Stages of Breaking Free ~ Recovery Stages ~

I get asked a lot from clients, “How long does it take to get better? Is full recovery possible?

In the beginning, it is often hard to trust the process of letting go and surrendering to the unknowns of recovery. It is a long process to “get better” – remember that you did not fall into your eating disorder/disordered eating overnight- so you will not fall out of it quickly either. It took years of habits to form and the unconscious belief system has quite the hold on behaviors. Behavior change in general takes many months, or even years (for some). It is very helpful to work with a therapist who has ‘been there’ and ‘done that’ so that you know there is a way out of this suffering around food and weight worries. When I was breaking free from my own addiction to dieting, I attended a Geneen Roth workshop and found her stages of breaking free super helpful in my recovery process. It is so relieving to know that there is a predictable set of physical and emotional aspects to each stage of the process.

Although I find it still frustrating because we don’t know exactly how long each person needs to progress through each stage, it is however, almost a guarantee that one will progress and the struggle will eventually end. *Caveat here is: you gotta show up and keep doin’ the work in therapy. Journal your feelings. Feel them. Cry it out. Talk to your friends. Dance it off. Paint. Read. And so on. Or, as I like to say, “the only way out is through.”

Stage 1

Acknowledging that there is a problem, and that the problem is more complex than simply wanting to lose weight, and that dieting does not, and will never, resolve it.

Stage 2

Beginning/Rebelling Against the Years of Deprivation

Physical Aspects:

·      Eating mainly (what were previously) “forbidden” foods; eating all the time- not just when hungry and until satisfied.

·      Learning what hunger, satisfaction, and fullness feel like.

·      Learning what makes eating pleasurable (i.e., sitting, not reading or watching TV, eating slowly, etc.).

·      Possibly gaining weight.

Emotional Aspects:

·      Relief and exhilaration at not dieting.

·      Panic and fear that this stage will go on forever, and that because this looks like a binge, breaking free is no different from binging.

·      Sometimes there will be a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling that there is no end to compulsive eating.


·      Don’t panic at the weight gain. It is not atypical, and it is a natural reaction to years of deprivation. You will not gain a hundred pounds.

·      Throw away your scales, or paste your ideal weight on them.

·      Try to distinguish between foods you think you want (because before you weren’t allowed to have them) and foods that you really do want in the present moment.

·      This stage will end. Do not go on another diet because you are afraid the stage will never end.

Stage 3

“The Middle” Nitty Gritty/Learning-to-Trust-and-Befriend-Yourself Stage

Physical Aspects:

·      Eating without guilt.

·      No more bingeing.

·      Weight stabilizes.

·      Distinguishing foods you really like/want from those that were previously forbidden.

·      Ability to eat only a bite or two of chocolate.

·      Foods other than sweets begin to taste good – you learn what nourishes you.

·      You begin to have faith in body-wisdom as you see that you can eat what you want and not gain weight.

·      You eat when you are hungry although, often, don’t stop at just enough.

Emotional Aspects:

·      The mind still wants more food than the body, which is a little difficult to accept.

·      A lot of joy in realizing that after all these years, your body can still get hungry.

·      A sense of power develops as you see that you can control food – it no longer controls you.

·      This is the hard-work stage: You can stop eating when you’re not hungry, and the emotions that drove you to eat in the first place surface. If you are willing to work with yourself, you develop ways of dealing with your feelings other than using food. Some of these ways are:

o  Keeping a journal.

o  Being in therapy.

o  Talking with friends about your feelings.

o  Expressing your feelings as they arise.

You learn that food isn’t all that’s good or pleasurable about life. You learn many other ways of nourishing yourself:

o  Taking walks, baths, naps.

o  Reading.

o  Going to movies.

o  Meeting with friends.

o  Getting a massage.

o  Doing something you’ve always wanted to do.

o  Writing.

o  Dancing.

You begin to value things about yourself other than your body – and begin to realize that other people value you as well.

Your values about living change as you see that you can feel happy and satisfied without being thin; your inner life becomes important.


o  Weight loss might occur but this is not the predominant characteristic of this stage.

o  What is predominant is the shift you make from viewing yourself as an out-of-control human being to one who can make choices that will nourish yourself.

o  This stage is the most difficult one because of all the feelings that arise, and it takes “an ocean of patience” and renewed commitment to the Breaking Free/Recovery process. Remember that this is a stage, and that it will end.

The fear that often occurs in this stage is that if you deal with your compulsive eating and lose weight, you will no longer have an excuse (i.e., your fat) on which to blame all your “failures” – and that’s true! But on the other hand, you’ll have more available energy. You’ll feel better about yourself, and you won’t need an excuse.

Stage 4

The Joys of Breaking Free/Joys of Recovery

Physical Aspects:

·      Weight loss occurs – slowly!

·      You eat what you want, stop when you’re satisfied.

·      What you want has drastically changed from Stage two. What you want now are usually nourishing foods with occasional or small bites of sweets instead of large amounts of sweets and occasional [healthy foods].

·      You enjoy your body. You accept your body, even though it is not perfect.

·      Food becomes delightful, rather than a source of pain.

·      When you’re not hungry, you don’t think about eating.

·      You can go anywhere; have any kind of food in front of you, without going on a binge/eating compulsively.

Emotional Aspects:

·      You ask for what you want as well as eat what you want.

·      You feel better about yourself than you ever imagined you could feel. You are self-confident, self-trusting.

·      This confidence and trust extend into many other areas of your life – your work, your relationships.

·      Since your life is no longer revolving around food, you have more energy with which to live.

·      You have many more skills with which to deal with problems.


o  Sometimes you, like anyone else, will overeat. But now you will not take it as a sign that you are a failure.

o  Your weight will fluctuate by five to eight pounds from season to season. Sometimes you will want to eat more than you do at other times. That’s okay – sometimes your body needs more food.

Where Are You in the Recovery/ Breaking Free Process?

Some people are in Stage 2 and Stage 3 simultaneously; some people take a year to go through stage 1 and 2 and two months to go through Stage 3. Wherever you are is absolutely fine. And as long as it takes you to complete each stage is absolutely fine. Judgment has no place in any part of the recovery process.

I am in Stage ____. The food issues I am dealing with in my life right now are __________________________________ and ________________________________.

Wherever you are in the stages, acknowledge yourself for the effort it’s taken to get there.

As always, be kind and nice with yourself for being wherever you are – at any stage. Know that you are on THE PATH, and that every day, every step, you will be getting closer and closer to freedom.

Lastly, the picture of the mannequin was taken at a tiny shop in Hanoi Vietnam where I traveled this past spring. The shirt says, NEVER GIVE UP. A great life mantra to follow!

Love, light and cupcakes to you ~ Karen




Adapted from: Geneen Roth’s Four “Stages of Breaking Free”

from her book, Why Weight? A Guide to Ending Compulsive Eating

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Karen Louise Scheuner, MA, RDN

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