Are you always on a diet but just never quite reach your goal weight? Or, if you get to a healthy weight, is it impossible to stay there? Maybe you end up bingeing again and regaining the weight you lost.
The road to liberation from binge eating takes is not a straightforward path. As with anything, creating change involves navigating both successes and challenges. With binge eating disorder, that means dealing with the inevitable slip-ups.
When that happens, it can be disheartening and make you doubt yourself. Yet it’s possible to learn from these experiences so that it doesn’t happen again. Every setback is an opportunity for growth.
For example, Jane finally believed in the binge cure, realizing she wasn’t thinking about food as much, obsessing over every carb, or worrying about eating in front of other people.
She could recognize her triggers and was developing new coping strategies. She couldn’t remember the last time she had binged.
Then she went to a family reunion where she saw her older sister, a member of the family she tried to avoid. Her sister wasn’t supposed to be at the reunion, but had showed up unexpectedly.
Her sister had always been the golden child, the pretty one, the thin one, and now, the successful one. Her parents doted on her, and Jane felt like a second-rate daughter compared to her sister.
That night, she ended up bingeing and felt miserable.
Why did Jane binge?
Being in her sister’s presence opened some old wounds and she felt diminished. By realizing what had triggered her, Jane could move past the relapse, seeing it as a learning opportunity rather than a setback. She got back on track and did more healing around her sibling issues.
Let’s take a moment to define what binge eating disorder is and is not. It is the most prevalent eating disorder, and it is also a treatable condition. Overcoming bingeing is not a matter of having more control or willpower. It’s also not about being addicted to food (although it feels like it’s about those things).
Bingeing means eating a large amount of food in a short period of time, feeling out of control while you’re bingeing. Bingeing episodes are typically followed by feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment.
The signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder can vary from person to person. However, there are some common signs and symptoms that people with BED often experience:
- Eating large amounts of food in a short period of time
- Eating even when you’re not hungry or don’t want to eat any more food
- Eating until you’re uncomfortably full or feel sick to your stomach
- Frequently eating alone or in secret
- Feeling guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed after bingeing
- Experiencing feelings of low self-esteem or worthlessness
- Thinking about food all the time
- Missing social events or work due to bingeing
Binge Eating Disorder is the most common type of eating disorder in the United States, and it affects people of all genders, ages, and ethnicities. Many who struggle with bingeing don’t know they have a diagnosable and treatable eating disorder. They often think they lack willpower and control or believe they’re addicted to food.
Not true. Binge eating disorder is a negative coping strategy that involves eating as a way of dealing with difficulties in life.
The key to stopping bingeing for good is to identify why you’re using food to cope, develop new ways of expressing yourself, and cultivate helpful self-soothing strategies.
While it’s normal to have setbacks during treatment, relapse can feel like a major defeat. It’s important to know that relapse is normal and temporary, and as with Jane, can be an opportunity to learn more about yourself to prevent future relapses.
What is binge eating disorder relapse?
Relapse is a return to previous behaviors after abstinence or improvement. This can mean bingeing again after not doing so, focusing more on food, avoiding social situations, or eating to cope with anxiety, depression, loneliness, and stress.
Relapses aren’t just about behavior. They also have to do with our mindset. Increased dissatisfaction with weight or body image is also a sign of a relapse. If your weight or body image is tied to your self-worth or serves to distract you from other issues in life, that’s a warning sign.
It’s important to remember that relapse is not a sign of failure. It’s quite common. During any process of change, there will be ups and downs – times when you feel great and you have a handle on coping and times when you don’t. The key is to plan for when those tough times come around again.
One of the best ways to prevent relapse is to identify your triggers – the things that make you want to slip back into the unhealthy coping strategy of binge eating. Once you know what your triggers are, you can develop a plan for how to deal with them.
There are several common reasons for relapse.
One of the most common triggers for relapse is stress. This could be anything from a relationship break-up or job loss to moving to a new city or starting a new job.
It can be a loss, dealing with financial difficulties, or managing anxiety during a pandemic. Any change or upheaval in your life is challenging and can increase your risk of relapse.
Loneliness or isolation
Binge eating can often start as a way to cope with loneliness. When we feel deeply alone, that feels like an internal emptiness that can be symbolically filled with food. If you’re feeling isolated and alone (even in a group of people), it’s important to cultivate more of an attitude of solitude.
