we live in a Western culture, it does not have to follow that we act out through our very bodies the Puritanical values of our neighborhood's first settlers. Yet, in a strange way, that's exactly what many of us have unconsciously done when developing an eating disorder.

Freeing ourselves, then, means questioning who we are not only deep in our genes and souls, but also who we are in the context of our family's and culture's history and spiritual beliefs. It means choosing which of our innate temperaments make us strong and healthy and which put us at risk. It means learning to maximize traits that empower us and redirect traits that are causing us problems. And one way we accomplish this is by changing our relationship with the world around us.

For example, if I'm very sociable, that's likely to be a source of strength. But if I get very anxious in disorder, that's problematic. Creative thinking is the key to resolving this. One woman discovered that a career in architecture gave her a way to channel her need for order into a satisfying form of creativity that also fostered a healthy balance between human company and independent solitude. This career released her from the particular kind of suffering that her eating disorder represented - which had been fueled by guilt over the sacrifices her family had made to put her into a top college. Her family had suffered for her, so her eating disorder (and Western tradition) was telling her she had to suffer in return. But actually, what she needed was to figure out what gave her joy! Positive passion, not suffering, was the "solution."

The tricky part is that we all have different passions. For one person, horses may hold the key to recovery. For another, painting does. For another, teaching is the path to joy. Love is at the core, I believe, for all of us. But we each experience and express love in different ways.

Humans are not one-size-fits-all beings. This makes recovery complicated and unpredictable. But it's also what makes our collective experience of life so thrilling.