03/02/2007 10:47 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Limits of Imitation

We all do it. We imitate the way our mothers exclaim when they answer the phone. We take fashion cues from Vogue Magazine. We raise our voices to meet our mates' and assume the poses of bosses and admired colleagues at work. We copy recipes from our friends.

Imitation is hard-wired into us from birth. Neuroscientists now understand that we are born to mirror those around us. This is how we learn to speak, to act, to feel. After we suffer from a trauma or disorder that pushes us into isolation, imitation plays a crucial role in the brain's fight back to normalcy.

I was keenly aware of this process during the years when I was first recovering from the anorexia that spanned my adolescence. After pushing away from friends and family for some seven years, I made a conscious decision to reach out to those who seemed to me most "normal." I watched the way my ebullient roommate ate and laughed. I studied the way classmates casually inhaled sandwiches and pizza while engrossed in talk about their futures. I imitated the way ambitious friends seemed to seize opportunities and embrace adventures. I became a waitress because I admired my fellow waitresses. When one of them applied to United to become a flight attendant, I interviewed, too. When I fell in love, I let my husband-to-be retrain my brain to try foods like sausage, calzones, margaritas, and mudpies - indulgences I once automatically would have denied myself.

I imitated my way back to a strong semblance of normalcy. My body looked hale. My eating habits seemed healthy. My spirits appeared secure. But imitation has its limits. When I became anxious I couldn't copy my way out of distress. No matter how cool and poised I might look to others, tension gnawed at my nerves. I could never be the people I admired. I could not create what I emulated. Sooner or later someone was bound to find me out. Imitation precludes authenticity. How much of my life was I faking? I didn't dare ask. Imitation begets anxiety.

I tried to copy the ways other people dealt with stress. I ran away from conflicts at work and in my marriage - ran marathon distances that led to injury. I adopted "healthy" food restrictions and practices that turned meals into endurance contests - ever subject yourself to a brew of baker's yeast, molasses, and protein powder? I equated virtue with suffering, confused stoicism with power; I bought into the false ideals that our culture waves like perfume beneath our noses - ideals of feminine restraint, silence, sacrifice. Contain yourself, and you'll feel fine.

It doesn't work. Contain yourself, and sooner or later you'll feel caged. Imitation becomes that cage.

Sooner or later we must risk becoming ourselves, warts and blemishes, fears and all. We have to dare to look in the mirror and trust the person who looks back. We have to learn to make choices fueled by desire rather than dread, find solutions that make us feel more alive than dead, more fulfilled than empty, more human than "perfect." That person in the mirror has a heart, a mind, a body that breathes with life. That person is a miracle of humanity who deserves our full honor and appreciation, for she has no equal.