Loneliness is sadness over being alone. Solitude is the state of being comfortably alone. When you are alone with a part of yourself that can provide comfort, understanding, and encouragement, you feel a peaceful sense of solitude.
Being around triggers
Maybe you have certain people or situations in your life that trigger you emotionally. For Jane, being around her sister was a trigger. Other triggers are listening to friends or family members who are always dieting or talking about their own body issues can be a trigger. Important to remember that the trigger is a situation and not food.
If you expect yourself to be perfect in everything you do and you don’t allow yourself to miss a beat, you may suffer from perfectionism. Yet change is not linear. Everyone has moments of backsliding, but those are also opportunities for learning.
Think about what we say to babies taking their first uncertain steps. They take a few steps and then they always fall.
We don’t say, “Oh, that baby’s never going to walk. That baby is a failure.” We say, “You’ve got this, baby. Try again.” We need to be equally encouraging to ourselves.
How to Prevent Relapse
While there’s no guarantee that you’ll never relapse, there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Some tips for prevention include:
Identify your triggers
One of the best things you can do to prevent relapse is to identify your triggers and develop a plan for how you’ll deal with them if they come up. If you turn to unhealthy behaviors when you’re stressed, practice nurturing and helpful coping strategies so that they will take the place of bingeing.
Process your feelings
The way to feel your emotions is to first identify what you are experiencing. Most emotions can be distilled into one of the following: mad, sad, glad, or afraid. After you identify what you’re feeling, express your emotions with words either by journaling or talking to a friend, partner, therapist, or support buddy.
Turn your inner critic into a friend
When we’re kind to ourselves, encourage and support ourselves, we can handle almost anything. Also, the nicer you are to yourself, the better you feel, which eliminates the need to binge.
We do this by speaking to ourselves the way we would a friend or someone we care about, using the same words and tone of voice we’d use for a friend.
Have a solid support system in place
These are the people you can rely on when things get tough – the ones who will help talk you through your triggering situation and help you find a healthy way to cope. It could be a therapist, partner, friend, or support group.
As anyone struggling to overcome binge eating probably knows, relapse is a major concern. It’s also a reality for many people; estimates suggest that the relapse rates for eating disorders are like those for chronic illnesses like depression and anxiety (between 40 and 50 percent).
However, there are things you can do to prevent a relapse from happening; by being aware of your triggers, finding new ways to deal with stress, challenging perfectionism, and being kind to yourself, you can break free from bingeing for good.
Is it relapse or self-sabotage?
Sometimes, we go back to old patterns because we sometimes fear change. Consciously, we want to stop bingeing and feel good. Maybe we want to get to a healthy weight and imagine how wonderful we will feel when the scale shows that number. Yet there are hidden parts of our mind that put the brakes on positive change.
That’s when sabotage comes in. Whereas relapse has to do with situations, sabotage involves inner conflict. Seven kinds of fears lead to sabotage. Let’s understand each of them and explore how they may be keeping you stuck.
#1 Fear of success
It’s counterintuitive, but success can be scary. Once we succeed, we often worry if we’ll be able to maintain that success. It can be easier to not succeed in the first place. When we don’t reach our goals, we don’t have to worry about losing ground or being humiliated by visibly regaining weight.
There are other reasons to fear the outcome of success. Friends and other relationships might change. For example, Bettina realized that what kept her connected with some friends was their mutual wish to lose weight. Once she was no longer joining in their diet talk, they had less to say to each other and she felt a loss. She wondered if by losing weight, she would also lose her connection to friends.
Like Bettina, you might also feel as if you have less in common with certain people when you reach your goal, or that your weight loss and happiness may invite their jealousy.
#2 Fear of failure
Fearing failure is related to perfectionism, rejection, and judgment. Many of us feel bad about ourselves when we fail at a goal. We’re conditioned to see failure as something wrong, so we feel like a “failure” and personalize failure, rather than seeing it as a stepping stone to success.
“What if I fail?” can be a powerful motivator to stop giving it our best.
Instead, look at failure as a stepping stone to success. Michael Jordan once said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
This quote emphasizes the importance of perseverance, resilience, and learning from failure. Those qualities contributed to Jordan’s successful career in basketball, and will also help you get to wherever you want to go.
#3 Fear of expectation
When we think of becoming binge-free or reaching a specific weight goal, we have expectations about what life will be like on that side of the bathroom scale. The fear of expectation means that you believe that by changing your life, you’ll change your life.
