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Strategy Guide: Four Stages of Learning and Their Connection to Recovery

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By: Liam Fowler

*This blog post aims to provide a toolkit for dealing with the many transitions ED recovery can entail, using Maslow’s theories to appreciate that we are always changing and emphasizing the importance of being forgiving in doing so. In using “textbook” medical methods and approaches, we want to also acknowledge that medical healthcare and its basis is built off of white, cis, and non-disabled experiences and bodies, excluding anyone who does fit into this category in their research and applications. Similarly, it cannot be assumed that care is possible for all folks, as self-support can be something that is inaccessible for many due to the [inequitably distributed] privileges required (particularly financial). 

Many of us know of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This hierarchy encompasses five core needs which form the basis for human behavioral motivation.  They are ranked in order of priority, beginning with psychological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and culminating in self-actualization (MasterClass 2021). 


What might be less well known is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Competence! This is a tool useful for understanding our transition stages and needs during growth. By definition, “individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence” (Flower, 1999).

The four stages of competence form a model based on the premise that, before a learning experience begins, learners are unaware of what or how much they know (unconscious incompetence).

As they learn, they move through psychological states until reaching unconscious competence. In reality, the only constant in life is change and so our entire life is a learning process. We’re thus wired to grow and evolve by learning from the dynamic environments we experience. In this sense, we constantly move from being unconscious to conscious, our perceptions shaping our understanding of what is current in order to adjust our beliefs and actions accordingly. Because things are always changing, we are always growing. I would like to point out that in this there is a great opportunity; and with great opportunity comes great power.

Growth and Recovery

The opportunity is to appreciate our ability to grow; to find comfort in knowing that however we may feel at one particular instant, we have the capacity to move forward and eventually we will make progress! In the instance of suffering from disordered eating and the recovery journey, growth is always present. While you may at times feel stuck, you are always in the process of growth. While recovery is not a linear journey, the overall trajectory is positive. Although it looks and feels different for everyone, we all lie somewhere along the spectrum of learning how to handle and overcome our disordered habits, and over time evolve through the four stages. Understanding this trajectory is key to appreciating the progress that is gradually being made, even if it feels insignificant.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

So that is our superpower: growth. But with great power comes great responsibility: In recognizing that we are capable of learning the ways in which we would like to see ourselves change – either seeing the negative influence of an external force or the consequences of an internally sourced habit – we must be compassionate. It’s our responsibility to ourselves to practice self-support during our growth. Since being self-critical can seem unavoidable in disordered eating and recovery, this need for kindness cannot be overstated. Our self-critique is often the loudest when we become aware of the consequences of our disordered eating behaviors and yet can’t seem to stop them. Instead of judging ourselves for acting in a way that harms our health, narrowing in on our self-perceived weakness in self-control and susceptibility to triggers from diet culture and a weight-centric society, we can instead recognize the flaws in these beliefs and appreciate our capacity to move past them.

Practicing Compassion

The stage of learning in which we require the most self-care and compassion is in our transition from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence. This is the moment where we catch ourselves behaving and/or thinking in a way that we no longer see as self-serving, and work to take action to change that belief and/or habit. Sometimes we see the bigger picture and take action. Other times we don’t have the capacity and must sustain until the next opportunity. Guess what? That’s O.K! It’s hard, but who ever said being a superhero would be easy?! The point is that you are recognizing your potential opportunity and harnessing the power that comes from it. Because this is the transition we most commonly find ourselves in, I want to remind you to honor our responsibility. See self-care as the standard for growth rather than a moment of weakness and a vice for remaining complacent. Growth is indeed our superpower, and self-care is our weapon of choice on the hero’s journey. While societal standards have led us to believe that self-criticism is the fuel of our inner-fire of achievement, our inner-critic actually slows our motor. Instead, it is kindness and compassion that truly provide the fast-track to sustainable progress. Well now, isn’t that a pleasant surprise!

Remember: We often can’t feel self-love because our inner-critic is so loud. Mute the critic and you will hear the care coming through. Bravo – Take a Bow <3


Flower, Joe (January 1999). In the Mush. Physician Executive. 25 (1): 64–66.

MasterClass (2021). A Guide to the 5 Levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Article: Business.

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