Not “An Anorexic.” Why Words Matter

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“She is an anorexic.”

 
“She suffers from anorexia.”

 
If you over heard two doctors talking about the same patient in the above ways, which one would you choose to treat your own ailments?

 
Labeling others or ourselves as disorders is not only disrespectful, it is incredibly harmful and degrading. Why? Because you are not something that you are going through, you are a person, and internalizing labels happens more quickly than we realize. The more we tell ourselves or listen to others tell us that we are “bulimics/anorexics,” the more we begin to take on the label, to step up to the plate of the eating disorder so to speak. Think about it. Your internal dialogue dictates how your feel about yourself, which in turn affects how you see yourself. If you continuously call yourself a label used to describe a mental disorder, then you are effectively labeling yourself as that mental disorder. This is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, you are not a mental disorder, you are a person. A person with hopes, dreams, goals. A person with your own personality, intelligence, and humor. You are not the chemical makeup of your own brain, or the interplay between genetics and environment in your life. Secondly, one of the goals of eating disorder recovery is to separate yourself from the eating disorder. It is decidedly more difficult to extricate yourself from the grips of what you are, versus what you are suffering from. I know it sounds like semantics. But it really truly is important to pay attention to these things. Our words affect our thoughts, which affect our feelings, which affect, well, everything.

 
Interestingly enough, there are virtually no medical illnesses that garner this type of personal labeling, and only a select number of mental illnesses seem to have taken on the labeling factor with vigor. “An anorexic,” “a bulimic,” “a schizophrenic,” “an alcoholic.” But… “a depressed?” Nope. “An anxiety?” Nah. So what gives? One theory is that addiction, psychosis, and eating disorders are all considered to be ego syntonic illnesses, meaning that the behaviors, values, or feelings that go along with the disorders are consistent with one’s own self-image. In short, this means that the disorders can be trickier to spot to the very people who are suffering from them, because there can be a great deal of denial or refutation on the part of those individuals. Hence people can come to internalize the role of the illnesses as “this is just me” or “this is who I am.” From there it is just a hop skip and a leap to “I am an anorexic.”

 

This labeling is not uncommon either. May 16, 2015, the New York Post ran an article with the title “XX lb. Anorexic Has One Last Chance At Survival.” (Unfortunately they did include the number, which is a separate issue altogether). Labeling an individual who already likely struggles with feelings of shame, insecurity, and low self-esteem by the illness that they are struggling from only serves to further ingrain the idea that there is no hope for the future, and that they are bound to their eating disorder forever. After all, they are “an eating disorder.”

 
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to watch how you speak to yourself and those around you. Labels tend to be detrimental anyway, but using a mental illness as a label? That definitely has a negative impact on well-being and health. So next time someone calls you “a/an (fill in the blank with the unhelpful label of your choice), just tell them, “Labels are for cans and jars, not people.” 😉

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