What Eating Disorder Recovery Really Looks Like

The goal of going to countless therapy and nutrition sessions when you’re struggling with an eating disorder is to get to the Promised Land – Recovery. But what does recovery look like, and how do you know when you get there?

This is something I love to explore with clients because no two clients answer these questions the same way. For some, they believe that their eating disorder will always be present, but more dormant than active in their thoughts and daily lives. Others believe their eating disorder will disappear and they won’t have to struggle against it forever. Neither answer is wrong – I’ve seen both be true – and I have found that by allowing clients to determine what their future looks like, it makes recovery feel more achievable.

However, there are some signs that we look for as therapists that might indicate we have entered the recovery stage of the journey. While these might not be true for all people, I would say they are true for most.

  1. When urges arise, you are no longer blindly engaging in behaviors. Instead, you’re curious. You might ask yourself why these urges are coming up, and what emotions you’re feeling. Once you determine what need that urge is trying to meet, you are able to talk back to the eating disorder and choose the recovery-oriented behavior.
  2. Foods and eating situations that previously gave you anxiety or made you feel guilty are now neutral. Going out to eat or sitting down with family no longer brings strong emotions, besides joy and gratitude. Eating at Chick-Fil-A feels like a no-brainer as you pull up to the drive through to order your nuggets and waffle fries.
  3. When stressful situations occur, urges may not even immediately arise. Instead, other skills that you have learned to cope with and manage your emotions are utilized, such as calling supports, getting organized or having a good cry.
  4. Therapy sessions are deeper, exploring and processing the issues that are underlying the eating disorder, instead of the eating disorder itself. Nutrition sessions start to feel “boring,” as food rules have decreased, anxiety is no longer present, fear foods are no longer scary, and intuitive eating feels more like the norm than the exception.
  5. Relationships in your life have changed, which sometimes feels fulfilling but sometimes creates its own challenges. Some relationships feel deeper and more authentic as you start to show more vulnerability. Others might feel less comfortable with this “new” version of you that sets boundaries, talks about emotions and engages in behaviors aligned with your values. This does not mean these relationships are over, but they may take more time to feel comfortable.

I don’t make many promises in therapy, but I can guarantee that recovery is worth it. Many of my clients who are in recovery would agree and they would also say that the journey to getting there is incredibly difficult. Eating disorders exist for a reason and confronting that can feel really scary. Allowing yourself to feel emotions when they have been numbed and muted for so long often feels overwhelming at first, but that eventually dissipates as the more your emotions are felt, the less “big” they feel. Recovery provides more mental space for the things in life that truly matter and ensure that you are able to exist in relationships in ways that truly make you feel good. If you’re struggling with why you want to recover, talk to your therapist about it! There’s so much to unpack there, and our job is to help you figure out why recovery will be good for you.