What is recovery coaching?

Recovery coaching, as I practise it, is practical support designed to help my client towards full recovery from an eating disorder (formally diagnosed or not), or from disordered eating habits or attitudes to food, exercise, or their body.

What is recovery coaching not?

It is not counselling. It is not psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy. It is not nutritional guidance or medical support.

Who is recovery coaching for?

Recovery coaching may be for you if difficulties of any kind with eating or your body are preventing you from being happy or healthy. It may be for you if you have a past or present diagnosis of an eating disorder and have embarked on recovery, or have attempted recovery in the past but not managed to recover fully. It may be for you if you can’t quite bring yourself, alone, to take the leap of faith (and evidence) required to commit to recovery and start acting differently in the first place. The services I offer are most directly targeted at restrictive eating disorders like anorexia, but I may also be able to help if you have problems with bingeing and purging (e.g. in bulimia) or overeating; there are no hard-and-fast divides between these different manifestations of eating problems. Coaching may also be for you if you don’t have an eating disorder but find that problems with food and your body are preventing you from living the way you want to.

Who is coaching not for?

I do all I can to make the support I offer as relevant as possible to anyone who wants to be fully recovered from an eating disorder or other food- or body-related difficulties. However, I have to balance my desire to help with the risk of doing you harm, or delaying you in seeking more specialist support. I therefore may not be able to help you if you are

  1. under 18,
  2. pregnant, or
  3. actively suicidal.

I do make exceptions, but they need to be carefully worked out, for example as regards the involvement of parents and/or a wider treatment team. I may also be unable to help you if you are suffering from other health problems alongside your body/food-related problems. If you suffer from the forms of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, obsessive-compulsive habits, and perfectionism that often accompany eating disorders, I may still be able to help you, but their severity will be a crucial consideration here.

How are you qualified to be a recovery coach? 

I have no healthcare qualifications. I have no life-coaching qualifications. I have personal past experience of anorexia, which I suffered from between the ages of about 16 and 26. My recovery and post-recovery took a good few years, and there was no magic morning when I woke up and realised they were complete, but I would say that since around 2012 (four years after I started my final recovery effort) I have been fully recovered. My experience of illness and recovery will not have been the same as your experience, but it will not have been completely different either. I take your illness seriously, and I believe in your capacity to recover fully.

I have a DPhil (PhD) in German literature from the University of Oxford. Since my PhD, which focused on the psychological effects of reading fiction (specifically mental imagery and emotional responses), my research has moved increasingly towards the intersection of literary studies, experimental psychology, and psychiatry, and my current work investigates the helpful and harmful potential of fiction-reading for eating disorders. Alongside my academic research, I have been running a Psychology Today blog on eating disorders, A Hunger Artist, since 2009. When I started the blog I had been recovering from anorexia for just over a year, and was fully weight-restored but psychologically still had a lot of work to do. Writing the blog (which has attracted over 3 million total views to date) involves extensive reading in eating disorder research, as well as responding to comments and questions from readers on a weekly basis. All this activity has taught me a vast amount about how eating difficulties arise, affect people’s lives, and are successfully overcome.

To support my professional development as a coach, and to ensure I practise ethically and effectively, I engage in regular coaching supervision with an accredited coaching supervisor. The European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) define supervision as follows:

Supervision is the interaction that occurs when a mentor or coach brings their coaching or mentoring work experiences to a supervisor to be supported and to engage in reflective dialogue and collaborative learning for the development and benefit of the mentor or coach, their clients and their organisations.

I find supervision and the associated learning an invaluable part of how I understand my relationships with my clients, the interventions I make, and the wider systems that shape the change my clients achieve.

How does it work?

Through a mixture of video chat conversations, emails, structured tasks, and shared meals (if you want), we establish together which aspects of your thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and physical state that are preventing full recovery from your eating disorder, and we tackle them together, systematically, sensitively, and with a good dose of ruthlessness.

How individually tailored is the support?

My coaching methods are fundamentally inductive: their essence is careful identification of what the problem really is for you, and what a successful solution would look like, and use the combination as a starting point for working out how to get you from here to there. To do this effectively, I will ask you questions during an initial consultation, and ask you to complete a reflective task on your illness and recovery, including goal-setting at 3 crucial timescales, before we begin our work together. From then on, our coaching sessions will involved detailed conversations analysing the textures of your life and pinpointing precisely which interventions might stand the best chance of making real and sustainable change. We will also decide together on the most suitable type and amount of contact at different phases in the process. I draw no hard lines between your problems with eating and the rest of your life, and I adapt all the support I offer to your specific circumstances, especially your stage of recovery or post-recovery. Coaching also includes regular prompts to reflect on your progress and give feedback to me on how I’m supporting you. Finally, when you finish your work with me, we conclude with a constructive assessment of what you’ve achieved, and a roadmap for how you’ll be protecting and building on your progress in the months and years to come.

How do we get started?

If you’re interested in coaching, get in touch via the contact form or by email and we can set a time for an initial 30-minute Zoom consultation (free of charge). You should ask any questions you have that aren’t addressed in this document either during our call or by email before you commit to working with me. I share a coaching proposal after our call that summarizes what we discussed and how I think I could help you, as well as the commitments I would ask of you if we worked together. At this point, if you have medical or other professional support, I also recommend that you inform your doctor/physician/therapist/counsellor that you are considering coaching. You may find it helpful to show them this document as well as the page “Recovery coaching: For professionals”. This will allow us to address any potential concerns or conflicts of interest before problems arise.

