A Talk with CFD Alumnus Molly Bonino: Fighting Perfectionism and Eating Disorders in the Corporate Workplace

Hustle culture puts work at the center of life and emphasizes long hours, promotions and career success as being a person’s identity and self-worth. For some, this fast and aggressive work style can result in eating disorders due to its link with perfectionism. At Center for Discovery, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with Molly Bonino (alumnus of CFD Rancho Palos Verdes and CFD San Diego) about her experience as a high-achieving, aspiring business executive and the way the mindset of hustle culture culminated in an eating disorder. Her story and message for others in toxic work environments, particularly Generation Z, is inspiring. Read our conversation below:

Can you tell us about your life before going to treatment at Center for Discovery?

I started working when I was 17. I was a high achiever. My life was always jumping to the next thing, moving fast, only focusing on my work and achievements. I was throwing everything into professional and academic success and getting affirmation or validation from people without taking care of myself. I was so locked down or rigid to the routines that I had in work or exercise. If I didn’t follow them, it completely ruined my day, made the behaviors worse and drove my negative self-talk. I was isolated and not social at all. I had a superiority complex because I was a 20-year-old working with executives at my job. I was always trying to feel fulfilled by jumping to the next thing, following a path of diet and hustle culture.

How did hustle culture fuel your eating disorder?

I was in a high caliber honors business program in college. My eating disorder wasn’t as much weight-focused – it was more about extreme control.  In college, I struggled to find identity. I was a very intellectual person and had anxiety, so I didn’t necessarily know where I fit in. The first identity that was easy to chase was the hustle culture because I had access to opportunities, and the second was diet culture. Those were my two entities. I associated those identities with perfection and success. Another identity was running. Running requires so much grit and self-discipline. When I was in my eating disorder, I was so aware of what was going on and at the same time, so in denial until I reached out for help. I would spend time reading articles about orthorexia. I was starting to regularly wear athletic clothes, sign up for athletic competitions, and even bought a Peloton. The culture from social media ads and this lifestyle content really got to me. I was already in a super vulnerable spot, so when people gave me affirmation for these things, it became my identity.

What was social media’s influence on your eating disorder?

In my eating disorder, I felt isolated and didn’t have an identity, so it was easy to be trapped by social media. I knew this was all bad. I could read any article about hustle culture at any time. I was so deep in the eating disorder, but I was so consumed by the voice that it didn’t matter. The messages can be so sneaky. On Instagram, the only category that grew for me was “wellness and fitness.” So, the messages came more.  A while back you could download your TikTok data. I was looking at my data after I went through treatment. What came up were “What I eat in a day” or “This is what’s happening in my day” posts. There is so much eating disorder content just flooding.

 What is your life like after treatment?

I’m learning how to still be a high achiever in my career, along with what I went through. I’m learning and understanding some of the externalities and the reality of business, bosses and that not every work environment is perfect. When I started my new role, it was when I had finished my treatment program. I was living with my dad, and I was trying not to just jump into something. It was hard for me to not be in a corporate job. I was in such a mindset of superiority that combines with an eating disorder. People don’t understand how your whole body can go in this mode of running and rigidity and the rigor of work. When I first started this new job, I worked with my therapist and dietitian from CFD. My biggest red flags were going to be if I was overworking, people pleasing or if I felt like I was being taken advantage of.

When I came to my new job, it was such a fantastic environment. When I first started, I was a few weeks in, and my body was still used to the overworking mentality, so there were a few days when I worked 60 hours straight. I didn’t have to do that, no matter what the environment was. My boss called me up and gave me direct, yet compassionate words about overworking. This was a pivotal moment in my journey to find harmony. For the first time, I noticed how I was validated and appreciated as a person, not just as a professional. Since last May, I’ve found more balance, or what I call harmony. Even hustle culture can tokenize the “strive for finding balance” and turn it into another race to “be perfect” or “find balance in the right way.” There is no right way. Even when I first started treatment, I approached healing as another box to check off, wanting to just “get through it” and move on to the next thing, as I typically did. Some nights I work long hours but I had to learn that it’s OK, too. At first, if I worked late again, I felt like there was something wrong and I would shame myself. Now I’m now able to recognize this as the recovering perfectionist part of me that wanted to find the “perfect” way to not “over-work” and know that I’m OK and still healing!

Do you have any advice for those in Generation Z who might be susceptible to eating disorders due to hustle culture?

A lot of young people who are my age or are in Gen Z coming into the workplace are these super driven and focused dynamos and then they get somewhere, work really hard and do what they’re used to from college or high school. But then other things might be going on in their life, and they don’t realize how to handle it, or they just burn out. I was burnt out in that environment, but I was still able to jump into it again and go back to following my goals and the things I wanted to do with my career [after treatment]. If you feel like me, if you feel like it’s impossible for you to walk away or to take a break from work or you make excuses for your job and can’t see that you’re hurting yourself, that’s a red flag in a job. I would tell people that I couldn’t hang out because of work, when really I was only hurting myself.

A lot of times, I felt invalid in “feeling burnt out” so young, asking myself how people stay at companies for years and continue to grind through everyday. Understanding this mindset as one cultivated by hustle culture messages and understanding and validating your individual path and challenges is difficult, but so fulfilling. A major red flag I noticed in my burn-out cycle was isolation and identity found in my work and rigid routines. I would sit at my desk for hours and type away, letting the time melt, or forgetting to take breaks, ultimately building an identity of always being busy and never being able to go to lunch with co-workers or enjoy fun work events. Eventually, my only escapes were running me to empty, as I avoided all interaction and assured myself that I was focused, and “hard-working.” It is important to have friends or co-workers that can hold you to a compassionate culture of accountability with taking breaks and stepping away from the screen.

If you or a loved one find yourself struggling with an eating disorder, Center for Discovery is here to help. Reach out to us today. Our experienced team of clinicians is ready to help you live life free from an eating disorder.

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