MOTIVATION IN EATING DISORDER RECOVERY
There are some questions around motivation in eating disorders that I get asked regularly- how do we find it; how can we hold on to it and can we actually recover without it?
Eating Disorder recovery is a journey we go through to recover (or find) our physical and mental health-but it’s such a challenging process, it changes us and strengthens us in ways we couldn’t imagine. I’ve often said I wouldn’t wish an eating disorder on anyone (although there are a number of people I wish could experience it from the inside for a few weeks) but once you have got through it, you will be amazed and by the high tensile strength of your mind and character.
Since Eating Disorder recovery is such a challenging process, it’s natural to look for motivation, to keep you focused through the tough times; As with anything, knowing your ‘why’ can get you through the ‘how’, even when it’s difficult.
One quick point to make here is that nobody’s motivation for anything is at the same level all the time. There are some days when something feels natural and even easy, and other days when the same thing can feel like torture. You can multiply this natural ‘ebb and flow’ by about a thousand when you’re dealing with something as challenging as recovery.
NEGATIVE MOTIVATION HOLDING US BACK
Motivation is already working to keep us stuck in our eating disorders.
Most theories of motivation show us that motivation comprises autonomy, mastery and purpose.
An eating disorder gives us a false sense of autonomy or control. I know I felt an almost pure sense of focus and control every time I decided not to eat, and it feels so crazy thinking about that now. it can be a real struggle to realise that while restricting, we are not actually being in control of our lives and our choices: if we were genuinely in control, we could return to ‘normal’ non-restrictive eating whenever we wanted.
Mastery is the desire to get better and better at something. We need to know we’re good at something, that we are special or unique in some way. More clients than I can count have told me “my eating disorder was the only thing I was ever good at” or “it’s the only thing that makes me special”. The eating disorder has given them a sense of mastery. Again, though, this distorted and potentially lethal ‘mastery’ ultimately leads to significant health and relational problems.
Purpose When we’re struggling with an eating disorder, it takes over our entire identity and we lose any connection to the world around us. In the same way that a healthy and balanced us may feel our purpose is to help others, or to advocate for the voiceless, our purpose shrinks down to continuing with the behaviours and be the best at our eating disorder. Recovery requires getting reconnected to the world, your place in it, your identity and your purpose. I started doing this by volunteering, but the steps to reconnection are different for everyone.
So, in the face of this negative motivation working to keep us in our eating disorder, how do we find the motivation to recover? And do we actually need it?
DO YOU NEED MOTIVATION TO RECOVER?
The short answer is no. If you’re waiting for that magical moment when the clouds part and you suddenly really get it, sorry, but chances are very high that you’re never going to get started. Motivation to recover does help, but it’s not essential to start the process. The most important first step towards recovery (in anorexia) is weight restoration. The desire to recover will increase, along with the ability to do the opposite of what your eating disorder wants you to do, as weight restoration progresses. This is an important step towards recovery.
I’ve had clients who have moved back in with their parents and negotiated support to make sure they keep eating, regardless of their motivation; it can also work with partners and spouses. Handing over control to anyone when you’re an adult, (let alone an adult with an eating disorder) can be problematic, and loved ones who take on this role can sometimes benefit from coaching to help.
Sometimes, we can think motivation is having a really clear picture of what life will look like at something specific point in the future (although it can be, I’ll touch on that later) and we can feel hopeless if we don’t have that. Knowing what you don’t want anymore can be enough to keep you eating, and thus moving forward.
It’s unlikely there is no motivation to recover in our life: but it may not always be easy to identify
MOTIVATION TO RECOVER
Extrinsic motivation comes from someone or something outside yourself; It’s often the reason people start the recovery process in the first place and can be more readily available. This can be a really good source of motivation because it’s more likely (though not inevitably) going to be a constant. A very powerful extrinsic motivator can be important relationships or figures in our lives, like a child or a pregnancy; I felt a strong motivation to stay in recovery for my mum (along with some other reasons-like being sick of feeling lonely all the time).
