Changing Therapeutic Frames for Eating Disorder Recovery and the Butterfly Metaphor



butterfly catapillar metaphor symbol


This *graphic is based on a closeup picture of a butterfly wing. Catapillars do not go to sleep and emerge as butterflies. Just like us, seeking to transform into an eating disorder free person living a lovely new life, the metamorphis of the catapillar butterfly experience is one of acknowledgement, battle, disintegration, transition, creativity, determination and emergence.

Read on for detail and description of  "Experiential Levels of Patient and Psychotherapist during Eating Disorder Recovery Work."


The catapillar is an eating machine. At some point in its eating marathon it stops, builds a cocoon and withdraws from the extenal world. There the imaginal cells of the butterfly become known. What follows is a ferocious battle as the catapillar cells and the butterfly cells fight with all the strength and determination they can muster. The catapillar cells defend against the onslought of the butterfly cells. The butterfly cells are powerrul and relentless as they consume the catapillar cells. During the process the catapillar turns into a gooey mass. The mass contains the vicorious butterfly cells which use the material to painstakingly work to create the new entity, the butterfly.

When the time is right the butterfly emerges, slowly and gently so its delicate wings dry properly and can be capable of flight.

The metaphor in this process for eating disorder recovery, to my mind, is outstanding in its accuracy.

I'll write more about this and share my talk to colleagues about this subject at my Los Angeles chapter meeting of California Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).

Here's the handout I gave to the members of the audience. I've received many requests for this handout so I'm posting it here. Feel free to share it as long as you include the full author attribution at the bottom of the page.

Experiential Levels of Patient and Psychotherapist during Eating Disorder Recovery Work

Levels of Recovery Work – Patient (dormant and disguised energy moves from eating disorder to authentic living)

  1. Suspicion and rigid grasp of eating disorder behaviors
  2. Fear/Trust as eating disorder behaviors fall and anxiety grows
  3. Wonderment that anxiety can quell as new learning, skill acquisition begins
  4. Rage and fear about past history. (Grief permeates almost all levels.)
  5. Fury, fear and shock that growing beyond level 4 is their private work
  6. Delight and new psychological strength based on growing competence and higher quality relationships
  7. Daring mixed with fear as powers of discrimination are tested
  8. Discovery and recognition of personal courage as authentic beliefs and values are embraced
  9. Practice in moving toward authentic goals based on authentic personal values as eating disorder behaviors fade and fears are tolerated with new and healthy coping mechanisms.

Levels of Recovery Work - Psychotherapist (knows and is certain of energy, gifts, talents, spirit emerging)

  1. Non judgmental alert interest while listening.
  2. Hold steady while anxiety and bewilderment spikes
  3. Allow yourself to care and even love while honoring boundaries
  4. Relate emotional experience to human experience
  5. Listen, reflecting and sometimes interpreting life stories and dreams
  6. Recommend and support keeping a journal
  7. Recommend new learning (UCLA extension catalog can be a co-therapist)
  8. Relate new or unusual thoughts and behaviors to cultures where they are the status quo
  9. Relate beliefs to cultures and faiths where they are the status quo
  10. Support and encouraging action steps that honor authentic values and goals
  11. Celebrate achievements even if they are fledgling or failures on the path to fulfillment
  12. Relate personal work to the work of the world


Video: What does it mean to be a girl? 

The Butterfly Metaphor 

The Butterfly Story 

Jeffrey Sachs at the Earth Institute 

Healing Your Hungry Heart: recovering from your eating disorder. Joanna Poppink. Conari Press.

Cradle to Cradle: 

How Large-Scale Change Really Happens - Working With Emergence

Margaret Wheatley Ed.D. and Deborah Frieze ©2006


 Questions for readers:

  1. What levels of experience in recovery do you recognize?
  2. What was it like or is it like to be there?
  3. Can you share your challenges at different levels?
  4. What levels of experience listed here surprise you?
  5. Can you please think about your surprises and share them with us?


* pix  Seamless Pattern Stock Photo By panuruangjan, published on 02 July 2014 Stock Photo - image ID: 100272089 Beautiful seamless pattern made from butterfly wing.





