Setting Reasonable Goals For Eating Disorders Recovery
Contributed Article by Michelle Morand, MA, Founder and Director of The CEDRIC Centre
I’ll bet you know something about goal setting. I’d actually be willing to bet that you’re very good at setting yourself goals each and every day about what you’ll eat, what you won’t eat, when, how much exercise you’ll do, how much sleep you’ll get, whose call you’ll return and how much you’ll get done at work or around the house. Chances are, you’re really skilled at setting goals. But how often do you actually follow through with them? How often do you get to the end of your day feeling peaceful and relaxed that you achieved what you had asked of yourself that day?
If, more often than not, you reflect on your day, and hear the Drill Sgt.’s critical voice in your head pointing out your shortcomings, it’s a good indication that you did not achieve the goals you set for yourself that day. Same goes for those of you who wake up in the morning to the Drill Sgt. telling you what you will and won’t do that day to make up for what you did/didn’t do the day before.
Okay, so, we know that setting goals is a problem, but what do we do about it? Certainly I’m not asking you to stop setting goals altogether. How would you ever get anywhere? How would you ever achieve your goals for health, for career, for relationships, if you just stopped setting them?
Reasonable goals, those things that we ask of ourselves that we can actually achieve in the time frame we set. Reasonable. Not outrageous; not inappropriate; just reasonable, i.e. manageable within the context of a whole, balanced, happy, life.
You see, it’s great to know what you want to achieve and to have goals for the big picture. It’s not so great to set unrealistic expectations of what you can do in a day, or even how far you can get in your healing with food and with your self-esteem.
Unrealistic expectations just lead us to fail and to feel like failures which triggers unmet needs, which triggers the learned helplessness, which triggers anxiety/overwhelm/depression, which triggers procrastination, isolation, avoidance, and of course, binging, purging, restricting (anorexia, bulimia, overeating), which typically triggers the Drill Sgt. to re-double his efforts to make you achieve your goals through his standard approach of motivation through shame/blame/and criticism.
The key lies in the above definition of reasonable goals: Goals you can attain within the time frame you set for yourself while still maintaining balance in all the other areas of your life.
The kinds of goals you set for yourself these days, if you’re using food to cope, are likely fairly all-or-nothing ones, meaning you likely put all your energy, focus, emotions, and time into achieving one goal in one area of your life (i.e. No way in hell am I eating anything that isn’t on my diet today!) at great cost to your self-care, to your relationships with others and, worst of all, because no one can succeed setting goals that way, you diminish your self-esteem and feel like a failure. And this is all because you tried, as best you knew how, to motivate yourself to achieve a goal that you really believe(d) was fundamental to your happiness and help yourself.
The truth is, any goal that forces you to compromise your self-care, your relationships with others, and your self-esteem (even momentarily) in order to achieve it, is an unreasonable goal and will lead you to that same old feeling of failure and that same mini-lecture from your well-meaning Drill Sgt. Ironically, this means that, despite your intentions to reach your goal as quickly as possible (and thus your pattern of setting these unmanageable goals), you actually experience a setback almost daily, which undermines your confidence in yourself and takes you a lot longer to get where you’re going, if you ever do.
So, if you’d like to never again lie in bed at night ruminating on your many flaws and failures and what you’re definitely going to do differently the next day, here’s the trick to setting reasonable goals. For starters, for each key area of your life career; home; partnership; friendship; family; parent; individual; volunteer; hobbies, etc., identify what it is you’d like to see in each of those areas in order to feel truly content and fulfilled like you were living the life you were meant to live.Then clearly identify where you are now in relationship to that goal. Now, identify one step you can take towards achieving that goal. Now, break that step in half. And half again. Now, you have a reasonable goal, something you can probably do within a short period of time that will allow you to feel some sense of achievement, momentum and clarity towards your ultimate goal. You also now have a clearer idea of what the next steps will be, when you’re ready, to get you to that ultimate goal.
Let’s try one around food: Ultimate goal, to never ever use food to cope again and to be a natural weight for my body without effort! Yeah!!
Where I am now: Eating when I’m not hungry at least once a day, most days of the week.
What’s one step I could take towards that goal?
I am only going to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full tomorrow. (Here’s where your old, Drill Sgt., all-or-nothing brain will get in the picture with his let’s get there as fast as we can, regardless of the consequences or likelihood of success mentality that gets in the way. Your first step is actually the goal achieved. It’s not a first step at all. If you could have a whole day with no overeating, don’t you think you would? You’re doomed!)
Okay, now let’s break that in half:
I am going to only eat when hungry and stop when full for half the day.
And half again:
I am going to have one meal each day where I wait to eat until I’m hungry and do my best to stop when I’m comfortably full.
Now, you have a goal that, very likely, you can achieve most of the time, without upsetting the rest of the balance of your life and without having to recovery completely from an eating disorder overnight. Reasonable. Forward momentum. Success. Self-esteem. Competency. Integrity. Peace. All of those things become regular sensations and experiences for you when your goals are reasonable.
Typically, you want to give yourself at least 2 weeks with the first step, and once you see yourself consistently attaining that goal and feel a sense of confidence with it, you go to the next step. In this case: I am going to only eat when hungry and stop when full for half the day,which really means I’m going to stay tuned to when I’m hungry and when I’m full for two meals each day, which really means I will notice more readily if I’m feeling the need to use food to cope which puts me in a position to use my tools sooner which creates greater likelihood that I’ll not feel so stressed overall and that means I’m less likely to need to overeat at all.
You see, in setting a reasonable first step towards your ultimate goal, you put yourself in a great position to attain it, and this becomes readily apparent to you and your Drill Sgt. Just seeing yourself following through on the first step creates a sense of peace and trust in yourself and allows you, perhaps for the first time ever, to truly imagine yourself achieving your ultimate goal.
You may want to experiment with writing out these steps for each of the key areas of your life and identifying your reasonable first step in each of those areas. You’ll be amazed at the peace and happiness that descends in the first week alone as you see yourself moving forward at a reasonable pace towards the achievement of the life of your dreams. This can be a core part of getting treatment for your eating disorder.
By Michelle Morand, Founder and Director of The CEDRIC Centre
Published Date: May 29, 2011
Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 17, 2011
Page last updated: June 12, 2012
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Online Eating Disorder Resource