True Purpose or Pseudo-purpose?
Steve Wright, MA, LCPC, RDDP, Grace Program Coordinator, Timberline Knolls
“But I do have a purpose in life,” she said in answer to my question about what gives your life meaning. “My purpose is to become thin enough.” It was an interesting conversation that eventually led to another question; what does “thin enough” mean? After a moment’s thought, she had enough insight to say, “I suppose thin enough means I should weigh zero.”
As disconcerting as it was to hear that, I was also grateful she answered honestly because the next thing she said was, “But I know that means I would be dead… and I don’t really want to be dead.”
That conversation did get me thinking about what it means to have a sense of purpose and how, sometimes the things we struggle with lead us to create a “pseudo-purpose.” When we think of purpose, we think of focus and intentionality, we think of discipline and dedication. All of those things were present in this young woman. Except, purpose and meaning had been skewed into a form that fueled a much more self-destructive trajectory to her life.
I think there is a spiritual dimension to all of this. As people struggle with their thoughts, their feelings, with how they perceive themselves and how they interact with the world around them, they respond to the distress which that creates by engaging in behaviors that help them avoid hurting. Most of those behaviors have a negative impact on the people in their lives and on the relationship they have with themselves. They lose the ability to connect with the world in a meaningful way. They no longer see their own intrinsic value.
Spirituality can be defined as the connection to something greater that gives life a sense of purpose and, through purpose, meaning. Avoidant behavior, or the things one does to stop feeling distress, leads in the opposite direction. The focus is not outward, but inward. Behaviors are driven by a negative view of self, or a distressing thought or feeling rather than an awareness of one’s value. Being able to perceive one’s value accompanied with the desire to add that value to the world is what motivates purposeful behavior. And, when we engage in purposeful behavior our lives begin to mean something.
For the young woman I was working with, she saw her purpose as winning the competition of having the most successful eating disorder. For her, it was about shrinking and then vanishing. In other words, becoming less and less. She, in essence, wanted to take away from the world rather than add to it.
In mathematics there is a term that means an assumed truth. The word is “Axiom.” It is something that doesn’t need to be proven. The “axiom” in human existence is that everyone has intrinsic value. True value of self is not determined by societal norms or by external validation. It is not a result of transactional behavior or achievement. It simply is true.
Once a person can come to accept that truth and know “I have value, just as I am” then that person can let go of the worry and the fear of seeing themselves as inadequate. They can identify their values and organize their behavior around those values. And, by doing so, express purpose and find meaning.
That was the challenge I gave to this young woman. She accepted that challenge and started to let go of her “pseudo-purpose” and espoused a growing awareness of her own intrinsic value. The more she did, the less she thought about “Zero” and the more she expressed herself in kind and thoughtful ways. Her relationships began to shift in a positive way. Her contentment with herself improved and she started to see her life differently. She made plans to go back to school and decided to become a nurse. She gave herself a future and a way to make the world a better place.
As you consider your own life, I want to challenge you to accept the axiom that, no matter what has happened to you, no matter how you have been hurt, no matter how society and the media has twisted what it means to be “good enough,” that you begin to believe that you have value. Stop listening to the voice that keeps whispering in your ear telling you that you are somehow uniquely worthless. It is a lie. You are an unrepeatable miracle and you have intrinsic value.
*The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp™ Foundation, Inc. or its Board of Directors.*