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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

Dealing with recovery lapses

bashful cat

Firstly, no one is granting you special permission to fail.  You’re not getting a free pass from me, or anyone else, to fail in your recovery. The person that’s ideally most concerned with you not experiencing a setback is (hopefully) yourself.

That said, statistics show that a significant percentage of people in recovery have setbacks or relapses along the way. I, personally, prefer to call them lapses. A relapse is a deterioration or worsening of a condition, and as a label, comes with a host of negative and judgemental associations; a lapse is not as potentially big as that: it's a temporary failure of concentration or judgement and is mostly free of potentially disabling judgements.

So, let’s say that you've made a good start in recovery, and you have a lapse.

You're eating regularly, you're having  three meals and two or three snacks every day. You've moved into the healthy weight range and you can almost see the promised land full recovery.

But then, slowly, somehow, you start restricting. Three snacks become two. Instead of two cups of muesli for breakfast, you have one. Instead of a sandwich to start your lunch, you have crackers-I mean, this will stop wasting bread, right? You get up late and it's nearly lunchtime, so that's the morning snack gone. Then of course getting in at 9pm means it's too late for dinner, so a quick protein bar will be just as good. And then, of course,  that single protein bar will be the measure for what you have to eat tomorrow night.

So you've had a lapse.

How Not to Deal with a Lapse

Putting off your recovery

Telling yourself another time, after the summer, after this period of pressure at work, when you're exams are over, would be better.

There’s nothing that says a “better time” will ever come along. Though it may be difficult, there’s no evidence that it will ever be any easier to recover than it is right now, in fact, things may never be as positive for recovery as they are right now. Waiting for your planets to align is not a good plan—there really is no time like the present.


You might deal with your lapse by blaming your family, your partner, study pressure, or just about anything else; that “if” someone else, hadn't acted in a particular way, or hadn’t treated you a certain way, or pressured you with that extra work, you would not have lapsed.

By using blame, you’re trying to convince yourself that it wasn’t you, your lapse was unavoidable – you were “forced” into it. If that were so, your recovery is at the mercy of the world, and you might want to move into a cave from the rest of the world if you want to recover.

Telling yourself that you “can’t handle” recovery.

You might tell yourself that recovery is just too hard, you “can’t stop”, or that compulsions are forcing you to excessive exercise.  Finding recovery hard is not the same as too hard, urges cannot actually force you to exercise compulsively, and you’d be some sort of an anomaly if you were not capable of recovery. Many people have recovered from eating disorders, and you can, too. It’s less of a matter of if you can, than if you will do all that it takes.

Telling yourself you’re not ready.

If you’re already in recovery, it was probably for a very good reason. You may want to remind yourself of why started your recovery in the first place, rather than talk yourself out of seeking freedom from the prison of an eating disorder. Life before you started recovery may feel like it was easier from the perspective of this tough part of your recovery, but trust me, it wasn't.

Seeing your lapse as an "all-or-nothing" disaster.

Saying things like “I’ve blown all that hard work!” and believing this lapse means you’re having to start all over again may make your setback appear to be a shattering, recovery-ending event. Your progress, your hard work, all your "good days" are still there; and you’re really not starting from scratch – you're human, you're imperfect and that's fine. You've had a setback that's all. Go easier on yourself. (see my posts on self-compassion)

How to deal with a lapse

Take responsibility.

Don’t cop out and blame others or circumstances, for what happened. That creates a two-fold problem. First, you’re blaming someone else and that can cause a relationship issue (and that's usually our families or partner), and secondly, it defers you from seeing your own involvement and decisions. Yes, there may be things in a relationship or your job that may be contributing to this cycle, but there's always going to be stress or pressure of some sort. Remember, you can't correct your thinking, actions ad responses if you're busy blaming others.

Learn from the lapse

It’s definitely not a complete loss if you learn something from what happened, and make plans to not have the same situation trip you up in the future. Perhaps you want to avoid certain situations for a while, like big family dinners, or spending a whole week at your parents house. Creating a personal lapse prevention plan with anything that you think will help you deal with the strong emotions, anxiety and urges can be helpful. Ideas for what to include on the plan can include numbers of people you can phone who make you feel better, quotes that inspire you,  goals and reminders of why you're doing this, along with clear ideas (message your recovery coach, go to your support group) that may help if the anxiety really takes hold.

Don’t think of yourself as a failure.

Lapses are events, and they don't reflect on who you are or how things are going to turn out. Learn from the “event”, make the changes you need to and push forward.

Setbacks  can create  clarity on what you didn’t see before, and point you towards things you need to address, like perfectionism or a crippling low self-esteem; and a setback isn't so bad if you learn from it: after all there is no failure, only feedback.

Get input from others

If you’re still struggling because of your setback, reach out to others: your therapist, your recovery coach, your partner, your parents.  Many of us with eating disorders tend to isolate during rough periods which only makes things worse. When we keep our feelings and emotions locked up inside ourselves, that's when we really fall back on to our eating disorder as a way to cope with or block out those feelings and emotions.

Look after yourself

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, look after yourself. Often people with eating disorders spend their time people pleasing and taking care of others and neglecting their own needs. Taking some time for yourself can be really therapeutic, so think of something you enjoy and find relaxing, like listening to some music, reading a book, going on a nature walk or taking a long bath; it really doesn't matter what it is, as long as it's done just for you.

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