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Redefining Recovery as the Glory of Winning: A Clinical Perspective

Written by Dr. Gia Marson

Athletes have a singular focus. They strive to win. When I work with them on the psychological aspects of their sport, I am awed. They have great capacities–for endurance, optimism, repetition, attention to detail, drive, tolerating discomfort, persistence, and learning. Up against exhaustion, boredom, pain, frustration, failure, and tough opponents, athletes keep their minds on training, success, and winning. Recovery from an eating disorder requires these same strengths, but there is so much more at stake.

What if you envision the eating disorder as a challenging opponent? Rather than looking for who to blame, take an effective path. Replace stigma, guilt and judgment with facts and strategy. That way, you can direct precious energy resources to confronting the facts of the illness and concomitant behaviors. The concept of winning is universal and easy to grasp. Connecting recovery with the idea of winning may boost your ability to remove self-blame, shame, and stigma from your language of recovery. Take a moment to climb down into your childhood memory and remember the feeling of reaching just one milestone. Recall the feeling you experienced after memorizing your multiplication tables, hitting a baseball, writing a story, learning to dive, building a birdhouse, or creating an art project. Can you reach back and touch the pride, the satisfaction, the winning?

The small victories in life, lead to the big ones. Recovery wins are important achievements, too. What if you let them lead you back to that same place in your soul? I understand it is not always this straightforward. Ambivalence may constrain or even enslave you. Unlike an athlete, who knows the goal is to improve and succeed, you may not always be sure. Ambivalence too often comes along for the ride with an eating disorder, and can maintain symptoms for a whole host of reasons: the nature of the illness, genetics, developmental challenges, socio-cultural factors, personality traits or the eating disorder may serve a function, provide secondary gain or even evoke positive attention. Regardless of the underpinnings of your internal conflict, a dialogue rooted in language of becoming-your- best and winning may help you harness a competitive drive to reach, to strive, and to master. Like an athlete, you may be weary from exhaustion, boredom, pain, frustration, failure, and a strong opponent. Such struggles are to be expected in your journey. Failure is not your fault. It presumes no shame. Failure is not an end point. It infers no stigma. Instead, look at what you learned from that failure. Use it as a springboard to try again.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Michael Jordan

Once you set your mind to the goals of mental and physical health, and your internal and external narrative to winning, recovery is still a process. Beyond the winning mindset, many athletes use mental rehearsal or visualization on the road to improvement and mastery. Although scientists may not agree on exactly how it works, mental rehearsal increases the probability of accomplishing a goal. Targeted mental rehearsal has been shown to make a positive difference in a variety of areas. The positive outcomes of visualization are varied, from increasing healthy eating, to improving accuracy of free throws in basketball, to promoting muscle strength in stroke victims. Even Michael Phelps uses visualization as part of his Olympic training and competition routine.

How might visualization help in your recovery–to follow a meal plan, to override an urge to binge eat or purge, to respond to hunger and fullness or to meet a weight restoration goal? Within the space of your mind, a vibrant possibility comes alive in your imagination. Mental rehearsal is a powerful tool, an addition to your toolkit as you create a relationship with food based in health and satiety. In my experience, the more specific and prepared you are with a goal and plans to deal with challenges, the more likely you are to succeed. Recovery is, in part, the outcome of many choices and actions over time that improve predictability and flexibility. As you practice skills such as the structure of meal plans and schedules, increasing variety, eating in restaurants, being active for pleasure, tracking hunger and fullness cues, and learning portions to name just some–how about adding mental rehearsal?

Choose one healthy goal. Do you want to ride out an urge to restrict or purge, eat a meal with friends, or try a fear food? Write out a deliberate, detailed plan of how you will enact your new behavior. Mentally rehearse each step from a first person perspective. See the vivid, detailed actions in your imagination. Experience your emotions as you achieve victory. Rewind and mentally practice it again and again. Then prepare your environment and try the new action. 

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last you create what you will.

George Bernard Shaw

An eating disorders is a formidable competitor, but it is no match for you when you are engaging the power of your mind to its fullest potential. Through the tools of visualization and mental rehearsal, you can turn mental exercises, into small conscious changes, and achieve long-lasting victory. This is a battle you can win.


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