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  • Dina Cohen

Recovery's Secret Ingredient (And It's Not Motivation)

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Many people believe that motivation is a prerequisite to eating disorder recovery. Conventional wisdom says it has to be. How else can you do something so difficult? But the fact is that there is something much more powerful than motivation - and that is commitment. Essentially, commitment is doing the thing you said you would do even when you don't want to do it. While it is wonderful if you do feel motivated in your recovery, it's important to know that it's also ok if you don't. What you really need is commitment.

The fact is that some people will not be motivated to live a recovered life. And even if you are, that motivation may wax and wane depending on how you feel that day. So it's important to know that you don't have to be motivated in order to achieve recovery. It is possible to decide to change your behaviors for another reason entirely. Your reason to change can be as unique as you are and it doesn't have to fit any particular narrative. Ultimately, what matters is your commitment. This is beautifully expressed in the following piece sent to me by a remarkable former client:

My journey was not always about recovery; it rarely is.

Eating disorders are the unreliable narrators of our lives, and with anorexia came a lengthy list of rules and the belief that my worth was tied to my ability to follow them. My reality quickly became a blur of numbers, calculations, distorted views, and a labyrinth of confusion, leading me down a path of torment and despair. For many years, my mind spun a web of resistance, a chain of conditions that I convinced myself were prerequisites to willingly taking that first step that would lead toward living a life of recovery. For a while, I remained certain that I could not recover without the motivation to live a completely recovered life. That belief did not come from nowhere; it was planted in my head by treatment providers, family, and friends, and of course, the eating disorder, which was determined to keep a firm grip on every aspect of my life.

Recovery is hard; it is brutal. With every recovery-oriented decision that I made, my eating disorder reminded me that turning back was still an option, and many times, I listened. I gave up and rationalized my actions by believing that recovery wasn't worth a shot if I didn't truly want it. The truth is, recovery did not seem like the light at the end of an endlessly dark tunnel. I never felt the spark of hope and enthusiasm to challenge those unhealthy beliefs and eradicate the behaviors that were tearing my body apart, limb by limb.

So, I learned that if you don’t listen to your body when it whispers, you are going to have to hear it scream, and scream it did. When the eating disorder seeped into every crack and crevice and my misery bled through my tough skin, I learned that motivation need not be the prerequisite to making recovery-focused choices. I learned that I do not need to want recovery with every fiber of my being to take the plunge and just do the next right thing. When I grew sick and tired of my eating disorder stealing the light from my eyes, the air from my lungs, and the bounce in my step, I learned that I will never always be motivated, so I must learn to be disciplined.

I abolished the expectation of loving my body, or even tolerating it, and began to nourish it despite the disgust that I felt when I saw my reflection. My motto became, I would rather hate my body at home than hate it just the same in a hospital bed. Because, the truth is, at that point, the possibility of feeling at home in my body was unconvincing. My first step toward living a life that was so much more than the hell that anorexia brings was this very realization. It wasn’t a light bulb moment where I suddenly changed my perspective and threw my eating disorder to the wind. My journey toward food freedom was a series of brutal choices, of moments where I so badly wanted to throw in the towel and allow anorexia to call the shots. My recovery is a constant streak of just doing the next right thing and the next right thing again.

My story will never be a fairytale of sudden and complete transformation; it is a testament to the power of discipline and resilience of the human spirit. Eating disorders have a way of convincing us that recovery is impossible or that recovery is unattainable for us. But choosing to prioritize our physical and emotional needs over the endless rules and restrictions planted in our minds by the eating disorder or diet culture in general, means making tough choices and taking tiny baby steps towards a better future even when we don’t feel motivated or inspired. It means recognizing that we can nourish and care for our bodies even if we don’t like them. Motivation is not the prerequisite for starting; what’s important is taking one step at a time, doing the next right thing, and repeating this process until we learn to quit counting calories and begin counting memories instead.

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