Inside Look

How Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Impacts Recovery

bulimia recovery Mar 20, 2024


Motivating Your Recovery From Bulimia Can Be Hard to Start and Stick With, but It’s Never Impossible.

Describing why we do the things we do is often an existential concept, but it often simply boils down to what motivates us to seek a certain end. Understanding the role of motivation in life is key to the novelty of human existence and discovering what factors drive and enrich our personal lives. Intrinsic and extrinsic factors in life can be seen as the initial “push” or purpose behind what causes us to feel motivated, or what gets our behaviors started in the first place. 


But sometimes those factors aren’t enough to push us through difficult times, and we’re left feeling uninspired, depressed, and stuck in a discouraging cycle we don’t want to be in. It can be tough breaking out of the patterns we’ve grown so accustomed to, but by understanding eating disorder recovery motivation and how intrinsic and extrinsic factors can impact the journey to recovery, we can navigate challenging circumstances and come out on the other side of struggle with renewed hope and purpose. 


Eating Disorder Recovery: Motivation and Mental Health

Whether you’re studying a new subject, launching a career, or chasing a higher dream, motivation is the energy within that propels actions into motion. Motivation also has a massive impact on how we approach recovery along mental health journeys. Psychiatric illnesses like depression and other neurological disorders can impair our motivational factors, as the associated symptoms of apathy and fatigue can extinguish a person’s ability to look forward, keeping them chained to their current state of distress.


When you feel like you’re not at your best or feel like the energy needed to drive you forward isn’t there, it can take the momentum away from everyday life. It can feel harder to start things and approach new experiences, having us feeling stuck in a perpetual cycle of the bare minimum: minimum energy, drive, and enthusiasm.


Attempting to recover from an eating disorder can look just as disheartening when someone feels stuck in the same loop of hopelessness, feeling unable to put up a fight against their dysfunctional eating habits. Although not all those who have an eating disorder also have depression, a topic I’ve discussed in a previous article, similar feelings of isolation, despair, and neglect of self-care caused by an eating disorder can become major demotivators along the bulimia recovery journey.


The First Steps in Eating Disorder Recovery Motivation

Choosing recovery is hard. It means actively acknowledging negative, engrained behaviors and facing them rather than letting them control your body and mind. Going against the urge to restrict, to count calories, to avoid the mirror or obsess over it, to binge until the negative thoughts are gone; tackling these maladaptive habits and breaking them first requires the want to change.


Maybe you’re tired of being anxious when you’re going out to eat with friends. Worried the entire time about how much you’re going to eat, knowing others are going to see you trying to keep cool while internally struggling with wanting to run away or run to the bathroom. 


Or maybe you just want to enjoy the simple happiness of eating something luxuriant, a treat you’d otherwise avoid. The calories, grams, fat, protein; all of these things prevent you from enjoying food by instead approaching it like a bomb to defuse.


Rallying eating disorder recovery motivation can be a battle of wills. Eating disorders often turn the mind-body connection against itself, toxifying the natural instinct to nourish oneself with the food necessary for an enriched existence. Finding the motivation to break up with these unhealthy habits starts with understanding how intrinsic and extrinsic factors work together to motivate and give us the strength to push back against disordered eating and into recovery from bulimia.


Understanding the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Behind Bulimia Recovery 

Intrinsic and extrinsic are concepts that describe the drivers of motivation. 


Intrinsic motivation is the inherent, innate sense of performing a task for individual satisfaction. Doing a task not for the reward (or punishment), but instead enjoying it for its own sake and fulfilling a personal interest. How this could look like in bulimia recovery:


  • Cooking and trying new foods, creating new recipes for your own enjoyment
  • Engaging in social gatherings that might have heavy food connotations but still being able to enjoy and connect with others  
  • Dancing and moving to have fun in the body you occupy
  • Eating food for how it looks and tastes, feeling happy after having a favorite treat
  • Maintaining a comfortable level of food intake, knowing when you feel full


Extrinsic motivation is the external validation for engaging in a behavior that satisfies outside forces, oftentimes being driven by receiving a reward for the behavior or avoiding an unpleasant outcome. You might not inherently feel compelled to do a task, but you expect to get something in return for doing it. How this could look like in bulimia recovery:


  • Cooking food to prove you can provide for a group of people at a dinner party
  • Engaging in social gatherings to not look like an outcast, showing others that you can be a friendly and outgoing person outside of your self-isolation
  • Moving your body to look “good” and healthy to others
  • Eating food because the people you care about told you to 
  • Maintaining a standard level of food intake so others don’t worry


Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic: Which Is “Better” for You

While both motivators can fuel the initial steps toward bulimia recovery, understanding the reasoning behind the behaviors is critical to achieving and maintaining a full recovery. Extrinsic motivation isn’t inherently bad, and many times in life it can be used to start feeling motivated for things you might not want to do. 


