By Stephanie Mowery, LCSW

Motivation is the guiding force or reasons behind an intentional change. When it comes to dealing with an eating disorder, a lot of motivation is necessary to overcome the pervasive and ingrained negative thought patterns and behaviors. However, there is a big difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and knowing the source of our motivation can help move us forward in recovery.

Extrinsic motivation is any pressure to change that comes from outside of our person. Extrinsic motivators can be positive, such as a tangible reward, or negative, such as uncomfortable consequences if we do not change.

Intrinsic motivation is an internal desire for change based on our belief that said change is what is right for us. Intrinsic motivation means that we want to change because we feel the change itself is worth it, and is inherently fulfilling regardless of outside benefits or consequences.

Both types of motivation are important for recovery from an eating disorder, and many extrinsic motivators for recovery are naturally occurring. For example, entering recovery will reduce physical side effects that are a consequence of the eating disorder as more balanced nutrition is achieved. Overcoming an eating disorder also improves relationships and build trust with loved ones, which is another extrinsic motivator.

In addition, extrinsic motivators can help propel us to complete a task or process that is unpleasant. If we know there will be a positive outcome, it can feel easier to push through a difficult time to get to that outcome.

However, extrinsic motivators alone are not enough to maintain the recovery process. In fact, sometimes extrinsic motivators can add extra pressure to the change journey. In this way, extrinsic motivators can undermine internal motivation if the extrinsic becomes the main focus of the recovery process. In addition, sometimes extrinsic motivators can make a change feel more like a ‘chore’ or like ‘work’ instead of a fulfilling process.

Intrinsic motivators are much more important than extrinsic for both starting and maintaining the long-term recovery process. It’s important to identify specific internal reasons and beliefs about the recovery process and why it is important to us. Intrinsic motivators also include ways in which we feel the change process will align with our personal values and help us be a better version of ourselves.

Building intrinsic motivation helps build our sense of competency and belief that we have the ability to sustain the recovery process. Noting our own successes and celebrating our achievements will re-emphasize our intrinsic motivators.

In addition, loved ones and family members can help reinforce intrinsic motivators by providing meaningful verbal affirmation and praise. Offering hopeful statements about the recovery process and progress seen is more important than any tangible extrinsic reward.

Having both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators for change is vital for the recovery process. Identifying and holding onto our personal motivators will help us maintain hope even when the going gets rough. And allow us to experience more joy when we achieve success!