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October 8, 2018

How to Interrupt the Cycle of Binge Eating.

There is no objective rule book of the universe that definitively states “good people eat x amount of calories in a day, weigh x amount, and eat x type of foods.”

As a life coach who works with many women who have struggles around food, and as a survivor of an eating disorder myself, I often work with people who feel ashamed of their binge eating habits.

The way I see it, the cycle of binge eating goes like this:

I don’t feel good enough about myself, so I desire to numb the feeling of inadequacy. I eat in order to alleviate feeling not good enough, but then I don’t want to stop eating because I know that once I stop eating, the previous feelings of not good enoughness will return (only those feelings will be amplified, because now I have added another “wrongdoing” to my pile of evidence about why I should feel ashamed of myself), so I keep eating until I feel sick.

Then I feel awful about myself and start making promises about how I will compensate for this “bad” behavior, i.e. “I’ll starve myself tomorrow” or “I’ll run six miles in the morning,” or “I’m never keeping ice cream in the house again.

I have identified a few misguided, socially condoned myths that contribute to this cycle, which must be debunked before we can truly have freedom around food, forgive ourselves for our habits, and break the cycle:

  1. The myth that punishment works, and the idea that if we are not living as healthfully as we would like, that we just need to set better rules, and be more disciplined.
  2. The myth that feelings like shame, guilt, and insecurity are bad and shouldn’t be felt. We can and should stop these feelings.

Both are categorically false.

First, evidence shows that physical punishment is stunningly deleterious at every developmental level.

I believe the ample research drawing the conclusion that physical punishment does not work can be extrapolated to nonphysical punishment too, like verbal abuse of oneself or depriving oneself of pleasure or self-love (like in the case of berating oneself after eating too much).

In a study called Renewal after the punishment of free operant behavior, rats were given shocks after pressing a lever that they had been conditioned to press (through intermittent reinforcement). After being shocked, the rats proceeded with caution the next time they pressed the lever, but still went on to press the lever the exact number of times that non-shocked rats would.

“The reliability of this phenomenon demonstrates that punishment does not change the tendency to engage in the behavior that was punished. Instead, it makes the person or the rat want to avoid the source of punishment. As soon as the child thinks it’s not being watched (as soon as the situation seems different in some way), the tendency to engage in the behavior will reassert itself. Punished children do what was punished behind their parents’ backs, or as soon as they get to college.” —Psychology Today, Michael Karson, Ph.D.

So punishment leads not to behavior change, but the desire to avoid the punisher.

Except in the case of binge eating, the source of the punishment is you. So in this case, punishment only results in increased self-evasion.

Punishing ourselves for eating “too much” or eating “unhealthy” foods does not actually change our tendency to do so. It only makes us want to avoid ourselves.

And avoiding ourselves is the reason that we binge eat in the first place!

It is a positive feedback loop that continually reinforces itself. Ergo, punishment is entirely counterproductive.

But we continue punishing ourselves for “bad” eating behavior (even though there is no such thing), because we have internalized the unearned authority of diet culture, which profits off of shame and dissatisfaction.

We punish ourselves when we think we have “indulged,” as if we have broken some societal rule by not depriving ourselves.

Just like a driver might stop at a red light even when there are no other cars or police present (and hence no repercussions), we are reacting to an internalized authority by self-imposing the “rules” or “shoulds” of the dominant culture.

The “there is always something new and terribly wrong with me that I need to fix” mentality of diet culture has taught us divide ourselves into two parts: the authority figure and the punishable offender.

When our inner punishable offender has “acted out of line” by overeating, we think it’s time for our inner authority figure to crack down and control the situation.

But in this case, control is the problem, not the solution.

Believing that we have to control a part of ourselves only creates a sense of inner division, where we start to believe that there is a “bad” part of ourselves that needs to be shamed and beaten back.

So we create an inner dictator, an inner prison warden, in order to control the perceived “bad” part of ourselves.

However, most people do not have a particularly splendid relationship with dictatorial authority figures.

We tend to resent them. And try to hide from them. And disobey them. And do whatever the heck we can to prove to them that they can’t, and don’t control us.

Hence our “acting out.” Really we are trying to heal our inner division and prove to our inner dictator that it doesn’t have power over us.

But instead we just end up like a pendulum swinging back and forth, between assuming the role of the inner dictator, and the punishable offender who rebels against the dictator’s rule.

Both only exist in opposition to one another, so strengthening the control of the inner dictator only strengthens our belief in the badness and wrongness of the punishable offender.

