I am sitting on my bed. It is Sunday and the radiator is slightly too warm on my back. I know I should be doing something: the blanket I’m crocheting for my therapist is on one side of me; I’m not sure whether there is anything I should be preparing for tomorrow’s English lesson, and I know that my eyebrows are in such a state that even a head-louse would be loathe to lay its eggs somewhere so, well, tufty.
What I am lacking is motivation. I keep trying to tempt it out of whichever gland is keeping it under lock and key, but it’s obviously not easily forthcoming. I’m rather used to creating my own, homemade, last minute and hashed-together-from-other-similar-emotions, motivation, but this morning it just isn’t working.
This, possible in an attempt to avoid doing anything productive or involving movement, has led to a good think about what motivation actually is.
The dictionary, strangely, defines motivation as ‘a reason, or reasons, for acting or behaving in a particular way’; ‘desire or willingness to do something: enthusiasm’, or, ‘a set of facts and arguments used in support of a proposal’. This surprises me because, in my head, and I would hazard a guess that it is similar in the heads of others, motivation is somewhat more closely related to a gritty determination to achieve or succeed. According to the definition, for example, my desire, and even my willingness, to crochet aforementioned blanket is enough to count as ‘motivation’. However, I would argue that I can desire, and be willing, to crochet the blanket as much, and for as long, as I like. That is not enough to get the blanket crocheted.
So what is it, if not the dictionary definition of motivation, that makes me pick up my hook and actually proceed to do something?
I guess that, partially, it’s the desire to finish something to express my gratitude to my therapist (the blanket is to say ‘thank you’ as my discharge is becoming increasingly imminent). There is also a need to stick with convention, thus saving myself from embarrassment: as part of western culture, we traditionally give presents when leaving somebody or something, possibly as much to say ‘remember me’ as to say ‘I value what you have done’. Then, there’s a sense of enjoyment I gain from the physical act of crocheting; the therapeutic benefit or repetitive movement and a little shiver of pride and excitement as I watch my work grow.
So, the motivation comes from several sources.
What I haven’t done here is separate the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. For the uninitiated, extrinsic motivation is behaviour which is ‘driven by external rewards’ so, for example, I am motivated to go to work because I get paid. Intrinsic motivation is behaviour which is driven by enjoyment of said behaviour, so I am also motivated to go to work because I enjoy my job.
Where then, does this fit into recovery from an eating disorder?
Motivation, in this instance, is often very difficult to come by, not least because the motivation or desire to engage in disordered behaviour is so strong.
Way, way back, before I had been admitted to hospital, I spent a lot of time waiting for the motivation to gain weight as though it were like a bus and, once it arrived, the motivation to gain weight, therefore accepting recovery, would entirely replace the desire to engage in disordered behaviour.
Upon admission to hospital, and, as my health failed, it dawned on me that motivation was not going to ‘begin’, and so I began waiting for someone to either give it to me on a plate or do it for me. I’m sure you can imagine that I was given lots of things on plates, but none were motivation. And there were plenty of people willing me on, but none of them – of course – could give me the physical motivation to move my fork from my plate to my hand.
Hospitalisation does give you extrinsic motivation to gain weight in that you must eat in order to be discharged, but that is not enough because the motivation is finite and eating disorders are not: what happens when you achieve discharge and no longer have anything to strive for?
The eating disorder once again becomes the strong motivation.
Long term motivation can work. I always knew I wanted to recover enough to get a job (and this encouraged both physical and mental recovery); have my own house and to be able to help people but, often, especially in the early days of recovery, those things seemed very distant, to the extent that they felt unachievable.
Nonetheless, keeping them in my head was a useful tool and, even now, they are a motivator in reverse: I eat to keep my job, and I’m still after that house.
Small goals, then, often worked to motivate me more effectively. Texting my sister to say that I had eaten my Friday fish, chips and chocolate cake gave me a reason for doing the eating in the first place, but also provided a warm glow when I got a lovely message of response in return.
One of the problems within communities of people trying to recover from anorexia (ie. inpatient settings) is that there is often a competitive aspect to the disorder. Trying to be ‘the sickest’ (which something I’ve talked about here and here) can be hugely negatively motivating. However, using the incredible motivation that can come from a positive ward environment can be one of the most motivating parts of an inpatient recovery. Being, for example, a member of ‘Team Pudding’ often gave me the strength I needed to get through a particularly stressful and very dry chocolate pudding, and watching one of the other patients do a particularly interesting walk out of the Dining Room because she knew I’d completed my food for the first time made me feel like a valued part of the community and motivated me to continue because I knew that I had friends there to support me.
Outside hospital, routine is one of the things that motivates me most often. I eat lunch because that is not just what I do, but what the rest of the world does, and the desire to fit in with other people can be hugely motivating as well. Something that is more personal to me is that desire to remain a stable size, mainly because I really dislike clothes shopping and so I would rather be able to order it off the internet in the size I know I am. Also, remaining a constant weight is very important because my sister lives in London and, when she comes home, I don’t want the first thing she notices to be that I am on the skinny side of where I should be.
This isn’t to say, of course, that it is all plain-sailing. Sometimes I have to dig really, really deep to find the motivation and, sometimes, it doesn’t work. However, for me, identifying motivating factors and then knowing where to look when I’m having a difficult day, is something that I find really helpful. I’m not going to lie, sometimes extrinsic motivation is what I fall back on: promising myself an afternoon nap and a blissful half hour of Stephen Tries (Youtube. Watch him. Hilarious.)
There is, then, a huge range of motivating factors that I can draw upon, should I need them. And I do. Often. More than often. Moving towards my discharge date, it is comforting to know that I don’t need any outside input to trigger any of the ways I can motivate myself, and I guess that’s because my therapist has done a fantastic job in teaching me what they are.
I would recommend – especially because you can involve stickers and glitter – writing your own list of motivation. It doesn’t have to be about ways you can persuade yourself to eat, because that would be pointless if you don’t have an eating disorder. Maybe you need a motivational shove out of bed some mornings? Or maybe you would love to visit your Grandma more often?
The point is that, whatever it is you want to do, you can do it. I’ve found that, given the right motivation and the right mindset, there is absolutely nothing (in your head) which is impossible to overcome. And this is coming from someone who once thought that a life of starvation was an inevitability. And also from someone who really, really hates positive quotes. Obviously nobody’s ever willed themself better from a repugnant cause of acne, but that doesn’t mean that approaching something positively isn’t going to be worth it.
Keep going, because, actually, you can.