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How exactly do we acquire our identity and how does it shape our eating? Much of who we are is dictated by our genes—temperament and talent, for example—but what of other factors? Are you who you think you are, who other people think you are, or a composite of both? If a major part of your identity is feeling unloved and unlovable, how does that affect your ability to overcome food and weight problems?

Maybe you’re like my many clients who are kind, other-oriented and compliant, but live in fear of somehow “becoming” unkind, selfish, and demanding. How would this happen: Would you sneak up on yourself at gunpoint and force yourself to be different? Of course not. This fear is irrational. Personality traits don’t simply appear and disappear magically overnight. You have to work on developing qualities—or not. You’re won’t become something you don’t want to be because you won’t let yourself.

A significant aspect of identity includes lovability. For those of you who feel unlovable, how many people would need to fall all over you to change your view of yourself: one, 24, 100, 1,000,000? Or are you looking for validation from one particular someone, never mind the rest of the world going gaga over you? Identity is a stable concept. It doesn’t change because someone loves or does not love you. It doesn’t change if you overeat, undereat, purge, or exercise too much or too little. Doesn’t it sound a tad weird that you’re a marvelous person if you eat only two cookies, but a bad and disgusting one if you eat 8 of them? That you’re decent and lovely at 138 pounds but not at 141?

The way to develop a stable sense of self is to be authentically you. Sometimes you’ll make good decisions and sometimes poor ones, about food and everything else. Sometimes people will approve of your behavior and sometimes they won’t. Throughout, however, your identity remains the same. Think about it: the ocean looks one way from a helicopter and another way when you’re scuba diving, but it’s still the ocean. Although you or others may focus on a specific aspect of you at any one time, the rest of who you are continues to exist. You’re the same person all the time!

One place to start working on your identity is around food. Do you think of yourself and tell folks that you’re a disordered or disregulated eater? Instead, recast yourself as recovering from food problems. Notice if this re-labeling regarding food makes a difference and how it affects your view of yourself. If so, re-label yourself in other areas and see if that helps make your identity more stable.