This dichotomy leaves no room for healing this division between the parts of ourselves. And when we are not in our wholeness, it is impossible for us to commit to our values from a heart-based place.

Neither the rebellious offender nor the authority figure is concerned with a true, authentic, and well-rounded commitment to health—one that includes adopting a compassionate attitude toward ourselves.

The offender and the authority figure are concerned only with the world of right and wrong, and good and bad, not that which is objectively life-giving.

What is needed is for us to stop the cycle of oscillation between these two separate parts of ourselves, and begin coming from a whole-hearted commitment to loving ourselves.

Loving ourselves does not mean stuffing our face with brownies every night. That is just as self-deprecating as depriving ourselves.

Loving ourselves means giving ourselves the gift of healthy boundaries.

And giving ourselves the gift of having a robust understanding of what our bodies want and need. Including giving ourselves the gift of freedom and permission to honor those needs.

We have sadly forgotten how to positively frame our commitments.

We have forgotten how to commit from a place of inspiration and self-love, because our society has wrongfully taught us that dissatisfaction and negative self- talk are necessary for motivation.

And the shame-based beauty, entertainment, and diet industries have taught us that punishment is the way to self-improvement.

The reason we believe this is because “…punishment looks like it works even though it doesn’t. Because the child is inhibited in your presence, it’s easy to think they would be inhibited in your absence. Punishment produces politeness, not morality.”

Or in the case of binge eating, the behavior is inhibited only in the presence of the inner dictator, which is a sub-personality and cannot be ever present.

But because punishment appears to work in the short-term, we make the wrongful assumption that it also works in the long run, which it very much doesn’t.

As soon as our inner dictator gives way, our rebellious punishable offender makes her comeback, and the cycle starts anew.

So now that we can see past the falsity of the myth that punishment works, it is time to move onto the second myth that has contributed to the cycle of binge eating and self-inflicted punishment: that feelings like shame, guilt, and insecurity are bad and shouldn’t be felt, and that we can and should stop these feelings.

Emotions are just energy in motion. Energy is inherently meaningless. Devoid of our own meaning-making, there are no inherently “good” or “bad” emotions.

But because we think “bad” emotions exist, we also think that we should be able to stop said emotions, which leads us to believe in the superstition of experiential avoidance.

Experiential avoidance includes attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy teaches us that experiential avoidance is almost always either ineffectual or counterproductive.

But it’s ineffectiveness is hard to see for a few reasons:

  1. We have been taught our whole lives that we are supposed to be able to control our thoughts and emotions, like being told to “stop being upset,” or “don’t think that way.”
  2. When we were little, the adults in our lives probably seemed to be able to control their thoughts and emotions, so we think that we can too.
  3. Avoidance strategies like drinking alcohol, checking Facebook, compulsive exercise, or overeating do work in the short-term—so in the moment it really seems like they are effective.
  4. Our modern capitalist, convenience-obsessed culture teaches us that discomfort is a terrible thing that should be avoided at all costs.

All of these factors have resulted in a collective unwillingness to sit with whatever arises in our inner world.

Because we don’t know how to sit with emotions like shame or fear, or insecurity or guilt, we live in reaction to these feelings.

We don’t know how to compassionately hold space for our own intense experiences, so we compulsively avoid them with tactics such as overeating and self-punishment.

We busy ourselves with either stuffing our faces or punishing ourselves because both are useful distractions from having to actually feel.

But the truth is that whatever we resist persists, and the more unwilling we are to have an internal experience, the more we will have it.

The more unwilling we are to feel ashamed or guilty, the more power shame and guilt will have over us.

The act of punishing ourselves by depriving ourselves, judging ourselves, or hating ourselves for overeating is just as much of an avoidance strategy as the overeating itself.

They are both just symptoms of the same root cause: escapism.

So although overeating, and punishing ourselves for overeating may both be avoidance strategies that work to numb us in the moment—they only make what we are trying to avoid worse in the long run.

It’s like taking pain pills for a festering wound—the pain may go away temporarily, but the wound certainly isn’t healing.

So now that we know that punishment is ineffective and experiential avoidance doesn’t work, what does the solution to binge eating look like?

At the risk of sounding totally woo-woo and cliché, it looks like love.

Broadly, the solution looks like radical self-love, forgiveness, compassion, and acceptance.

It looks like surrendering all fear of any “bad” part of ourselves, and making room for all of ourselves to be included in our wholeness (this guided meditation can help).

It looks like increasing our capacity to tenderly nurture and love ourselves through intense experiences, so that we no longer need to run from shame, guilt, fear, insecurity, and uncertainty—but can instead witness those internal experiences with equanimity and love.

