3 ways to find meaning and purpose in eating disorder recovery

Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible but it can be difficult and challenging. There is no escaping this fact and it probably comes as no surprise given just how devastating an eating disorder can be to both the sufferer and their loved ones. However, recovery can also be an incredible opportunity for personal growth, transformation, and the discovery of inner resources that you never knew you had.

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Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said that:

The quest for meaning is the key to mental health and human flourishing.

Whilst he spoke these words in 1985, they are still relevant four decades later and his ideas can be a powerful addition to the treatment of eating disorders. 


Frozen in time

What does it mean to discover your own meaning and purpose? Put simply, ‘meaning’ refers to what things are significant to you and give your life a sense of purpose.  

In some ways, to have an eating disorder is to be frozen in time. Your life becomes so consumed by the eating disorder that your goals, ambitions, relationships, work, and creativity all suffer. Some people manage to maintain outwardly successful lives and careers whilst living with an eating disorder, but the effort it takes to maintain these things can involve an incredible amount of secrecy, shame, guilt, and anxiety.

Regardless of whether you have anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, orthorexia, or no diagnosis at all, the mental, physical, and emotional cost of living with an eating disorder leaves so little energy left to devote to truly meaningful things. Finding meaning and purpose is not just about outward success, it’s about an inner sense of contentment. This is something that many eating disorder sufferers are not used to experiencing and often feels out of reach.


More than just symptom reduction

Symptom reduction is a huge part of recovery and accessing evidence-based treatment from a qualified professional, or a number of different services, is necessary. However, to truly thrive in recovery can’t just be about getting rid of symptoms; it has to be so much more than that. Focusing on meaning and purpose can be an incredibly useful aspect of treatment, particularly in the later phase of recovery.  

Not only will exploring and drawing upon what is meaningful help the recovery process, but it will also play an important part in maintaining recovery and preventing relapse. An eating disorder steals your time, your joy, and your potential; recovery is about getting that back and living a life that’s previously been unlived.

Returning to Viktor Frankl, following his release from Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War he began to further develop his philosophy of Logotherapy (Logo coming from the Greek word ‘logos’ which translates as ‘meaning’). Frankl described three ways in which a person can discover meaning, which he called ‘The meaning triangle’: creativity, experiences, and attitudes.

1. Creativity  

Being creative is about what you are giving to the world and people in your life through your work, talents, or hobbies. You don’t have to have a particular set of skills to be creative; even the process of learning a new skill is an expression of creativity. There are a range of ways to find meaning through creativity including through your career, art, music, writing, good deeds, charity, or raising a family.

In the early stages of recovery, your main source of creativity could come from the meaningful goals you set around improving your relationship with your food and your body.

2. Experiences 

Life is filled with experiences through which we can find a sense of meaning. Whilst creativity is about what you are giving to the world, this element of the meaning triangle is about what you are receiving from the world. This includes what you are receiving from your encounters with other people, relationships, nature, culture, religion, or spirituality.

Eating disorders are notorious for being isolating illnesses and holding people back from meaningful experiences; recovery can therefore present you with a wide range of experiences to find fulfilment, such as social situations and hobbies. For some, mindfulness can open up a new world of experiences and allow you to develop a healthier relationship with your body and the food you eat.

3. Attitudes 

There are challenges in life that are unavoidable but the attitude you take towards them can allow you to discover a sense of meaning and purpose. Whether it’s the stance you take towards illness, pain, guilt, and even death, having the courage to change your perspective in the face of things you cannot change can be an incredible source of meaning. You may not be able to change a situation but with the help of a suitable therapist, you can change your attitude towards it and still live a rich, satisfying life.

An important part of recovery for many people is understanding what things could have contributed to the eating disorder development, as well as the things that have kept it going or made it worse. Recovery is full of ups and downs so the attitude we take towards these setbacks can’t be underestimated. Counselling and psychotherapy can help you develop the mindset and skills needed to avoid lapses and to recover quickly from any that do occur. 


Beyond the eating disorder

Once you have a better relationship with food and your body, you can focus on what really matters. For some people, this can feel like they are discovering themselves for the first time which may be both overwhelming and exciting. For others, they are rediscovering a part of themselves they felt was lost to the eating disorder. Either way, recovery is an opportunity to discover, or rediscover, your identity and values beyond the eating disorder.

Questions you might explore in therapy, and that you can start asking yourself to help you find meaning in your life, include:

  • How can I give to the world through my talents, work, or deeds?
  • What is life-giving to me through my meaningful experiences with other people and the world?
  • What values have I shown through my attitude when facing difficulties that I couldn’t avoid?

As someone who has recovered from an eating disorder and personally experienced the benefits of discovering my own meaning and purpose in the process, I understand the real difference this approach can make as part of treatment. Having the right support is essential for recovery so if you are struggling with food or your body image then do seek out help from your GP or an eating disorder therapist.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Newton Aycliffe, Durham, DL5
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Written by Craig Lee, MSc, BA (Hons), MNCPS (Accred.), MBACP
Newton Aycliffe, Durham, DL5

Introduction Hello, I’m Craig. I’m a qualified counsellor and psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders, body image issues, and related difficulties. Please see below for more details about my areas of focus. Eating Disorders I can help if: thoughts about food rule your life, you&...

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