Recovering from an eating disorder is not an overnight process. You don’t just wake up one day, decide to get better, and magically recover at that moment. Rather, recovery is a unique journey that involves five different stages. The first stage, called the Pre-contemplation Stage, involves the individual denying they have an eating disorder and refusing to seek help. The second stage of recovery, called the Contemplation Stage, occurs when the person is able to recognize their problem and is willing to admit that they may have an eating disorder (ED).
If you or a loved one think it is possible that you have an eating disorder, here are some ways you can move forward in your eating disorder recovery journey.
The Contemplation Stage of Eating Disorder Recovery
During the Contemplation Stage, the individual finally recognizes the problem and is willing to admit that they may have an eating disorder. They may also be contemplating the benefits of recovering and are more open to the idea of getting help.
However, during the Contemplation Stage, many individuals are still deeply afraid of letting go of their disorder. This means they often alternate between wanting to recover and wanting to hold on to their disorder and engage in behaviors.
Signs that you or a loved one are in the Contemplation Stage of recovery:
- Realizing something is wrong and being willing to admit it
- Considering the benefits of seeking help and making a change, but still not ready to take action towards recovery
- Learning about treatment options but not yet ready to seek help
While the Contemplation Stage is a huge step forward from the previous stage of denial, it is still a vulnerable period involving fear and anxiety over letting go of the disorder. This can be a frustrating and confusing time for both the person with the disorder and their loved ones as they’ve already admitted they have a problem and can see the benefits of changing, yet they still continue to resist change and fear treatment.
During this time, it is important to remember that the eating disorder is serving a function in the individual’s life (e.g., giving them a sense of control, providing them with a coping mechanism or a place of escape, etc.). And since the disorder serves this important function and feels like their security blanket and friend, it is understandable that the thought of letting the disorder go is extremely scary.
In “Understanding Stages of Change in the Recovery Process,” Sarah R. Brotsky writes that during the Contemplation Stage, “a psychotherapist should assist the individual in discovering the function of her eating disorder so she can understand why it is in her life and how it no longer serves her.
This, in turn, helps the individual in moving closer toward the next stage of change” . So if you or a loved one are considering the possibility that you may have an eating disorder, but the thought of letting the disorder go still scares you, consider seeking help from a psychotherapist.
As you dig deeper and discover what specific function your disorder is serving and consider how the disorder may be harming rather than helping you, you will begin to let go of the fear of change and take a critical step towards full recovery.
How to Help Your Loved One During the Contemplation Stage of Recovery
If your loved one thinks they may have an eating disorder, but they are still not ready to take a step of action towards recovery, here are some ways you can help. Keep in mind that this is a vulnerable stage of recovery and that pushing too hard, forcing treatment, or engaging in long arguments can discourage the progress they’ve already made.
As Carlo C. DiClemente and Mary Marden Velasquez state in “Motivational Interviewing and the Stages of Change,” “Contemplators, who are considering the possibility of making a change but are not quite ready to make a commitment, are resistant to more traditional approaches that encourage (or try to force) them to make changes for which they are not yet ready” .
So keep your conversations calm, try to listen to and understand their point of view, and avoid pleading and arguing. Ways to help your loved one during the Contemplation Stage of recovery:
- Educate yourself about eating disorders (symptoms, treatment options, etc.).
- Encourage them to open up about their thoughts, feelings, and fears of change/recovery.
- Try to understand their point of view.
- If your child is under 18, be firm and insist that they get help from a professional eating disorder specialist.
- If the individual is over 18 and is still resistant to ED treatment, encourage them to start out by seeking help from a psychotherapist.
- Let them know you’ll be there to support them throughout the recovery process.
- Instead of talking negatively about their ED symptoms and behaviors, focus on ways that you can encourage them and boost their confidence. This will reinforce their belief that they can change.
- Remind them that there is no shame in seeking help or admitting they have an eating disorder.
- Show respect for their thoughts and feelings, especially when they talk about wanting to change and recover.
- Ask them their reasons for wanting to change, and encourage them that recovery will be worth it for these reasons and many more.
- Gently reinforce their belief that they need change while still letting them feel in control of the decision.
- Connect with them in areas outside of the eating disorder (enjoy their favorite activity with them, watch a movie together, talk about their interests/pursuits, etc.).
- Gain extra support and guidance by joining a local or online eating disorder support group for family and friends.
It is common for individuals with eating disorders to remain in the Contemplation Stage for quite some time. While this may feel frustrating, remember that this is a necessary step in the journey towards recovery, and with the right help and support, they will continue to make positive progress.
Resources: Brotsky, S. R. (2014, January 27). Understanding Stages of Change in the Recovery Process. Eating Disorders Catalogue. https://www.edcatalogue.com/understanding-stages-change-recovery-process/.  Diclemente, Carlo C., & Velasquez, Mary Marden. (2002). Motivational Interviewing and the Stages of Change. Research Gate. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mary_Velasquez/publication/231081405_Motivational_Interviewing_and_the_Stages_of_Change/links/0fcfd50b5f8c5af70e000000/Motivational-Interviewing-and-the-Stages-of-Change.pdf#page=222
About the Author:
Sarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.
Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published January 20, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 20, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC