5 Ways to Overcome Ambivalence in Eating Disorder Treatment & Recovery

By Casey Shamy, LSW

Eating Disorder Treatment Ambivalence

Ambivalence is a state of simultaneously holding contradicting emotions or thoughts about something. It can also be thought of as being “torn” between two things or ideas. In terms of an eating disorder, ambivalence describes the experience of being undecided or hesitant about treatment or recovery.

Alternating between embracing treatment and recovery and maintaining your eating disorder can be confusing, but ambivalence toward treatment is common. Disordered eating behaviors serve as a coping mechanism for negative experiences and overwhelming emotions, and it can be nerve wracking to give up what you’ve become accustomed to. An eating disorder can feel safe, making it difficult to free yourself from the hold your eating disorder.

While you may understand that your eating disorder causes you to be tired and feel ill, recovery is a big uncertainty that scares you. While you want the anxiety and pain to end, you might not feel ready to challenge your behavior and attitudes. While you feel as though you have control over your life through your eating disorder, you may also feel like you’re progressively losing your control. These are all completely normal thoughts and feelings to have towards recovery.

Overcoming Ambivalence in Eating Disorder Recovery

Overcoming ambivalence is one of the first steps in your recovery journey. You can address your hesitation toward treatment by taking some time to work through your assumptions about and perspective on recovery.

Name Your Feelings & Fears

You want to make the abstract concrete by naming your feelings and fears. At first starting your recovery journey can feel overwhelming and uncomfortable, but you can calm your mind by exploring your thoughts and feelings about why you’re uncertain about treatment. Writing down these feelings, whether as an essay or in bullet points, can provide a physical, organized representation of what’s in your mind.

This is also an opportunity to outline any practical barriers that exist between you and treatment, like financial considerations, responsibilities to family, pets or dependents or time off from school or work.

Explore Your True Values

Eating disorders can distort and keep you away from your true values. Eating disorders often come at a cost by robbing you of the things you enjoy – relationships, activities, places and accomplishments. Explore what you value the most and how your eating disorder keeps you from living those values. What would you gain by embracing recovery? Reflect on this and allow it to strengthen your commitment towards your recovery journey.

Set Realistic Expectations for Recovery

Recovery isn’t linear, and it’s more common to experience setbacks than to not. There is nothing shameful about taking a step back, re-entering treatment or moving up to a higher level of care. Every relapse or setback is a learning opportunity, and over time you will learn more about yourself, grow and adapt.

You will not be healed overnight and it might feel a lot worse before it gets better. You will experience many uncomfortable emotions and it might be scary at first, but it will get easier. As you navigate recovery, you will learn new coping mechanisms, skills for managing your emotions and challenge how you think.

Lean on Your Support System

Your loved ones and treatment team are there for you to lean on. They are waiting on the sidelines for the moment you think you want to throw in the towel and give up, chosen by you to be the ones to encourage you to keep going.

Open up about how you feel ambivalent and see how they may be able to help. Maybe you need a friend to listen to how frustrated you are with recovery, a provider to refer you to treatment or a partner to help lighten your load at home so you can put more energy towards recovery. Whatever you might need, you and your support system can figure it out together.

Be Kind to Yourself

Recovery is a difficult process and it won’t always be easy. Being kind, patient and compassionate with yourself will go a very long way. There will be times where you don’t just feel ambivalent about recovery, but about yourself. When you find you’re thinking negatively about yourself, take a moment to remind yourself:

  • It’s okay to struggle.
  • It’s okay to be flawed.
  • Judging myself harshly will not improve the situation.
  • This is an opportunity to grow.

Ultimately, an eating disorder can prevent you from living the full life that you deserve. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, consider reaching out for help. Full recovery is always possible, and you deserve it. While it may not feel like it now, there will come a day when recovery feels natural.

Written by

Casey Shamy, LSW

Casey Shamy serves as Director of Marketing of ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders and Severe Malnutrition, bringing an essential fusion of clinical and behavioral health marketing experience to her…

ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

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