Strength and recovery: The downside of motivational messages

It’s no secret that I’m on Twitter a lot. I use it both professionally and personally. It’s almost my second home.

This afternoon, I ran across this tweet:


Now, I’m not generally a big fan of inspirational stuff. Others like it, and that’s fine. Lots of people also like Demi Lovato and, perhaps it’s the age difference, but she’s not someone I would classify as one of my role models. Again, she seems very nice and she’s done lots of stuff and that’s great. I’d probably like her if we met.

Nonetheless, this tweet really rubbed me the wrong way.

I know she meant it to be inspirational and to encourage people towards recovery. There’s nothing wrong with that.

My question is for the flip side: if you can’t recover, does that mean you’re not strong enough?

I know lots of people who have fought damn hard against their eating disorders even though they haven’t overcome it. Sometimes they can’t get the treatment they need. Other times, that treatment isn’t effective. Eating disorders are extremely challenging diseases. No, an eating disorder doesn’t mean that you’re strong, just like any other illness doesn’t. It means you were unlucky in the jackpot of life. But not getting well doesn’t mean you’re not trying hard enough.

It means you’re just not getting well.

Other than my general dislike of inspirational statements, this is one of the potential downsides of motivational messages. It’s hard to point out their downsides because they seem so, well, positive. But the problem with them is the subtle messages they send to people who continue to struggle. It’s like saying to a cancer patient who gets a metastasis that they weren’t trying hard enough to overcome their disease. It’s silly. People with eating disorders relapse and they struggle to get into remission, and it says nothing about who they are as a person. It says everything about eating disorders.

My worry is that someone who is struggling will read this and somehow think they weren’t strong enough for recovery, which would only make them feel worse. That’s what I would have thought.

It seems an odd thing to challenge, but I think there’s an underlying theme in the ED world that if you just try hard enough, you, YES YOU, can recover. Sorry. No amount of “trying” got me to recovery. It’s NOT that simple. I’ve read other messages that say full recovery is totally possible if you work hard enough. Again, that’s not always possible.

If motivational messages help you, that’s wonderful. Just remember that while overcoming an ED does require strength, it’s not weakness if you continue to struggle.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

21 Responses to “Strength and recovery: The downside of motivational messages”

  1. I have a similar problem with the “speak out abiut you ED” stuff. And then what? Does talking to someone, anyone cure EDs? No. Presenting and being totally open about behaviours to medical professionals is no guarantee of diagnosis let alone effective treatment. Are those who won’t/can’t speak out about their illness less unwell or somehow being uncooperative, “letting the side down”? No. Why is there so much emphasis on the sufferer having to self-diagnose and refer rather than on society, particularly those parts of it with the power to do anything about these illnesses, learning to look out for and treat EDs

    • I think we need to ask whether it’s realistic to assume all sufferers are capable of these things. What’s more, rather than encouraging the sufferer to try harder and be strong, we need to look at the systemic problems that are impeding recovery.

  2. Thank you for this Carrie. I’m one of those people who still struggles, and I have been for quite some time. While I can appreciate what I think is the intended sentiment behind quotes like Demi’s, I do think they can all too often imply things that simply aren’t true (i.e. that if you’re not ‘recovered’ it’s because you haven’t been working hard enough)

    It’s statements like this that can make people ashamed — afraid to even admit they’re struggling. It seems like it’s only okay to talk about your eating disorder if you’re ‘over it.’ Well, news flash: I’m not over it, and neither are thousands upon thousands of other men and women out there. And it’s not because we haven’t tried.

    How about we embrace people at ALL stages of recovery, recognize that it’s a long ass hard journey for EVERYONE, and celebrate the fact that we’re ALL strong, no matter where on that journey we might be?

    • Yes. I think celebrating recovery is a great thing, and we shouldn’t let that overshadow the bravery of people who continue to struggle, day after day.

  3. Yes. And honestly, from my perspective, calling someone “strong” who IS recovering isn’t a compliment anyway- it feels like a gross misunderstanding and makes me feel even more isolated. People see me as recovering “successfully” b/c my numbers (weight, BMI) continue to go up. People who love me sometimes say, “You’re so strong!” And I want to scream, “FUCK YOU!!!” B/c I’m barely holding onto my therapist’s hand while she’s the strong one, dragging me through this process. I’m cutting and banging my head in secret to keep the panic under control. That’s not “strong.” I feel weak, exhausted, and alien. Recovery is a road you walk (…or get dragged along) alone- and people calling you “strong” when you feel nothing but weak and shitty only makes you more certain that you exist in isolation. They truly don’t understand, don’t see, don’t know.

    And it’s an unfair representation to sufferers who haven’t been “successful”- that is, their numbers didn’t go up. It gives them the impression that those of us who got those higher numbers were “strong enough” to get there. That makes THEM feel shitty.

    In truth, my numbers are ONLY going up because of the strength and expertise of my health care providers. The only thing I’m doing is being there and letting them drag me forward. And I’m barely tolerating that! Although I thank God that I can feel my fingers and toes, that I don’t pass out, that my immune system is stronger, I don’t pat myself on the back for these things. I just accept them as positive outcomes of having expert health care providers.