0 # .shh 2014-10-11 16:29
0 # All of them!shh 2014-10-18 03:03

Ahh Joanna, I recognise all of those stages...

In response to your questions -

The biggest surprises were:

1.) That my ED reached far beyond my inner self - that it emcompassed my childhood, my current relationships, my choices and was there in 'everything' I did or didn't do.

2.) That my therapist believed me and believed I was telling the truth - from my perspective at least (I'd been gas-lighted for so long, I was terrified but expecting that she was going to tell me I was very mentally ill and delusional and just making up all the things I believed had happened - which is what my mother (and sister) always said).

3.) How strong I am, in fact I'm still kind of surprised and proud of how strong I am, but ED therapy makes you face up to and deal with so much, stuff you never imagined you could tackle, but I did it.

4.) How physically ill the levels of emotional stuff made me feel at times.

5.) That I finally have some self-esteem, I like myself, I like being me, I have learned to listen to what my body and inner energy are trying to tell me, and trust those feelings.

6.) Transference, some of it a little bit erotic, but other types too and the strength of those reactions and feelings.

7.) My ED just resolved itself without me even thinking about food whilst I was in therapy.

The biggest challenges:

1.) Acting out, knowing I was acting out and feeling embarrassed by my behaviour, yet not being able to stop myself from doing ridiculous things like bolting out of the door when triggered in a particular way, and then feeling upset that my therapist didn't come after me to see if I was okay, and then feeling ashamed partly for getting triggered, and partly for being so needy.

2.) Dealing with dad died, I cut contact with my mother and sister for over a year (I still don't have contact with my sister, and I see my mum about once a month now), telling my husband to get his things and go after an aggressive outburst/rage incident and know it was forever not a threat or falling out, seeing my husband become a woman and trying to help my children deal with that....if anyone told me beforehand that I'd be dealing with all that at the beginning then I would've probably been too scared to embrace therapy.

3.) Transference - feeling stupid because I knew it "wasn't real", but I couldn't make it go away, and keep fighting and fighting it and keeping it a secret. I eventually realised that I had to go with it - let myself feel the feelings full on and stop fighting them, and to explore it in therapy sessions. It was scary, letting myself fall in love with someone when I knew it was a one way street to heartache....but at some point realising that I had to just go with the flow, it was part of my healing, and through it I learned to love myself and understand what loving someone actually means.

4.) The one thing that caught me by surprise and that I find most challenging though, is relapse. I suppose I thought I'd know if I was heading towards relapse, that there would be signs - losing self-esteem, relapsing into old ways of thinking - something that would be a signal, but actually it has been possible to maintain good self-esteem, and self-regard/perception, and stay in touch with my inner self and inner energy, and still relapse into old eating habits. It's not obvious or easy to remember when you feel like a different person, like a person with a new life, that ED behaviours will always be a natural response during stressful times.

0 # Trustmylifex2 2014-11-02 20:49
I think my biggest challenge is trusting that my therapist is not tired of me. I have had steps forward and steps backwards. Right now I feel like I'm in a bit of s spiral. I have always been pretty honest with my therapist and I appreciate the same from her.

I am slipping into a fairly rigid grasp with my ED again, however.

Im ashamed to admit to my therapist and to everyone here,  that I am not taking my blood sugar medication and have been losing massive amounts of weight due to my out of control blood sugars. I know what I'm doing. I feel sick about it but I can't stop. I'm desperately afraid to gain weight.

i know this could really damage my organs. I feel crappy all the time. My vision is going and I am so tired. I keep telling myself that I'll just do it one more day.  My last blood sugar was 450. It's amazing how much I can hide from myself. I was blaming the weight loss on my chemo and biologics. For all I know they caused my BS issues.  ??

i feel like I've moved toward authentic goals in the past. I've gotten to the point that I thought UTI myself "I've got this!". This back and forth movement in eating disorder recovery is grueling.

My therapist hangs on in there with me. I do know this will upset her. I feel that she will reach a point where she will give up on me. After all, I'm about to give up on me. Then I have to deal with my PCP getting upset with me. It's my rheumatologist that ordered the labs that caught me. 

I've got to fix this. It could kill me. I love my kids. at the same time I'm terrified to gain weight. Pretty upset right now.

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