Do the Small Steps You Take Towards Recovery Even Matter?

Image: @kevinjyoung

Joan, a new patient, taught me something original about hope. A married woman struggling with bulimia, Joan had a hard time even going one day without bingeing and purging. She came to her session and announced, “I did it! I didn’t binge last week at all!” “That’s great!” I responded enthusiastically. “What helped?”

Every time I wanted to binge, I took a shower instead. I wound up taking seven showers every day!

I was surprised at Joan’s “solution” and worried that she was becoming obsessive compulsive about a brand new behavior. She explained, “I know that sounds crazy, but it gives me hope that if I can find alternatives to detour my cravings, then maybe I have a chance to get better.”

Joan proves that hope can be found anywhere – even in the most unconventional ways. The author Anne Lamott wrote, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.”

Joan’s story reminded me of another patient, Debbie, and her unique solution to improve her binge eating. Debbie would spend many evenings after work bingeing on cakes, cookies, and chips. As we strategized alternatives, Debbie came to her next session and announced, “I found a new plan that seems to be working. Rather than binging on chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake this week, I started eating heads of iceberg lettuce with mustard!” I was also startled at Debbie’s “solution” and hoped she wasn’t developing a brand new compulsive behavior around food. But she then explained, “I know I can’t spend the rest of my life gorging on lettuce. If I can break the cookie habit, I’ll feel hopeful that I can keep doing better.”

It starts with small changes

Both Joan and Debbie recognized that creating hope means taking any step away from one’s entrenched destructive habits.

Even a small change in behavior can engender the belief that things can get better.

Taking showers and bingeing on lettuce provides a step away from hurting yourself with food and teaches you that there are alternatives to make your goals more of a reality.

Both Joan and Debbie recognized that simply wishing for a different outcome with their eating disorder struggles does not change anything. Instead, taking action – any forward action – is the key ingredient to growth and change.

In the field of addiction, the concept of “harm reduction” teaches that people may not be able to get abstinent from alcohol, drugs, gambling, cigarettes or food overnight. But there is value in reducing one’s negative behavior and committing to doing better even if the problem is still not yet solved. The fundamental strategy is to set an intention that is doable.

How do we create hope?

Recovering from an eating disorder is a gradual, step by step process. Realizing that your goal is progress, not perfection will help you appreciate the steps you have made. No step is too small to acknowledge. It sparks hope.

The philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh counsels,

Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

Creating hope is not mere wishful thinking but implementing problem solving strategies that lead to a plan of action – a plan that is flexible, not restrictive. It’s important to have the perspective that some days are better, some are worse; that’s life for all of us. Keep setting a daily intention and keep seeking a path to a better future with self-compassion.

As the poet Rilke wrote, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

What small steps will you take today?