Recovery is Character Building
By Aimee Liu
One of the fallacies that helped propel me into anorexia as a teenager was the notion that character is synonymous with stoicism and self-discipline. I viewed the self as a target to be punished, deprived, and isolated for its own perfection. This puritanical view was common in New England, where I grew up, and it dominated the literature to which I gravitated in high school—books by the likes of Franz Kafka, Nietzsche, Simone Weil. To this crowd and to me, abstinence and pain were good, comfort shamefully bad.
Gaining weight at 21 (without benefit of therapy; this was 1974) did not change my core belief. I simply adopted vegetarianism, marathon running, distance biking, compulsive lap swimming, and 12-hour workdays in lieu of my earlier “character-building” hunger strike. I did notice, however, that while others with histories of eating disorders tended to share my definition of character, my healthy acquaintances treated character as a measure of joy and generosity, not self-denial.
Was there something in my personality that made me stoic? Might this something also have predisposed me to eating disorders? When I found myself backsliding into anorexia at age 47, I decided to investigate.
Cloninger’s Temperament and Character Inventory
My research led me to the work of Washington University psychiatrist Robert Cloninger, father of Cloninger’s Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI). I was struck by Cloninger’s finding that traits of temperament are innate and largely immutable, while the traits that make up what he called character are malleable and develop in response to experience and free will.
Personality, in Cloninger’s model, is comprised of seven key traits—four of temperament and three of character. When I compared the four genetically preset traits of temperament with the findings of researchers studying the role of personality in anorexia and bulimia, I immediately saw why people with eating disorders tend to have so much else in common, even when they are doing well.
The Four Traits of Temperament
1. Novelty Seeking determines our appetite for new experiences and excitement. Typically, people prone to restricting anorexia are low in novelty seeking, those who become bulimic moderate to high.
2. Harm Avoidance sets our capacity for risk-taking. Most people with anorexia are risk-averse, therefore high in harm avoidance, while people with severe bulimia are usually lower in this trait.
3. Reward Dependence shapes our need to please others—to feel rewarded by approval. Restricting anorexia, in particular, tends to reflect low reward dependence, while people with bulimia trend high.
4. Persistence determines our ability to work toward long-term goals. Anorexia and moderate bulimia correspond to high levels of persistence, while severe bulimia skews lower.
If one thinks of temperament as the genetic wiring of personality, then character consists of the circuit boards that route, suppress, or facilitate the messages carried by those wires. In other words, character is one of the mechanisms by which we manage temperament. When we maximize this mechanism, it helps our temperament work to our advantage, resulting in healthier, more productive lives. When we ignore or suppress the three traits of character, that’s when problems occur. The more closely I now examined these traits, the more convinced I became that anorexia and bulimia are, in fact, indicators of the collapse of character.
What Cloninger called character bore no resemblance to my anorexic version. I’d viewed character as moral status, labeled “good” or “bad” according to how much mess, demand, or noise one made in the world—less always being better. Cloninger, instead, defined character by the ways we open ourselves to the world.
The Three Traits of Character
1. Self-directedness can be measured by the degree of meaningful purpose we feel in our lives. This sense of direction has less to do with what we want than with why we want it. Two young women apply to graduate school: the one who lacks self-directedness applies because her best friend is going or because her parents want her to, while her self-directed classmate loves marine biology so much that she wants to spend the next two years studying the inner workings of tide pools. Highly self-directed people are realistic about their abilities, effective in their choices, and take pride in their accomplishments. They can enjoy independence without becoming alienated.
2. Cooperativeness makes us feel part of society. Highly cooperative people find that their personal passions and talents flourish within group situations. Cooperativeness allows our young marine biologist to appreciate that working with a team will enhance her chances of making break-through discoveries. Through cooperation she’s also more likely to develop her capacity for empathy, tolerance, and compassion, as well as a healthy perspective on herself.
3. Self-transcendence allows us to feel connected to the larger universe. Self-transcendence gives us faith and alleviates fear. Self-transcendence allows our grad student to lose herself in wonder at the natural beauty of the sea, to feel connected to the most minute microorganisms she is studying, to marvel at the perfect complexity of life at her fingertips. “Individuals high in Self-Transcendence,” Cloninger wrote, “recognize the beauty and meaning in sensory experiences intuitively.” That meaning transcends what one owns, eats, lacks, fears… or weighs.
The longer I thought about these traits, the more I began to suspect that the value I had placed on self-discipline and stoicism was a reflection not of my character at all, but of my temperament. I was born cautious, careful, wary of others and comforted by rules. That did not mean, however, that I had to turn against myself or that my wariness of others condemned me to isolation. My recovery, I now realized, had depended on my ability to manage my temperament. At 21, when I was finally too sick of the hunger and loneliness to maintain my anorexia, I’d forced myself back into the world to test myself in love, take chances professionally, risk the loss of control implicit in pregnancy and motherhood. Without even realizing it, I was building character.
Now I saw how those same three circuits—self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence—could help prevent relapse during periods of high stress or anxiety. If I reached out to the people who cared about me, I would not fall back into isolation. If I trusted the passions for literature, teaching, photography, swimming, and walking that sustained me when all was well, they would sustain me through the dark days.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” is a Nietzsche quote that I embraced during my anorexic years. But Nietzsche also wrote, “The thought of suicide is a powerful solace.” I no longer agree with either sentiment. What makes us stronger—and gives us solace—is the sense of purpose, connection, and perspective that grows with genuine character.
Aimee Liu’s memoir of anorexia, Solitaire, was first published in 1979. This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, to be published by Warner Books in February, 2007.
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Today
Fall 2006 Volume 4, Number 4
©2006 Gürze Books