Motivation Matters When it Comes to Overcoming an Eating Disorder

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Motivation Matters When it Comes to Overcoming an Eating Disorder

Whether you’re just beginning to address your food problems or have been journeying toward recovery for decades, you’ll need to remain motivated to succeed. That means continuing to want to change more than you want to stay the same. Naturally, the stronger your motivation—the more intensely you want something—the better your chance of sustaining behavioral change.

Motivation may be internal, external, abstract, concrete, short- or long-term, healthy, unhealthy, or a mix of motives. All motivations are not equal and some may even feed into dysfunction. Therefore, it’s helpful to check whether your motives will add to your reservoir of self-esteem.

Internal, External

Pursuing recovery to gain love or approval or to receive some material reward are external motivations. Although there’s nothing wrong with this kind of motivation, it’s a little thin in the sustenance department. You deserve love unconditionally, no matter what your weight or eating habits. Especially when seeking love or approval, you need to be careful not to buy into the destructive belief that these things must be earned by changing how you eat or look.

Internal motivation consists of the changes you make in yourself for yourself—giving up bulimia because you’re ashamed and long to be proud, or not bingeing because mistreating your body diminishes your self-respect. When your motives are internal, they are yours and yours alone; your rewards don’t depend on others and can’t be taken away. On the whole, as long as they’re healthy, internal motivations are generally more effective than external ones.

Concrete, Abstract

Concrete motivators are fine if they improve your well-being and authentically raise your self-esteem. Wanting to lower your cholesterol and struggling to fit into a pair of size six jeans are both concrete incentives, but one is higher quality than the other. Abstract motivations are helpful if they’re rational and sensible. People who are inspired by the image of the person they would like to become, what psychology calls their ego ideal, are often highly motivated by concepts such as learning to love themselves and becoming comfortable around food and free from obsession. However, if you’re working off the assumption that dropping 50 pounds will garner you instant popularity, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Short-term, Long-term

On your recovery journey, you’ll benefit enormously from having both short- and long-term goals. A long-term goal may be to eat whenever you’re hungry, while its precursor might be to recognize the signs of hunger. Or you may be inspired by the idea of eventually eating comfortably and unselfconsciously in social situations. A short-range goal might be to dine with one close friend first, then add a second and a third to gain comfort and confidence.

Long-term goals are important, but also may be overwhelming unless you’re able to inch along by reaching short-term markers along the way. Better to have a slew of short-range goals that will keep you pressing forward than to only have lofty long-range objectives. It will take work to chunk down long-term objectives, but by doing so, you’ll be more likely to achieve each milestone.

Healthy, Unhealthy

You may find it difficult to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy motivations, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time with people who act irrationally and destructively. Without an example of normal, healthy motivations, it is harder to know what’s right for you. You may be growing wiser while the people around you are still acting the same. One way to gauge whether you’re creating healthy goals is to ask yourself if they will enhance your life in the long run. Lasting enhancement is an excellent way to measure your means as well as your ends.

It’s essential that your recovery and goals be based on a sound and solid foundation. You can explore what drives you on the deepest level by writing down your motivations—incentives, expected rewards and outcomes, and short- and long-term goals—and honestly assessing each one. Healthy motivation isn’t all you need to reach your eating goals, but it has the power to launch a successful recovery, get you over the rough spots, and give you that extra burst of emotional energy. Motivation is like food, you have to choose carefully for it to nourish and sustain you for life.

By Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Winter 2007 Volume 5, Number 1
©2007 Gürze Books

About the Author

Karen R. Koenig, LICSW, M.Ed, is a psychotherapist and educator who lives and practices in Sarasota, FL. She is the author of The Food and Feelings Workbook and The Rules of “Normal” Eating.

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