Setting Realistic Eating Disorder Recovery Goals 

By Alexa Rivera

Setting Realistic Goals 

Recovery is a long process, and as you live through and experience your recovery you’ll be in many situations—both in your recovery and in other aspects of your life—where you need to set up goals. Goal-setting is a vital life-skill that allows you to improve and be an active participant in your own life, and realistic goals set you up for success instead of anxiety and disappointment. 

Avoid Common Goal-Setting Mistakes 

The idea of setting up new goals can be so exciting that it’s easy to rush into it and find yourself in the trio of common pitfalls of goal-setting: too many, too large and too unspecific. 

Having Too Many Goals 

When it comes to goal-setting, it’s important to stick to the tried-and-true method of quality over quantity. Having dozens of goals, or even 5 strong goals, can end up competing for your time and focus, making you unable to really achieve any of them. They can also cause more anxiety as you try to track your progress through so many different goals or find yourself unable to meet that many. The rule of thumb is to have 1-3 very strong goals at any given time. 

Making Goals Too Large 

While it’s great to dream big, having a large goal can lead to a lack of focus, feeling overwhelmed and being unable to achieve your goal. A goal like “lead a life in recovery” is amazing, but it’s a complex and lofty goal.  

Having goals like these might be a sign you need to rethink and set up a series of smaller, reachable goals to replace the larger goal. You need to think about where you are and figure out what steps you need to take to get there. Each of those steps should be their own goal. Make sure to give each of these goals your full attention and try not to think far past them, since it can become anxiety-inducing, distracting and counterproductive to think ahead. Remember, you will get there. It just takes time. 

Not Being Specific 

Non-specific goals can be a hinderance as they may not be measurable enough to track your progress in order to achieve them. For example, “improve my mental health,” is a great goal but it’s too unspecific. A more specific version of this goal would be “visiting my therapist every other week” or “reduce my body checking or weighing to once a week.” 

Perfectionism and Goals 

Unfortunately, many people with an eating disorder can be perfectionists, so specific goals with hard numbers have a chance of kickstarting obsession. It’s important to have specific goals, but regularly ask yourself if your goals are causing you negative stress and defeating the purpose of improving your life and getting you to where you want to be. Do you feel motivated to achieve them, or do you feel afraid, concerned and try to avoid it? These could be signs that your goal is causing negative stress and needs to be reassessed.  

One way to have a specific goal without too many hard numbers would be to establish how much you did something previously and make it a goal to do it more or less: 

  • Meet with my therapist more than 15 times this year 

  • Talk to a loved one more than twice this week 

  • Weigh myself less than four times this month 


Setting Achievable Goals 

In order to achieve your goals you need to design them in a way that makes them achievable. Goals should be measurable, reasonable and have a timeline. Some goals, although not every single one of them, should be a serious challenge.  

Keep Goals Measurable 

In order to ensure you’re making progress or if you’re off-track, having a way to measure your goal is essential. If your goal is to “eat bread 3 times this week” or “visit my therapist more than 15 times this year” marking off the days you did on your calendar is a visual representation of your progress. 

Make Your Goals Reasonable

Your goals need to be reasonable, otherwise you’ll find them to be too difficult to achieve and be disappointed when you fail. Ask yourself: 

  • Is this goal physically possible? 

  • Can this goal be achieved realistically in this period of time? 

  • Am I ready for this goal? Am I in the right state of mind or place in my life to achieve this goal? 

Give Yourself a Timeline

Not all goals are long-term goals or year-long resolutions. In fact, most goals are (or should be) short-term. Sometimes having a strong time limit can be good, but it all comes down to how you are, where you are in your recovery and how long you’ve been in recovery. Long-term goals with time limits of six months or a year may not be possible when you’re first starting recovery, and it’s best to work up to long-term goals to make sure they’re productive in your recovery. 

However, time limits for short-term goals are important for progressing through recovery. Some examples are: 

  • Drinking something that isn’t water or coffee once this week 

  • Visit my therapist four times this month 

  • Go to yoga class twice this week 

Take Risks 

It’s important to continue to challenge yourself throughout recovery. You don’t want to get stuck in the safety zone, instead you want to slowly replace your eating disorder voice with more positive voices, and this involves taking risks and pushing yourself with goals like: 

  • Eat bread 3 times this week 

  • Eat cake once this week 

  • Do not weigh myself at all this week 


Coping if You Don't Achieve Your Goal

Sometimes we fail to achieve our goals. And you know what? That’s fine. Maybe you got close, maybe you didn’t get very far or maybe you gave up entirely. Failure is a part of life; it says nothing about you other than you were not able to achieve this specific goal. It doesn’t make you lazy, a bad person or dumb. It makes you human. What’s most important is that you take this as an opportunity to learn and grow. 

Focus on the Takeaways

Take a moment to ask yourself what you learned from this experience. Why did you fail? Was it because you weren’t ready for this step or because it caused you too much stress? How far did you get? Is this goal worth trying again or did you lose motivation because you didn’t have any interest? Was the goal too big or too unspecific? Did you have too many goals during this time?  

There are many things your failure can teach you and it’s up to you to look through your week, month or year and see where you went off track and why you did so you can have all the information you need to make a decision as you move forward. 

Recall Your Purpose

Next you need to remember why you made this goal in the first step. Was it part of a larger goal? What was its purpose? Is there a better way for you to achieve the concept behind the goal? If so, what does that look like? Answering these questions will help guide you to the next step. 

Plan and Take Action

This is the most important part going into your next goal or revisiting your previous goal. Because you failed your last goal, planning is more important than ever. A good foundation can help you set up your next goal and achieve it. Maybe you want to take another try at your goal, or maybe this time you’ll modify it to make it more specific, smaller or more achievable. Whichever route you go, the fact you didn’t give up is what’s important.  



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.

Center of Excellence Logo