    I wish people would focus more on the factual outcomes of recovery rather than on the person. I LIKE it when people say things to me like, “I’m so excited to hear that your metabolism seems to be stabilizing! That’s great progress!” Or, “It’s so cool that your immune system is stronger now!” THOSE things I agree with. THOSE things I can celebrate, too.

    But statements about my person, “I’m so proud of you! You’re so strong!” make me feel ashamed of how weak, depressed, and panicky I actually AM throughout this whole process. There is no proper response. If I say, no I’m not- please don’t call me strong- they’ll argue with me. If I told them what goes on behind the scenes to prove my point, they’d be horrified. (And so would I, to have them in the know!)

  4. Thanks; this was good timing. I just found out that I’m having a “team meeting tomorrow,” which I’ve never had before with my OP team. I mean, we’ve been talking about this for a while and they all seem to like me and whatnot and I like them, and they’ve told me that it’s just with the intention of brainstorming and supporting me. Every bit of me right now thinks that I am going to walk in there and see Jeff VanVonderen sitting with them and they are going to tell me that if I don’t get on a plane today and fly to some treatment center or gain X pounds per week, they’re done and they’re firing me and kicking me out and taking my credit cards and sending the cats I don’t even have to the Humane Society, you know? Because they’ve finally realized that I’m just not trying. Because I think that’s what everyone thinks. Or maybe that’s what I think because it seems like everyone else gets better and I don’t, so obviously if I was strong and bought more Demi Lovato messages and wasn’t so into railing against The Man and thinking about The Science instead of The Secret, I’d be better already, right? Right? I don’t actually think that, but at this point I’ve heard it enough that it’s hard to not let it creep in, like, every day. And if VanVonderen tries to take my imaginary cats, I promise I am going to be goddamn pissed.

    I always quote my favorite counselor from treatment who would tell me to, “keep trying to try,” after I told her not long after we met and I had no idea at all what “recovery” even meant that I wasn’t sure if I was trying, but I was trying to try. I think people assume that I say this because I just respect and appreciate HER so damn much. And that’s true. But that’s not why I quote her there. I remind myself of those words and repeat them because sometimes trying to try IS the best you can do and sometimes that IS what it means to be “strong.”

    People love to call themselves “soldiers” and “warriors.” But even real soldiers get battle-weary and have to drag their asses out there into the desert, I’m sure, with their heads spinning just wanting to go the hell home when they don’t even know why they’re fighting sometimes – or a lot of the time, as the case may be. And to drag up a tired metaphor that I thought up and then promptly best into the ground, nobody fucking enlists in a mental illness; it’s strictly a draft military. So if we are “soldiers,” this is Vietnam and don’t expect me or anyone to act like the Greatest Generation when the “enemy” is a sneaky, elusive asshole and half of the people on the homefront blame me for being here in the first place. /deadhorse

    • I’m happy to watch your imaginary cat, if it comes to that. I’m assuming they like catnip? 😉

      • Yes. Imaginary Sgt. Benson Feline loves catnip and HATES Taylor Swift. Otherwise, she isn’t picky.

        • It made me laugh reading that your cat “HATES Taylor Swift.” I don’t think my dogs and cats like her, either.

  5. I can’t thank you enough to writing this. So. Much. Truth!!!!

  6. THANK YOU, CARRIE!!! I feel that, as far as the ED goes, I am rendered dumb but, through you, I often have a voice. Again, thank you.

  7. Thank you so so so much for this. It puts into words what I have been feeling for so long.

  8. Even having read the discussion about the quote’s context on FB, I totally agree with everything you said Carrie. I find it kind of offensive when people insist that recovery is down to personal strength. As well as the fact that some people become more unwell than others, and so have a harder time getting better, it shows no appreciation of the structural factors involved in mental health. I put my to-all-intents-and-purposes-‘successful’ recovery attempt in 2009 down to a lot of things, but one thing that was a massive help was returning home to my parents while I was going through weight restoration. This meant I didn’t have to work, didn’t have to worry about rent, can could use my money from disability benefits to access private therapy. I was also lucky enough to know the benefits system well enough to obtain disability, and for that matter, to live in a country that made at least a token attempt to care for its vulnerable citizens at the time, although this has unravelled rather in the last five years. I also had an easier time getting a diagnosis and receiving treatment because I am white, middleish class and fairly well educated. If any of those raft of privileges hadn’t been in place, 2009 might have been very different. In fact, a year later when I was living independently again, in a deprived area, worrying about rent, finding it impossible to get a job with such big mental health-related gaps in employment, and in a very unhealthy relationship, I started self harming again and definitely stopped meeting my full nutritional needs. If I hadn’t been in a much healthier place to start off with that could easily have turned into a relapse.

    I also think the whole ‘recovery is down to personal strength’ thing is dangerous for people who ARE getting better, and attribute it to their determination or motivation. If (hell, when) they go through bad patches that can be a horrible message to have absorbed.