Choosing recovery for your parents, your partner, your friends, or other loved ones is more than enough reason to stick with treatment in the critical first stages. However, it shouldn’t be the only form of motivation for your actions, especially as you progress in your recovery journey with bulimia and start focusing on why you personally should change your own disordered habits.


Extrinsic drives come with an expiration date. Eventually, the reward or avoidance of punishment loses its value or purpose, and with no inherent drive to sustain the behavior, a person might feel that persisting on their own is impossible and their eating disorder recovery motivation is lost. 


The external forces once driving you may even become a negative motivator, regressing your recovery by encouraging unhealthy behaviors. Maybe people stopped complimenting how you looked, or maybe your family bearing down on you and pressuring you to recover drove you into further secrecy and maladaptive habits. 


On the other hand, maybe the people you love encouraged you into your first steps in bulimia recovery, but now you need further motivation to continue on your own when others aren’t around. This is where focusing on intrinsic goals can make the difference when the going gets tough. 


Expanding Your Intrinsic Purpose

Feeling intrinsically motivated to maintain your recovery from an eating disorder like bulimia tends to be more successful in the long term, as when our core purpose fulfills our own goals and interests, finding the motivation to follow through becomes easier. 


Emphasizing what recovery does for you and how an eating disorder takes from you generates a self-reliant well to draw from in times of difficulty or even relapse. Hope for the future and the personal belief in recovery were shown to be extremely influential when it came to eating disorder recovery motivation, and even if the path wasn’t linear, the strength and persistence to get better helped those with bulimia in their journey to recovery.


Instilling an intrinsic drive in oneself, especially after feeling unmotivated for a long period of time, is a task of its own. But if you’re tired of feeling chained to your eating disorder and looking for help with a change, some tips to promote self-efficacy can build up your inner motivation over time.


Ways to Find Your “Why”

Detail Why You Want to Recover, but Make It Personal


It could’ve been other people encouraging your journey to recovery to begin with, but now take the time to recognize your own goals in healing. Do you want to feel less anxious or scared anytime you’re around “unsafe” foods? Do you want to reconnect with loved ones and build genuine relationships free of guilt or secrecy? 


Maybe you’d like to save on grocery shopping and know you won’t be left with an empty cupboard and regret after a binge episode. Or maybe you’re just tired of feeling tired and sick all the time; your health matters.


Even simple things like buying a new statement piece for your wardrobe or mastering the perfect loaf of bread can become motivators to change in the long run. Finding happiness in fulfilling things, large or small, can help lift the burden of eating disorders by achieving personal wins that work to motivate you.


Understand Your Own Strength


Disorders work their best when they convince you of their control. When you feel like your bulimia recovery is slipping or headed towards total relapse, remembering that you ultimately control your own narrative can help put things into perspective. The steps back might halt recovery, but it doesn’t mean it has to be completely over. To gain further persistence in bulimic recovery, making a list of why recovery benefits you, physically and emotionally, and why staying with an eating disorder hurts you, may help you focus on your priorities.


Recognize Where You’ve Been in Your Recovery


Fighting this type of battle can be unforgiving. We often take our tiny steps forward for granted, not seeing how these steps are necessary to make big changes in the long run. Recall some of the improvements you’ve made in your bulimia journey, whether that was trying a fear food, being vulnerable about your struggles with others, ignoring a criticizing voice in your head, avoiding the pressure to binge and purge, or seeking professional help. All of these are moves in the right direction. 


Last Words About Eating Disorder Recovery Motivation

Every person’s struggle with themselves looks different. What might help motivate one person can have no effect on the next; it’s simply a matter of recognizing your own individual goals and interests and utilizing them to target the disordered eating habits that hold you back. Motivation ebbs and flows, but taking the first step to change and recover from an eating disorder puts you in a position for a future worth living for. The process in between might be long and complicated, but getting there is possible. Trust yourself, be patient, and work on finding fulfillment outside of your eating disorder; you won’t regret it.



With Peace,

Whitney Chase

Whitney Chase is the Writer and Content Manager for Sarah Lee of Sarah Lee Recovery. She holds her degree in Psychology from Georgia State and has a strong passion for the mental health field, writing, and advocacy work.

Posted on March 20th, 2024.

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