Motivation for Recovery: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Article Contributed by Travis Stewart, LPC, Owner/Recovery Coach at Revision Recovery

hand-339607_640Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, writes that three elements are critical to feeling motivated in life and work: autonomy, mastery and purpose. While his book deals mostly in the realm of business and personal productivity, I believe these concepts are relevant to recovery from an eating disorder.


Pink says autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives. Healthy autonomy is not the same as isolation and independence – it is making personal choices while also understanding that your choices affect others. Healthy autonomy means having a voice in your own life.

Many who struggle with anorexic behaviors verbalize a desire to be more in control of their own lives—specifically with food, exercise and body image.

However, many anorexics feel very little actual autonomy; their thoughts are racing and obsessed with calories, weight and fat, eating disorder “rules” tell them how they have to spend their time and they may even have lost significant personal freedoms while in treatment.


Mastery is defined as the urge to get better and better at something that matters. We need to know that we are good at something—that we have something to contribute. More clients than I can count have said “my eating disorder was the only thing I was ever good at” or “I could lose weight better than anyone else.”

The eating disorder had given them a sense of mastery. However, this “mastery” ultimately results in significant health, relational problems and possibly even death.


Motivation for Recovery MapPink defines purpose as the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. For those struggling with an eating disorder, their entire identity can get swallowed up and they lose any connection to the world around them. Recovery requires getting reconnected to the world and your place in it.

External motivation (other people making life uncomfortable until you choose recovery) can only take you so far. Internal motivation – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose—become an energizing force for good, not only for you but others around you. Let’s look at how you do that.

Expressing Healthy Autonomy

First, let’s get this straight: learning to trust others, particularly in your areas of weakness, is critical to personal health. We need to know what we don’t know. While working at a treatment center I once had a patient wear a sticker on her clothes for several days that said, “I am NOT a good judge of my body image.”

It was my attempt to help her understand that she did not see herself accurately. Years later she wrote me and thanked me for that.

Autonomy does not mean you know everything and should make choices independently. It does mean that you identify what you want out of life and go after it. This is hard work. You didn’t grow up thinking, “I want to be good at losing weight when I grow up.”

Making a List

Sit down and make a list of 10-15 things you want out of life. It may look something like this:

  • I want to get a college degree
  • I want to travel to Asia
  • I want to be a part of a safe community
  • I want to eat without fear
  • I want to get married
  • I want to get my own apartment
  • I want to go on a medical mission
  • I want to see the ocean
  • I want to learn to paint

Be sure you write about what you WANT out of life, not what you think you SHOULD do.

Developing Mastery

girl-569117_640We are all good at something – and likely a variety of things. This does not mean we are the BEST at something but, rather, that we all have something to contribute to the common good.

My son is very good at basketball. However, the chances of a high school player making it to the professional level are a slim 0.6 percent. That’s why I liked the approach of his 8th grade coach.

Contributing to a Purpose Larger than the Individual

His goal was not to produce professional athletes but players who would contribute on their high school teams. This does not reflect low expectations. Instead it places a high value on contributing to a purpose larger than individual achievement.

You Have Something to Contribute

You have something to contribute. You may know what that is and you may not. But life is not a competition – it is a treasure hunt. Be curious about what your skills. Listen when people affirm you.

Pay attention to what brings you joy. Find out what makes you feel alive and pursue it passionately. Recovery will then become something you MUST have because you want to fully live your life.

Exploring Purpose

Again, Daniel Pink defines purpose as the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. An exploration of faith, spirituality and meaning are a critical aspect of finding Purpose (with a capital P) but we also need to explore purpose (with a lower case ‘p’).

Becoming involved in an activity, social cause, faith community or non-profit organization can open your eyes to a world much bigger than counting calories and running on the treadmill. In fact, one study suggested that individuals who became involved in “other-centered activities” experienced a decrease in eating disorder symptoms.

Increasing Healthy Autonomy

path-215325_640Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. How can you increase healthy autonomy in your life and make more choices about the things that are important to you? What are areas of mastery you can develop? How can you go about exploring your purpose in this world?

If you feel you are lacking motivation in your own recovery from anorexia these are important areas to consider.

About the Author:

Travis Stewart is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked in the field of eating disorders since 2003. He also offers recovery coaching for individuals wanting to develop more autonomy, mastery and purpose in their lives.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

There were some very thought provoking questions asked in this article, please share your thoughts. How can you increase healthy autonomy in your life and make more choices about the things that are important to you? What are areas of mastery you can develop? How can you go about exploring your purpose in this world?

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 29th, 2015
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