Eating disorders have been termed as thought disorders because of the myriad of intrusive, irrational thoughts that occur every second of every day for those struggling with them. They cause so much distortion that many times, the thoughts in individuals’ minds are lies, but over time, the individual will come to believe them as truth. Eating disorder recovery has a lot to do with how we think about our thinking. We are the only species that has the capability to do so, and there is a lot of power in that.

We hear a lot about a “recovery mindset,” but what does that mean? What does that look like? The most important thing to me is not where the individual is on the path to recovery, but the direction they are going in on that path to recovery; it is so much about choosing the harder right, not the easier wrong. It is about doing better than the previous day. We will all make mistakes. But are we making less of them? Are we not repeating the same ones? Are we learning from them, becoming stronger because of them? How quickly are we bouncing back up after they happen and how resilient are we becoming with each lapse? Recovery is a choice, it can happen. Recovery is not an event – it is a process and a new mindset.

An important aspect of the recovery mindset is that it comes before anything else – work, school, recreational activities, plans for trips, and relationships in the beginning. The disorder will put thoughts in a person’s mind that recovery can come second, third, or worse yet, it can wait until later. It will create justifying thoughts when it comes to an individual’s meal plan and seeing their dietician and therapist. Recovery must come first.

There are three things to look for upon leaving treatment that will reveal when an individual is in a recovery mindset. The first is that eating patterns are improving. Please note that I did not say anything about perfection; the mindset is simply to follow the meal plan. The second thing is personal assertiveness, or, in other words, having a voice in their recovery. This is an individual learning to ask for what they need and setting boundaries with all of their relationships, i.e. providers, spouses, parents etc. The third thing to look for is an ability to express emotions in an age-appropriate manner. There will be many emotions throughout the recovery process and it is imperative that individuals not bottle them up.

When we look at thoughts as fleeting, temporary, and not inherently meaningful, then the power comes from the meaning we put on those thoughts. To simplify, neuroscience reflects the importance of the individual stating and repeating facts – that “you” are not your thinking, that thinking is habitual and subjective and not necessarily reflective of the world around us, and that thoughts are always changing on their own, with no effort required by us; these are essential truths in recovery. I tell patients that their best thinking got them into the situation they are in, and, thus, when their perspective/meaning about their thinking changes, their behaviors will too.

By Mike Gurr, MS, MA, LPC, CDWF, The Meadows Ranch Executive Director