One day at a time?

Anyone who’s ever thought about entering recovery of any kind has probably heard this phrase: “one day at a time.” And it’s a great phrase! It’s used in many recovery programs, especially 12-step programs. However, as with anything else, I think it can be misinterpreted and can hurt us if not used carefully.

“One day at a time” is a great mantra to use when you’re trying to change a behavior. In the case of eating disorders, sometimes “one meal at a time” is even more appropriate! Using these mantras can help the overall goal of change seem much less intimidating. Anybody can do anything for ONE day or ONE meal, right? And then you begin to build on those days or meals, one at a time, gathering more and more strength until you’ve truly achieved change and it’s no longer a daily struggle. I think it can be useful in avoiding all-or-nothing thinking, such as “I will NEVER binge again” … which often sets us up for failure, right? Instead, you just say “I am not binging TODAY.” One day at a time. It’s so simple yet beautiful.

On the other hand, some people misuse the “one day at a time” phrase to justify dangerous or irresponsible behaviors or thinking. If your goal is unrealistic or unhealthy (for example, maybe you want to skip meals or eat extremely low-calorie), “one day at a time” isn’t appropriate because it could lead you to believe that it’s OK to adopt unhealthy behaviors that are not sustainable long term. In this kind of scenario, “one day at a time” is sadly just about willpower (which is generally not very helpful in ED recovery) rather than true change.

Ideally, I think a more long-term perspective is beneficial when formulating a plan. I do think there is some truth to the idea that “if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.” I’m not suggesting an extremely detailed plan; we certainly can’t control everything or imagine every possible scenario. However, it’s good to have long-term goals: What is a way of eating that will be sustainable for you in the long term? How will you handle setbacks? Don’t use “one day at a time” to avoid planning for possible setbacks. Because difficulties WILL arise, and you are likely to have setbacks and relapses. It’s better to acknowledge this in the beginning and have a plan for how you’ll handle setbacks … because if you don’t, then you’re likely to hurt yourself in two ways: (1) when life gets hard, you’ll turn to food because you don’t have any other strategies to use; and (2) when you do binge or slip up, you’ll return to your old habits of beating yourself up, rather than opting for more productive post-binge strategies. And of course, this keeps the binge cycle going, over and over again (as we all know!!). This is why I think it’s important to first make a plan that will work for you in the long term that addresses the possibility of relapse and makes concrete plans for how to handle it. THEN, you can use the “one day at a time” strategy to actually implement your plan and goals (and tweak the plan when needed)!

So, if you are truly honest with yourself and realistic about the future, “one day at a time” can be very useful! But sometimes ED’s tight grip on our minds makes it difficult to be honest and realistic though; this is why most of us can benefit from receiving some kind of external support, such as therapy or support group (even an online support group). 🙂

This is how I personally have found the “one day at a time” phrase to work FOR me, rather than against me. Agree or disagree? What is YOUR experience with viewing recovery in the short term versus the long term?


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