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February 10, 2016 10:00 AM EST

I grew up with best friends who, to this day, are no bigger than a size 2. Don’t get me wrong: My size 6 to 8 is by no means big. But try telling that to an adolescent with tiny best friends who’s subject to constant messaging that women have to be skinny to be beautiful. Not exactly a recipe for confidence in a young woman. Regardless, I did pretty well, at least relatively speaking.

But while I didn’t “hate” myself, I didn’t know what it meant to really love myself, either.

When I was 26, I dropped from a size 6 to a size 00. I was going through what I’d call a quarter-life crisis, thanks to a career I had worked my head off for but hated, a “perfect” relationship that I found stifling and the opposite of clarity about where my life was going. My life felt out of my hands, and the only way I knew to regain some measure of control was to work out tirelessly, eat next to nothing and net about 300 calories a day.

Did I mention I dropped 30 pounds in two months?

While I looked close to perfect by societal standards, I felt imprisoned in my body. Every decision I made depended on how many calories I would be taking in or whether or not I would be able to work out that day.

It got to the point where I sprained my ankle and just wasn’t recovering. It wasn’t until I started putting on weight and eating a normal, healthy diet that I started to heal—and it hit me that I’d been starving my body to the point where it couldn’t repair itself.

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What I eventually came to realize is that counting calories and feeling guilty after eating something I truly enjoyed were just subtle forms of self-hate.

While my issues with my ankle were definitely a wake-up call that something had to change, ultimately I saw I just couldn’t keep living the way I was living. It finally dawned on me: What was the point of all this painstaking effort to stay skinny if I was still so unhappy?

I thought that once I lost weight I’d be happy. But I finally figured out that I had to focus on happiness, not any one thing that would supposedly lead me there—and especially not something as trivial as being skinny. The problem was never with my weight or the way I looked; the problem was that I was completely out of touch with my most fundamental needs.

I had no idea what I really wanted out of life, and I kept allowing others’ opinions of me to dictate my every move.

I’m now a size 6 and 140 pounds. Would I like to see the number on the scale go down? Sure, there’s still that part of me that thinks a slightly lower weight would be ideal.

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But I would so much rather eat what I want when my body wants it (who cares if I want tuna fish for breakfast or if I have a second piece of cake?). I’m happy to say I now have a career as a life coach and a yoga instructor, jobs that are truly aligned with who I am and what I believe. I’m finally able to focus on my health and how I feel, not how I think my body “should” look. And most importantly, I’ve stopped being so mean to myself. These are the things that make me truly happy—and I’d never sacrifice that just to lose 10 pounds.

Alexis Bethel is the founder of Balance by Alexis Life Coaching, an owner and yoga instructor at Studio Ohana and the director of wellness for Inner Glow Circle. She lives with her husband and two Boston Terriers in Nassau, Bahamas.

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