By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT

Mixed feelings about recovery is a normal and expected part of the process. Eating Disorders often play a complex role in the life of the one who suffers. While it brings much pain and isolation, it also has typically served a purpose in helping the person cope with painful life experiences. For some people, the eating disorder has been something that has helped them survive deep emotional pain. The thought of giving up something that has been there in a time of need can be a confusing proposition. There is often a feeling of wanting to stop engaging in behaviors, yet also recognizing that there is some benefit in them at the same time. They serve some kind of purpose.

Most likely, the eating disorder has been working quite well as a way to cope- until it starts to create new problems.

These conflicting feelings make perfect sense when you start to explore your story of how the eating disorder developed and you discover the meaning behind it for you personally. While obsession with food, fat, losing weight, or exercising are quite often turned to in an attempt to feel better, these become the very things that brings more pain.

Committing to the goals set out by the treatment team might feel counterintuitive, painful, and quite frankly, impossible. If you are seeking treatment, you may understandably feel conflicted about committing to goals like stopping purging, gaining weight, or eating intuitively.

The eating disorder quickly can become a defining aspect of one’s identity. One might wonder who they are without it. One might wonder if they want to be without it. These feelings need to be respected and engaged with deeply in order to keep moving forward in recovery.

Here are some ideas about working through ambivalence in the recovery process:

  • Acknowledge Your Ambivalence: Start with acknowledging the feeling. You might, at the same time, want recovery and be uncertain if you want recovery. That feeling is there. It just is. Try not to categorize it with a value judgment of bad or good. Just allow the feeling to be there. Know that this is common, especially in the early days of recovery or entering a treatment program. Now the second step in acknowledging it, is to acknowledge it in the presence of a supportive person. This can be a parent, therapist, or in the context of a therapy group. It is important to acknowledge it, not only to yourself, but to another who can help as you and keep you accountable as you move through it.
  • Explore Meaning: Take the time to explore how the eating disorder developed. What function has it been serving for you? What have you been using it to cope with? What is the meaning you make of having it in your life? This is important to understand both the pain and the value it has brought and honor both of those things in order to move through it.
  • Develop New Skills: To truly be able to let go of the eating disorder and step fully into a recovered life it is essential to develop new and effective ways of coping with the challenges of life. Collaborating with a therapist to develop a list of new ways of coping is a key component of working with ambivalence. After that list is developed, the next step is starting to practice. In the moments where you typically would be utilizing an eating disorder related behavior to manage a difficult emotion or situation, try something new. Do the opposite and use a positive coping skill. Some ideas are calling a friend, taking a nature walk, playing with an animal, or engaging in a prayer or meditation.

Feeling these opposing forces of wanting to heal and recover, yet not completely wanting to give up the eating disorder is understandable. Considering change and taking steps such as entering treatment or committing to a treatment plan is filled with so many unknowns. It is scary. It can be hard to see an identity beyond the eating disorder.

It makes sense that one would feel conflicting feelings about giving up something that has provided comfort and companionship. Acknowledge that.

But don’t stop there at acknowledgement. Keep going. Explore what an eating disorder means to you. But don’t stop there. Keep going. Explore the possibility of a new recovered identity. Work on new coping skills. Practice them. It won’t go perfectly every time. But don’t stop there. Keep going.