So many of us with an eating disorder struggle with low self-esteem and it can be hard to believe you will ever recover, or even that you deserve recovery, and a healthy, complete life. During these times, we can find motivation from people who have been through the process and recovered, or from others struggling through the process. You can think of the people who are supporting you and want you to recover, and think of how your recovery will positively impact them; remember, you won’t lose the connection you have with these people when you recover-it will be a deeper, positive connection.
For other types of extrinsic motivation think of the classic ‘carrot’- we can be strongly motivated by praise, reward and recognition, and these can vary in the effect they have from day-to-day.
Intrinsic Motivation is behaviour that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behaviour arises because the behaviour is naturally satisfying for you. This is a tricky one in eating disorder recovery, because you’re dealing with a mental illness and you have the negative motivation in place, as mentioned earlier. Intrinsic motivation is preferable, because it’s your recovery, and the process is lengthy and hard, but it’s a bloody slippery thing to get and hold on to. In those moments when you’re really feeling the intrinsic motivation, (such as being ready to have that second slice of cake), act on it, and act on it quickly-before the ED voice can talk you out of it. before The more wins you have like this, the greater mastery you gain over your recovery, the higher your intrinsic motivation will be.
Exercises to Enhance Motivation:
There are some great exercises to help enhance intrinsic motivation.
One powerful one I learned in MANTRA training, that can help you focus on your purpose and increase your motivation, involves writing a letter to a good friend perhaps 2 or 5 years from now, written from the perspective that you have fully recovered from your eating disorder and what your life is like without it.
Another exercise to enhance intrinsic motivation, try thinking about the past and think some things your eating disorder stopped you doing; think about the special occasions you missed out on because there would have been food involved and the time spent mentally disengaged and isolated from others due to obsessing about food, weight and appearance; think about the physical discomfort from the eating disorder (the coldness, constant tiredness, the aching and soreness); try and visualise in as much as detail as you can specific and vivid moments that can help you get in touch with the unpleasantness of the eating disorder. I know this can be distressing, but it can help focus on the need to get the eating disorder out of your life.
Then think about the future, a future free of the eating disorder. If it weren’t in your life, what could you do? All those hours spent obsessing about food, and your rituals and routines, what would you do with those? Would you get your degree? spend more time with your family? Take up painting or write a novel? Allow your mind to wander briefly towards this future without this Eating Disorder. Use your imagination to try and create vivid, detailed images of the life you could possibly have if the Eating Disorder were not there taking up all your mental space and energy. You can do anything because you will also have that high tensile strength of your mind and character.
AND JUST A FEW EXTRA THOUGHTS
Do what you can and do it today. Don’t wait for it to feel easier tomorrow and don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by things you’ve read online. Your recovery is exactly that, your recovery and doing what you can is certainly better than doing nothing at all. Maybe you can’t commit to doing everything that it takes for your recovery right now, but make a commitment to do something, anything for your recovery. Try and remember that 3 steps forward and 2 steps back is still quite a few steps forward.
Also try to not to lose your motivation if something doesn’t go to plan. We often write off the whole day because we think, “oh I already messed up so that’s the whole day ruined”. The all-or-nothing thinking is common for those of us struggling with eating disorders. Rather than see the whole day as a failure, draw a line under that moment or event and reset. Every time we struggle with something it can tell us what we need to change or approach differently next time. If something went especially well, write it down to look back at it on days of lower motivation to remind yourself of what worked.
Get help as soon as you can, whatever form that may take for you, even if you’re not fully convinced you have the right sort of motivation yet. It’s OK to dip your toe in the pool of recovery, and your supporters hopefully will be able to help you cultivate your fledgling motivation. Don’t wait for things to get worse, because they will. Start the process of recovery now, even if you aren’t fully certain about what your recovery will look like. The vision of life free of your eating disorder will start to become clearer and more detailed the further you go in the process, and you start to feel that recovery really is possible for you.