Ambivalence in Eating Disorder Recovery

By Rosie Barton, LMSW

The decision to recover from an eating disorder is a challenging one, often fraught with feelings of uncertainty, ambivalence, grief, and fear. For many suffering with an eating disorder, the behaviors can feel like a security blanket and the disorder itself can become part of your identity. While most people seeking recovery are able to connect with reasons that their lives would be better without the disorder—more energy, healthier relationships, fewer distracting thoughts—the actual process of letting it go can be painful. 

Often times in the early stages of recovery, clients are tempted to run back to the familiar arms of their eating disorder. It provides them a sense of distraction and purpose in a world that can feel too overwhelming. I often describe the early stages of recovery through a metaphor. The person attempting to recover is stuck on a tiny raft in the middle of a stormy sea. They can see land and safety in the distance, but it will take a lot of courage to abandon the raft and begin swimming towards it. As they begin swimming, they get stung by jellyfish and the waves crash over their head, making them doubt their ability to make it to land. So they retreat back to the comfort of the raft, still longing for the safety and connection on the land within sight. 

When someone with a restrictive eating disorder begins to follow a meal plan regularly, feelings of guilt and anxiety can become deafening. Making healthy choices goes against everything that the eating disorder tells them to do. So they go back to restriction and the eating disorder behaviors that have been so comforting in the past. They are back on that little raft.

Recovery is very rarely a linear process. Usually someone will go swimming to shore, get scared or overwhelmed, and return to the raft. Eventually, through supportive therapists, friends, family, and their own courage, they will once again be willing and motivated to try and reach the shore. This is a natural part of recovery, and I always encourage clients to acknowledge their desire to return to the eating disorder. What is so compelling about it? How will you feel better if you relapse? Only through exploring this ambivalence can one begin to mourn the loss of the eating disorder and all that it has provided. 

So what do you do when you are swimming to shore and want to go back to the comfort of the eating disorder? To begin with, it’s important to share these feelings and fears with someone you trust. Suffering and fighting alone will only give power to the eating disorder. Part of recovery is the ability to have faith in your treatment team over faith in the eating disorder. It means following a meal plan, despite the urge to compensate for a binge or skip a meal. The more often you can make choices that align with your recovery, despite how scary the unfamiliar waters feel, the closer you will get to believing that the isolated raft isn’t going to save you after all. There might be safety there in an immediate sense, but lasting peace and connection can only be found through braving the journey to shore. And remember- you don’t have to go it alone. 

Rosie Barton is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.