  9. I think it might be worth noting – Demi’s tweet was apparently in response to an interview done by Meghan Trainor stating she wasn’t “strong enough” to have/maintain an ED, that her willpower was too weak.

    I most certainly agree with everything you said, Carrie. Given the context, however, Demi’s tweet takes on a whole different light.

    Here is the article in which I read this –

    Just a head’s up on a different point of view of the situation I thought you may be interested in. 🙂

    • I didn’t realize that when I first wrote the post, and I do appreciate that the tweet had a larger context than I initially anticipated. It does explain why she was tweeting about this, and I wholeheartedly agree with the first half of the tweet. My concern is that the intention of the second half of the tweet could be misconstrued and ultimately be less helpful than she anticipated.

      Overall, however, I think Demi’s response was spot-on. It was this tweet with this particular sentiment that I was focusing on to make a point.

      But yeah, context is also important. 🙂

  10. This speaks to me as a mom of a person with ED. I feel that if I had been stronger against her ED when she was younger, more insistent, more willful, I could have nipped this ED in the bud earlier. But I remind myself that ED is a mental disorder of the brain like depression, OCD etc, and it’s a combination of strength, medical care, perserverance and understanding that fights the disorder, not just strength alone.

  11. Thanks Carrie, for putting into words what we all should know but somehow gets ‘motivated’ out of us. It’s the snappy one-liner that subtly wears us down and one day you suddenly realize you’re being motivated all the way to hell. Maybe we should start using more words to say what we mean; maybe we should recognize that the 140 or whatever limit is just that: a limiting factor in communicating what we want to say. Let’s start spelling it out…

  12. Hmm this is an interesting conversation. Not sure if I am about to play devil’s advocate…I recently wrote on my own blog that I had to “choose to get better after many years of choosing not to.” I’m not saying that people with eating disorders are choosing to be sick or choosing to stay sick, or that people who have recovered or who are in recovery are somehow “stronger,” but I certainly underwent a powerful shift from actively Not Recovering to actively Recovering, and that shift happened within, and it took incredible strength. You wrote that “no amount of trying” got you into recovery…my experience was completely different. It took an infinite amount of trying, and failing, and trying again, and failing a little less, and trying some more, and failing a little less than the last time. That doesn’t mean my brain hadn’t gone wonky or that genetics weren’t involved or that my illness wasn’t biologically based.

    Anorexia is certainly a biological illness, but it is also different from cancer. I don’t think there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that committing to recovery from an eating disorder and following through take incredible individual strength. Acknowledging that fact does not in any way diminish the value of treatment professionals, or negate the fact the eating disorders are biological illnesses. And it does not diminish the strength of those who are still suffering. There can be strength in both.

  13. This is of interest to me. I’m chiming in late, but I appreciate this post and its comments. I have sometimes been frustrated with the “no one chooses to have an eating disorder, but recovery is a choice” message. I feel like every time I went into treatment or even tried it at home, I gave 100% of my commitment—beyond 100% sometimes. I just didn’t always keep it. You grow tired and then slowly, you’re back there.

    My doctor told me recently it’s not choosing the good things that’ll happen with recovery, or listening to the bad things that’ll happen if you stay sick. It’s really about there still being something that feels worse about recovery than using ED. Even if there are no benefits, just avoiding that thing that feels worse.

    That thing is different for everyone. People who have lost the battle are not weaker, just like people who are sicker in certain ways, do not have a more effective ED. They just have an ED. There’s nothing different about different EDs, they all do the same thing.

    Some of the strongest people I have ever known still have the illness. I don’t know if they’ll ever get better. I want them to, because I love them. I will always have hope for them.

    I think true strength is never giving up on something we are determined to do from our hearts. It’s not the result so much as the determination, and renewing hope.

  14. I wholeheartedly agree with this. I have been guilty myself of buying into this message in the past, and I remember a therapist telling me to put less pressure on myself in terms of recovery and getting to a magical BMI etc. At the time I thought she was absolutely mad, but now, I see what she was trying to do. What we do know about people with eating disorders is that they are often people who strive very hard in life to achieve things, to do the very best they can, and that attitude, when it is applied to recovery, can perpetuate a self critical and blaming attitude that is really unhelpful. Strength is doing the best you can eat day and that looks different for each of us, depending on a myriad of factors, including our social network, opportunities for support and help and many other things.

  15. I thought I was the only one who found “inspirational” messages a bit disheartening! And I have absolutely always hated when someone would say to me, “Stay Strong.” Or, “You’re so Strong.” I didn’t really analyze why I felt quite agitated by that statement, but you put it perfectly here! As people have said above, I do not FEEL strong at all. And my strength, or lack there-of, has not correlated at all to how I do in my recovery. If only people saw the black abyss muddled with horrid messiness they’d be scared to death. Maybe saying, “stay strong” is more for them than for me. Makes me want to scream, nevertheless! So, Thank You so much for sharing your thoughts here!