5 Ways to Deal With Setbacks in Recovery

Setbacks in recovery. Black illustration of female on an abstract background.

How do you stay motivated after setbacks? This is a common question that comes up in recovery from an eating disorder. What do you do when you feel like you lost the momentum and direction that you had? 

Goals and setbacks

When working towards a goal, you will always experience setbacks, whether big or small. No matter how detailed your steps are, things don’t always go as planned. You’ve probably heard of treatment providers, friends, or family members telling you that recovery from an eating disorder is not linear. Setbacks such as relapses will happen.

But what do you do? When you experience a setback, you have a choice. You can throw the towel in the ring or you can choose to learn from your setback and continue working towards your goal.

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Below are 5 ways to stay motivated after experiencing setbacks, in recovery, and beyond.

1. Activate your senses to connect with yourself

After a setback, it’s easy to stay stuck in a self-loathing cycle. However, beating yourself up over mistakes or setbacks isn’t encouraging you to try again. On the contrary, it creates the perfect breeding ground for self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. A way to break this cycle is to actively take yourself out of the situation. For example, does nature help you relax? Go outside, and pay attention to the trees around you. What do you smell? Do you prefer to watch a movie or go to a theater? Call a friend to come with you.

Connecting with people or your surroundings and being present in the moment enables you to turn off that train of unhelpful thoughts dominating your mind. 

2. Change your mindset

Black-and-white thinking is common, not just in eating disorder recovery and a mindset shift can help rebuild momentum after a setback. Just because you experience a setback, or you engaged in an eating disorder behavior doesn’t mean your recovery is ruined. Try to look at the bigger picture. What went well? Acknowledging how far you’ve come and understanding that recovery doesn’t look the same every day can help tremendously.

3. Embrace imperfection

Many of those struggling with eating disorders have perfectionist tendencies but when you let perfectionism run its course, you set yourself up for failure. Closely related to black-and-white thinking, perfectionism can make you feel like recovery has to go smoothly, or perfectly and if it doesn’t, it implies that you failed.

Allowing yourself to embrace imperfection in recovery and in life creates space for learning and growth. Setbacks can teach you valuable lessons and force you to find healthy coping mechanisms for uncertainty. This is why having a (professional) support system is so powerful in recovery where you are able to talk through these inevitable setbacks that you will experience along the way.

4. Look at what you’ve learned

A setback is just that. It just means that something didn’t exactly go as planned. Instead of beating yourself up over it, try to be neutral about it and acknowledge that a setback doesn’t mean the end of the world. Make a list of the things that happened or went wrong. What did they teach you? How can you respond differently or avoid this from happening again in the future? How can you use this setback to strengthen your recovery?

5. Manage expectations

High expectations aren’t necessarily a bad thing but they can set you up for disappointment if they aren’t being met. When you recognize that things don’t have to happen all at once and that recovery doesn’t happen overnight you create more room for possible mistakes, setbacks, and learning.

One way to document your progress, the ups and the downs, is to journal. Writing down your feelings and emotions after a setback is a healthy coping mechanism and can be used in a response to negative thoughts and feelings. When you feel bad about yourself for having a setback, use positive words like affirmations to reconnect with yourself and your goal, such as recovery.

Staying motivated after a setback

Setbacks are inevitable but they don’t mean you won’t reach your goal. On the contrary, they can offer an opportunity for learning and reevaluating your goals and actions. When you’re willing to tolerate the discomfort of setbacks and be patient with the process, you will succeed. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.

Listen to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercastPodcast AddictPocket CastsCastboxGoogle PodcastsStitcherAmazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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