If I feel confident that I can help you, and if you decide you want to proceed, I ask you to sign a binding contract that covers the terms of the coaching relationship, payment terms, and your consumer rights. I ask for payment before we begin. Typically clients pay in full at the start, but we can also arrange a payment plan if you prefer. You may cancel the programme up to 72 hours after our first session (not including the initial consultation), in which case I will refund you the full fee minus a fee to cover the time I gave to the first session and creating your coaching plan. I do not offer refunds after this period, and hope that you will challenge yourself and me to make the remaining time as beneficial for you as it can be.

How long does coaching take?

Coaching is neither a magic bullet nor an endless exploration. The point of it is to tangibly enhance your life in an efficient and effective way. Making this work requires effort, commitment, and honesty from both of us. Some improvements may be wonderfully rapid; others may need surprisingly (or predictably) sustained work. Typically, I will ask you to commit to an intensive four-week programme in the first instance, with the option to add extensions beyond that point. In general I find that clients work with me for between 3 and 6 months, usually starting with a higher intensity of contact before tapering towards less contact as their recovery progresses.

How does it end?

Coaching as I practise it has built-in obsolescence: I want you to stop needing me. In this sense, I take the end of the coaching process as seriously as the beginning (and the middle). I understand the importance of helping you maintain and build on the changes you have achieved during coaching once it ends, so I offer a comprehensive wrapping-up process to help you ensure you have all the resources you need to take your next life steps confidently on your own. I also invite you to provide follow-up data after we finish our work together—at 3 and 6 months and then after 1, 2, 3, and 5 years—to help you reflect on your recovery and post-recovery and to help me learn from your experiences. These timepoints also offer us the chance to have a quick chat or share any relevant resources if you identify anything that needs more work.

Can coaching happen alongside therapy or counselling?

Coaching and therapy or counselling are not incompatible. For them to be usefully complementary, it’s important that everyone involved knows what’s going on. If you are working with a doctor, counsellor, therapist, nutritionist, or other healthcare professional(s) and you decide to start coaching with me, I’ll ask you to tell them about your decision and will suggest that you show them this document and invite them to contact me if they have any questions or concerns. In some cases, conflicts or discrepancies may arise between the coaching work we do and your professional healthcare support. If this happens you should let me know as soon as possible so that together we can clarify and resolve the problem.

Are the fees negotiable?

Coaching takes time and mental effort to do well, and I charge enough to make it financially sustainable for me. If you’re in a financially difficult situation, though, and the standard fees are unmanageable for you, please get in touch and we’ll see whether we can work out a solution, for example by adjusting the standard template in some way. I also offer discounts for bookings of 12 weeks’ coaching or more.

How can my friends and family help?

If you think it will be helpful to involve anyone else in the coaching process, please let me know. Coaching is about making you healthier and happier, but we are all social creatures, and sometimes personal change cannot happen without specific kinds of involvement from other people in your life. That involvement may be about reducing obstacles to your progress or creating solid support networks or adding a bit of fun to the process, or any number of other contributions. If it seems there might be a benefit in a conversation involving a third person more closely in your coaching, we can discuss whether this is something you want to do, and if so, you or I can approach the other person to invite them to be involved.

I occasionally work with clients under the age of 18, if they are also supported by another treatment provider or a broader team. When I do so, we make specific agreements about safeguarding and confidentiality that include at least one parent or guardian as well as the client themselves.

I will never make contact with any third party without your consent, except where I have serious and immediate worries about your or someone else’s safety. (These edge cases are described in the contract you’ll sign before coaching begins.)

Why do you offer coaching?

In 2009 I launched my Psychology Today blog, which began as a largely personal account of my experience of anorexia and recovery and gradually became a place where I bring together the personal experience and the science of eating disorders. A significant chunk of my life since then has spent replying to blog readers’ comments and questions, many of them specifically about the practicalities of recovery: how to do it, how to cope with how uncomfortable or painful or frightening (or exhilarating) it feels, how not to stop halfway, how to let the rest of life back in after long absence.

Over the years, I’ve identified many common threads in these questions, but each is also unlike any other. I do all I can to answer every question with care and honesty, and sometimes perhaps my answers are a helpful part of a reader’s movement away from illness. Some exchanges continue over months or years; in others, we share just one or two messages each way. Sometimes I hear back from someone years later, whether because life is good now or because it isn’t yet (or any more). Quite often I wonder: Did what I say help? Could I have done anything more? Sometimes I feel that with a more sustained kind of contact, more significant and lasting progress could have been made.

And this is where the idea for coaching came from: to expand that kind of web and email contact into something more substantial. To talk with you face to face (thanks to the magic of video conferencing). To learn more about what exactly your life is like now, and what you want for your future. To create for you precise and practical experiments to challenge your assumptions and your habits and help you see how much can be different. To help you persist, or change tack, when success isn’t immediate. To share glimpses of some of the beauty that life and the universe hold when the blinkers of disordered eating are cast aside.

Sadly, one of the reasons why people end up reading my blog and asking questions seems to be a set of profound failings in the way eating disorders are currently treated and understood; I’ve begun to explore these problems, and suggest solutions to them, in my blog posts, and in my academic research. In the meantime, coaching is my way of offering something different.

Finally, and pragmatically, coaching is one means by which I earn a living. I have a portfolio career involving a range of freelance activities as well as a small amount of unpaid academic research and writing. I’d love to live in a world where money wasn’t always a question that needed asking when we‘re deciding how to use our short time on this planet, but sadly that world doesn’t exist yet. Until it does, thank you for understanding my need to charge for some of the time I give in trying to contribute meaningfully to the world before I die.

If you have any more questions, feel free to write to me via the contact form or by email at emily [at] hungerartist.org. Meanwhile, thanks for your interest in this coaching service.