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Unraveling Recovery:Challenging Expectations in Eating Disorder Recovery

Emily DeMalto, May 15, 2024

What does being in recovery from an eating disorder mean? What does it look like? Whether you are thinking about starting your journey or are years into recovery there can be a lot of pressure to “do it right”, for it to look a certain way or to feel frustrated when it does look or feel how we thought it might. So here are six insights about recovery that can help you feel more confident, reclaim your own journey through recovery, practice flexibility, and challenge doubts that might come up along the way. 

Recovery isn’t linear. 

The journey through an eating disorder isn’t exclusively upward. It will be a journey of ups and downs, difficult days, days full of successes, days where we feel like we're just treading water, and times when we recognize that we need more support. It's important to approach the journey with curiosity...What might bring up particular challenges? What barriers exist? what makes you feel supported? What are unexpected successes? These are all important observations and when we stop approaching recovery with the expectation or mindset of perfection, we allow ourselves to explore, use creativity and flexibility and hold compassion for ourselves throughout the experience. This approach can help sustainability and reduce burnout during the recovery journey.

Recovery is about making “the next right choice” not always making the right choice. 

Sometimes looking at the horizon can become daunting. We look at how far we have to go towards our goals and feel a sense of overwhelm. “Maybe I’ll never get there”, “I’m exhausted, I can’t keep putting effort into this.” This is when it can be helpful to look at “what is the next right choice”.  Rather then look out at the big picture, it can make things simpler to just focus on what’s next, what is immediately in front of you and act on that. 

Recovery is a verb.

Recovery is action. Sometimes, because recovery isn’t linear, it can feel like we doubt ourselves when we experience challenges in recovery or even feel like we’re “faking it” when the eating disorder voice is loud or when there are moments when we act in alignment with the eating disorder voice. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not in recovery, that you’re faking it, or that you don’t want recovery. Being in recovery is about what you decide to do next.  

Recovery looks different for each person, and it might even look different then you originally thought it would. 

Being in recovery looks different for everyone. What that looks like and means might look different and that's ok. Your recovery is your journey and we need to be cautious about comparing ourselves to others. What we see from others and on social media, (even posts meant to be uplifting) can be challenging when they make us doubt our own journey. Recovery isn’t meant to be aesthetic content and that's ok if yours doesn’t feel like that. 

Finally, recovery might even look different then you thought it would. Mental health challenges change us, and recovery isn't about “getting back to how you were prior to the eating disorder.” It’s about healing, mourning the version or parts of ourselves that we need to let go of or grieve, and uncovering the person who we’ve become through the journey of hurt, healing, and growth. 


Anything you prioritize over your recovery, you risk losing. 

Recovery from an eating disorder is a complex process that requires dedication. It can be tempting to want to jump back into “our old lives'' and we can often feel like we “don’t have the time” to divert energy from jobs, school, hobbies, or family.  However, within the process of recovery, we’re addressing not only the physical realities of an eating disorder, but also the underlying psychological and emotional factors that contribute to disordered eating behaviors. Trying to split our attention and energy too many ways can make it challenging to give recovery the attention it needs. When treating clients who had taken time from many priorities, it can feel like we need to “get back to things” in the same way we were interacting with responsibilities prior to recovery and that by taking the time to slow down and focus on what we need to do to set us up in a solid base for recovery, we’d be falling behind in other areas of our life. This can lead to struggling to find a foothold in the recovery work and losing even more time in the areas of life that also mattered and becoming burnt out and frustrated. 

Prioritizing over recovery from an eating disorder can perpetuate harmful patterns of behavior and reinforce distorted beliefs about food, weight, and body image. Recovery needs to become intertwined, not managed separately, in other areas of life. We’re creating lifelong change of patterns, belief systems, values, and priorities. It isn’t something that can be “managed on the side”. 

Recovery is going to take a lot longer than you think it will. 

You’re ready for change, you want to be better for yourself, and you’ve realized that the eating disorder is hurting you. Sometimes we think recovery should feel like healing a broken bone, especially in the early stages. You put a cast on, wait a month or two, and the bone is repaired, the cast is removed, and your arm is no longer injured. A recovery journey is often much more nuanced, involving layers of change and healing. This journey can take longer than expected and is one where having grace and patience for yourself is vital. After all, the eating disorder didn’t develop overnight, in fact the groundwork and belief systems were likely established far before the actual disordered behavior around food. 

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