Imagining Others (and Ourselves) Complexly
By Shaely Ritchey
“Imagine others complexly” – John Green, Paper Towns
More than just a quote, imagining others complexly is an important call to action and perhaps one of the most important personal endeavours we can undertake in our lives. Not only is it one of the greatest gifts we can give to the wider world, it is also a gift we can give to ourselves; this seems especially important in our recovery journeys where creating a broader identity for ourselves is one of the major goals we are tasked with challenging though it might be.
In the midst of our struggles the world can seem especially small; eating disorders in particular have a knack for shrinking our experiences, perspectives, and our opportunities to engage with life in ways that are meaningful to us. They can make it seem as if they are all that has ever, and will ever, exist. Many individuals struggling with eating disorders can relate to feeling their identity and self-worth becoming entangled with the disorder so much so that it becomes frightening to imagine ourselves outside of it because without the eating disorder, who are we and how do we matter in the world? The small world of an eating disorder may be limiting, but it is also safe and controllable and having our identity stop there keeps us from facing larger, more overwhelming existential questions in life. Who are we without our eating disorders as our whole source of identity? Well, the truth is we could be anyone… Being faced with endless choice, endless possibilities is quite a freeing notion, but it can also be quite paralyzing and thus quite frightening.
Having identity based on illness contributes, in part, to the competitive nature of eating disorders because when we have nothing else to identify ourselves by, we can feel threatened when others have similar identities wrapped up in the same illness. It is important to recognize that we also live in a culture that is highly focused on competition and vague notions of success in life being akin to being “the best” and standing out amongst the crowd; these cultural expectations also fuel this competitiveness and it is important to challenge how well they serve us in our lives.
That said it is quite natural to have part of one’s identity reside in their current struggles in life whether those are transient or persistent, whether they are mental health related or pertain to physical health or some other aspect of human life. To say that no part of a person’s identity can reside there or that these issues should not be focused on can quickly become an ableist critique. The problem occurs when we only imagine others or ourselves as being one thing and all of our life and self-worth resides there. It keeps our world much smaller than it can otherwise be.
Recovery then, asks us to imagine ourselves outside of our struggles and to begin building an identity that is broader than our eating disorder. It is an enormous, but critical task in recovery and life in general. None of us are single stories or solely defined by one aspect of our being. It does not matter how small your life may feel at the moment, each one of us is still far more than a single, or simple, story. None of us is described in entirety by a diagnosis, rather diagnoses are always situated in the context of a person – their environment, their past, their hopes and dreams, their interests, their strengths and weaknesses, their cultural history, their genetics, their tendencies, their present lives and plans for the future, and so on. As we gain confidence in recovery and we begin to break out from the hold our eating disorder had on us and our lives, we can begin to explore the rest of who we are and to grow these aspects of ourselves. Sometimes it is not so much about focusing solely on shrinking the eating disorder, but including the focus on expanding the rest of our lives, which naturally shrinks the amount of time and energy that the eating disorder portion takes up.
It is important to remember all of this when we think of others as well – friends, those we do not necessarily get along with, family, strangers, partners, or patients that we are supporting in recovery. Because we do not know others internal worlds as intimately as we know our own, it is much easier to label them or reduce them to single stories, but no person is as simple as a single story and we do them a disservice if we are limiting them to such. Even an eating disorder, which is a pattern of characteristics that tell us something about someone, does not tell us everything and we must strive to not fall into the trap of letting that be the sole descriptor of a person even if it is the primary basis on which we know the person.
It is challenging to do this because humans like simple categories, even systems and structures in our society lean towards this tendency to simplify and categorize for functional reasons. Our healthcare system for example, still largely utilizes the medical model that has its benefits and drawbacks. One of the limitations of this model is the tendency to pursue objectivity to an extent that classifies people as a simple set of problems to be solved. It tends to focus in on the diagnosis and the easily measured aspects of illness without paying critical attention to the context of a person, their immediate environment, the larger cultural context, as well as other aspects of the human experience. Essentially it fails to imagine patients complexly.
Imagining others and ourselves complexly gives us the freedom of unlimited potential to learn and grow and be anything. When we imagine complexly we give the gift of letting ourselves and others make mistakes and be imperfect without judgment, which is something we all deserve to be able to do. When we imagine complexly we give room to ourselves to work towards a future that may seem impossibly far away in the moment. When we imagine complexly we hold this space for others who may not be able to envision that future for themselves until they are in a better place of imagining for themselves. When we imagine complexly we acknowledge that we are already enough and that the human ability to evolve in life knows no bounds.
Shaely is a registered nurse with interest in further education in nursing or medicine. She is also a passionate mental health advocate in her community. In her spare time she loves taking photographs, getting outdoors, and petting as many dogs as she can.