It means both ceasing our inner dictator’s attempts to beat down our inner “punishable offender,” and our attempt to avoid our internal experiences.

It means reteaching ourselves how to sit with our emotions.

It means replacing the belief system of “it is necessary for me to be upset with and punish myself in order for me to improve,” with beliefs like:

The more joyful I am, the healthier I am.

Dissatisfaction with my body doesn’t motivate me as much as gratitude and inspiration.

I do not need to feel guilty for experiencing pleasure or fullness.

I do not need to be afraid that being too forgiving and self-loving will lead to gluttony.

The higher the emotional state I reside in, the easier it is for me to meet my body’s needs.

Joy and love amplify my ability to live in alignment with my true values and commitments, while lowering the effort required to do so. 

It means replacing the belief “I can’t handle my emotions,” with the belief, “no internal experience can hurt me, and I am large enough to contain any experience—like the sky is large enough to contain any cloud.”

And it means reframing our understanding of what it means to be disciplined.

When we usually think about discipline, we call to mind some degree of masochistic self-punishment. But really, discipline comes from the root word “disciple”—to be lovingly devoted to something. When you are connected to your source of inspiration, you will be endlessly devoted to your commitments.

If a commitment hasn’t come out of love, then it’s not a commitment—it’s an ego desire. It’s something your ego thinks you need in order to be validated.

I see so many people adopting a “commitment to health” from a place of fear, insecurity, guilt, and or shame.

But shame does not lead to happiness.

Fear does not lead to abundance.

Guilt does not lead to acceptance.

Insecurity does not lead to motivation.

We need to step completely out of the world of right and wrong when we think about food and our bodies, and remember that caring about our health is not the “right” thing to do.

It is actually totally and completely fine to not give a rat’s arse about your health. Eating more than your body needs in order to function optimally does not in any way make you a bad, or less valuable person.

In fact, caring about health just in order to look good, or prove that we’re good enough, is to me, entirely uninspiring and egotistical.

A commitment to our health should not come from the need to prove anything to anyone, but rather, from an inspiring reason why.

Just like it doesn’t matter if there’s gas in a car that isn’t going anywhere, health is only valuable when it is going to help us fulfill our greater commitments.

We often get into a mindset of believing that we need to reach a certain health destination before we’re allowed to focus on our bigger commitments, like making a difference in the world.

But really, the inspiration to be authentically committed to our health comes from our greater commitments.

We should always put caring about our health in the bigger context of that which our health is serving.

For example:

Totally uninspiring and ineffective: “I hate that I just ate 25 cookies. I need to compensate for this wrongdoing by judging, shaming, and depriving myself.”

Inspiring and effective: “There is nothing objectively wrong with eating 25 cookies. I’m not wrong or bad for my eating habits. And I am inspired by the possibility of being my most vibrant, energized, healthy, and vital self. So that I am more available for the things that I truly care about—like being there for the people in my life and my creative pursuits.”

We need to remind ourselves that there is a world of a difference between “there is something wrong with me that I have to fix” and “there is nothing wrong with me, and I’m inspired by the possibility of committing myself to my health.

Repeat after me: it is never necessary for me to be upset with myself, or where I am, in order for me to be inspired to create what I want.

Completely give up the idea that the harder you are on yourself, the better results you will produce. Find a vision for the world that inspires you—and then, live in alignment with that.

No negative self-talk necessary. No shame. No self-judgement. No self-inflicted punishments.

Just a loving vision for the world.

Nonviolent communication teaches that when we get past moralistic judgments of rightness and wrongness, we can step into a radically different way of judging. We can begin asking “is this behavior serving life?” rather than, “do I deserve to be rewarded or punished?”

Then, we can set boundaries around food as an act of self-compassion rather than punishment.

We must remember that food is not an enemy.

Our bodies (no matter what they look like) are not enemies.

Our emotions (no matter what they feel like) are not enemies.

We need to altogether get past the kind of thinking that leads us to see enemies, and begin to understand that punishment is a losing game, and reinforces the notion that violence is a way of getting what we want.

We need to get past the idea that running from ourselves will ever lead to our freedom.

Punishment leads to more violence.

Avoidance leads to more of the thing that we are trying to avoid.

So let’s stop punishing and running from ourselves, and start committing to our health for the intrinsic value of how it enriches life.

Brandilyn Tebo

author: Brandilyn Tebo

Image: Chris Barbalis / Unsplash

Editor: Julie Balsiger

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