ambivalence: the cost of bargaining in eating disorder recovery

The meaning of the word “bargain” is not typically known for having an emotional charge, except for perhaps the subtle (or not always so subtle) glee after finding that awesome $3.00 sweater at the bottom of a bin at Goodwill. The definition of a bargain is rather prescriptive, involving a negotiated transaction, resulting in an agreeable compromise and understanding. In a way, bargaining is a form of avoidance, in that it prevents something unwanted from happening. Yet, what happens when you return home from Goodwill, only to find that there are multiple holes in your beloved sweater?

Not so much of a bargain then, eh?

Instead of bargaining with a sweater, I’m currently in the bargaining stage of recovering from my eating disorder (borrowed from Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grieving Model). Like many people in recovery, I would like to have fewer eating disordered thoughts and urges, but simultaneously have my body stay the same size and shape.

“Can’t I just eat normally and stay the same size?” I ask my therapist and dietitian frequently (rhetorically, of course). It’s easier to stay attached to the potential of losing weight in recovery than to face the fact that this notion is naively oxymoronic. Bargaining is dangerous, ineffective, and creates one of the more vulnerable loopholes for the eating disorder to sneak through.

This bargaining stage of recovery is full of ambivalence, and the thing with ambivalence is that there’s this constant motion, constant questioning of “what if X?” or “what if Y?”, followed by rationalizations such as, “Oh, but just one less exchange won’t really matter.” Fear (and fear here…) is the precursor to ambivalence and we all know that fear is ruthless, especially if it becomes tangled up in your sense of self.


I realize that my eating disorder will never let me be enough, and therefore we will never have a symbiotic relationship. Despite this knowledge, I still try to bargain with it! Oh, the constant reminder of how irrational eating disorders are… This ambivalence, which feeds the belief that the eating disorder can actually work, is inefficiently and seductively deceiving.

The power of ambivalence makes the seemingly simple(r) problem of misidentifying food as a threat become more complex. Every time I encounter a “flex” food, or feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions, I’m hit in the gut with ambivalence, holding strongly onto the desire to still experience the benefits of restriction, without the progressive and detrimental damage that results when using this behavior as a means to cope with life.

I keep keepin’ at the fight and trying to hold my boundaries despite my eating disorder’s persistence at false promises. The constant back and forth motion between bargaining with the eating disorder and recovery voices is not only physically and emotionally draining, but it’s actually exhausting the energy I have to essentially fight against myself. Ambivalence is not sustainable and I know it can be the beginning of a vicious cycle:

I’m currently on operation: Don’t Let This Cycle Occur. I know that my eating disorder behaviors don’t align with my personal values and goals. To be blunt, I now see my maladaptive behaviors that once felt so protective, as repugnant in relation to my self-conception. I’m trying not to act in a way which sides with my attachment to losing weight but instead, act on the commitment I have made to my recovery.

I recently received a revised meal plan from my dietitian that made me panic. My eating disorder immediately started flashing its favorite endearments:

“I don’t want to eat more”

“I don’t need to eat more”

“I’m healthy already”

“This extra food is going to drastically change my body”

etc. etc. etc.

You get the picture. These unhelpful, automatic thoughts serve as empty excuses for me to continue bargaining with the eating disorder, and the fact that they emerged instantaneously is evidence that I still have more work to do in recovery.

Effort and motivation don’t always yield implementation and there have been times in the past few weeks where I’ve felt trapped in the beginning stages of restriction. Right now it seems Sisyphean and unavailing to stand strong against the voice of great resistance, but I’m taking it one meal and one snack at a time (as cliché as that sounds).

It’s been almost two weeks trying to implement this new meal plan. Now looking back and giving myself space from the immediate reaction of my eating disorder, I’ve been pondering: “What if I am actually able to fully give up this need to bargain with the eating disorder?” I imagine relief and freedom but I don’t know for sure because I’ve never fully let go of the bargain. Thus, denying the bargain has the potential to result in an entirely new creation, something different and unknown. And maybe that’s what I need to move past where I’m at.

Different and unknown. Two words that eating disorders love (insert: sarcasm, just in case you didn’t pick up on it). Yes, those two words are terrifying, but that’s the eating disorder’s need-to-control-everything part of me. In reality, the prospect of developing a new understanding and of having a new dynamic is exciting.

In order to cultivate said Creation, I need to accept that I will probably never be in a place where I agree with the imperative to gain weight. I will always question other people’s perspective against mine. In order to end the bargaining, I need to remove all cognition. I also need to just do.

eat the damn food.

don’t think about my meal plan.

give myself permission to be full:

just do, because in the doing comes creating, and I know deep down that I am most authentic when I am my creative self.

Wishing everyone a Happy Everything and a Wonderful Always this holiday weekend! Don’t settle with any bargains and take care of your dear selves.

in strength and healing,



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ambivalence: the cost of bargaining in eating disorder recovery
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