Values: Creating Meaning in Your life

Your eating disorder may be convincing you that it is the only meaningful thing in your life and without it, you will be lost. After years of struggling with an eating disorder, more and more things that were once important to you can become more distanced. The eating disorder wants to create avoidance and isolation with value domains like family, friends, leisure activities, and spirituality. Activities you may have once enjoyed such as spending time with friends, dating, and going to the beach, now may be avoided or evoke anxiety if you do decide to participate. Body image distress, food fears and social anxieties are common factors the eating disorder creates to keep you avoiding positive value based activities. That is why part of your journey of recovery includes addressing values and creating meaning in your life.

What are Values?

When we speak of values, we are referring to what you want your life to be about. What do you want to be meaningful in your life? What will bring you the most joy and feelings of purpose? Nobody in your life can decide for you what is most important to you. Some of our values may be different than our friends and family and we have to remind ourselves that it is okay to have different purposes in our life. We also want our values to be something we want to do, not something we feel we “should” value. Living out your life engaging in what you feel is authentically you helps to create a joyful and quality-based life.

What Does it Mean to be Living by Your Values?

Values are not destinations. This means that values are not something that you arrive at and complete, rather they are something that you pursue throughout your life. For instance, if you value learning and knowledge, having completed a degree would be a measure of your knowledge in a particular area at a particular point in time; however, to truly live by the value of knowledge and learning would require the pursuit of knowledge throughout your lifetime. Living by the value of knowledge and learning may mean consciously choosing to learn something from every person you meet, attending intellectual discussions, reading for knowledge’s sake, as well as obtaining degrees in areas that interest you.

Setting goals can help you implement action towards pursuing a value-based life, but values are not goals. We can set a goal to read a book a month to support our value-based goal of knowledge but it would not be complete after you read the book. When setting goals, it is helpful to ask yourself “Why am I doing this?,” and “What is my purpose?” These questions can help to clarify your intentions and the underlying reasoning behind your goals. Asking such questions can also support you to aspire to goals that are in line with your values. Thus, you can either look at the things you are doing to see if they fit with your values, or you can choose to do certain things based on your values. Choosing to engage in things that fit with you will make you feel more fulfilled.

When you pursue things that are a reflection of what you value, you are able to live your authentic life, which creates meaning and joy. We are all human, so at times you may stray from your values or you may find yourself engaging in activities, behaviors, or relationships that don’t fit into your value system. When this happens, it is important to explore the reasoning, and to potentially change what it is you are doing.

Difference Between the Eating Disorder’s Values and Yours

The eating disorder has a different value set than your own. It can be interesting to take a moment to write out everything that is important to the eating disorder and compare this list to things that are actually meaningful to you. The eating disorder values such things as comparisons, shape checking, appearance, eating disorder behaviors, rigidity, control, anxiety, fear, perfectionism, hopelessness, secrecy, shame, emotional avoidance, self-sabotage, and low self-esteem. It is important to know that these are values of the eating disorder and that you are separate from the eating disorder, although the distinction may seem blurred to you at times. The eating disorder does not value you!

You, on the other hand, may value such things as family, friends, loyalty, laughter, adventure, animals, creativity, and compassion. The eating disorder wants to pull you away from what you value in hopes that you engage all of your time in behaviors that support it. As you progress in your recovery and are making conscious choices to pursue your own value set, there will be less and less time to engage in the eating disorder and that is why pursuing values is a big part of the recovery process.

Discovering Your Values

It can be common to be confused about the things you do value that are separate from the eating disorder. Fortunately, there are many different helpful resources, such as questionnaires and worksheets, to support you in discovering and clarifying your values. These can be found in any Acceptance and Commitment Therapy book or online resource.

Values are often categorized into nine domains or areas: Family, Friends, Romantic relationships, Leisure, Education, Career, Citizenship, Health, and Spirituality. While these values can be categorized, it doesn’t mean that they cannot overlap (because they do). Values are important because they make the hard work worthwhile (can motivate you to work towards a goal) and give you an alternative to eating disordered behaviors.

Choosing more than 10 values as the “most important” makes things vague rather than specific. Once you determine your 10 most important values it would be beneficial to look at how you are currently living your life and ask yourself whether you are doing what you value.

Recognizing the things that prevent you from living a value-driven existence can be refreshing and scary at the same time, but it can help you to figure out what other things would be more fulfilling for you. Becoming aware of your values, exploring your relationship with your values and with your eating disorder, and finding discrepancies can allow you to begin to change your behaviors and find positive coping mechanisms that promote and fulfill your values.

Creating a Values Board

After you have identified the values that you feel are important to you, it can be helpful to create a visual image of these. Words and images that signify your values can be placed on a bulletin board which can serve as a daily reminder. Creating a value based life is something you get to work at each and every day. When you get off track, practice self-compassion and being gentle with yourself. You then get to make a choice on ways you can practice value-based living that day, one moment and choice at a time.


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Additional Reading:

Myths About Eating Disorders
Voices of an Eating Disorder
Eating Disorders and Sexuality
Body Comparisons and Eating Disorders
Causes of Eating Disorders


About The Author:

Tresa Clemmensen is a Canadian Certified Counsellor and has been working in the field of eating disorders since 2003. She has been part of the team at Westwind Eating Disorder Centre since 2004, and is a member of the Eating Disorders Association of Canada. She is grateful to be able to help people on their recovery journey.


Written – 2018