If you think that when you stop bingeing and lose weight you’ll start dating, find a new job, have a baby, go to grad school, leave your partner, or take some risks, then there are a lot of expectations about what you’ll gain in life by losing weight.
But what if your life doesn’t change? The idea of not living up to expectations can be too scary, so you may give up before you meet your goal.
Instead, challenge the idea that your expectations of yourself, or your hopes and dreams, are tied to your weight. Consider what else may be blocking you from pursuing your goals.
#4 Fear of impulsivity
One of my clients confessed to fearing that she would cheat on her husband if she lost weight. Whenever she got close to her dream goal of weighing 130 pounds, she celebrated with ice cream.
Then she’d binge for a month before starting another diet and the diet-binge cycle continued. As long as she was focused on losing weight, she wasn’t thinking about her unsatisfying marriage.
A good way to proceed is to ask yourself what are your hopes and fears are about creating change. Consider what will be different when you are liberated from bingeing, when you don’t think about food all the time. When you face your fears and work through them, they lose their power.
#5 Fear of objectification
Sometimes, weight becomes the way to protect ourselves from the unwanted gaze of others and away from physical intimacy.
People with negative experiences with intimacy are often afraid of being viewed as objects. Whether they were sexually abused or shamed about their appearance, they may stay overweight because that makes them feel invisible.
If any of these fears resonate with you, it’s important to figure out why you fear sexual or romantic attention.
Start working through your associations with intimacy and relationships by considering what you fear will happen if you feel attractive and why.
#6 Fear of intimacy
Remember Julia Roberts’s character in the movie Runaway Bride and her changing preferences for eggs? The type of eggs she liked depended on the kind her fiance liked.
Many of us believe on some level that we must give up ourselves to be in a relationship. If you think relationships will drain or change you, you might tell yourself you can’t be in a relationship until you lose weight. This means when you get healthier it will scare you on some level and you’ll end up bingeing again.
When you perceive relationships as healthy and can associate intimacy with being happy, you stop fearing connection. When we have fulfilling relationships, we stop seeking companionship (and literal fulfillment) from food.
#7 Fear of happiness
Happiness can trigger sabotage. You might think, “That sounds crazy. Of course, I want to lose weight. That doesn’t make me nervous. It’s what I want more than anything. ”
That’s logical. But our minds don’t always behave logically. Often, it’s not logical, it’s psychological. Our mind has its own ways of interpreting things.
We may consciously yearn for happiness, but on another level, many of us fear that if we get too happy, the proverbial rug will be pulled out from under us. The other shoe will drop. We’ll realize it was too good to last.
So, what do we do to avoid the loss of happiness? We don’t allow ourselves to become “too” happy by sabotaging ourselves.
Alternately, perhaps you attach a positive meaning to unhappiness. It’s said (but not correctly) that “true artists must suffer.” Perhaps you think it’s noble to suffer, that suffering somehow makes you a better person. That can translate into a notion that you’re a good person if you suffer and a bad person if you embrace joy.
When you trust the idea that happiness can last, it’s easier to stay on track without sabotaging your efforts.
Which of these seven fears can you most identify with?
Identifying the true reasons behind self-sabotage is the first step to creating lasting change.
How to deal with self-sabotage?
Be kind to yourself. We all make mistakes, so don’t backlash or shame yourself. Your self-talk influences the way you feel and perceive yourself.
So, speak to yourself the way you’ll speak to a friend. Believe in your ability to solve problems.
There’s an old proverb: Fall down seven times. Get up eight.
It’s normal to fall on your journey to change your relationship with yourself and with food. What’s important is to get back up and keep going, to learn from each experience.
After all, nobody sits down at the piano or any instrument and plays it right away. First, we learn where to put our fingers, how to make sounds, how to play chords, and we keep practicing until we finally are able to play. Strive for progress, not perfection.
Future fears can make you have here-and-now worries about something that may or may not occur in the future. This “what if” thinking is about might possibly happen in the future, but it causes real anxiety in the present about an event that has not occurred.
What if I gain weight after eating that cookie sandwich/pizza/cake?
What if I can’t ever stop eating?
What if I ask someone out on a date and get rejected?
The antidote to future fears is to stay present in the here and now.
Replace “what if” with “what is” which is reality and what you know to be true in the present. It’s what’s actually true and grounded in reality.
I am the same weight I was this morning.
I am working on a new approach to stop bingeing.
My friends and colleagues find me friendly and approachable.
When you think of what is actually happening, you’re less likely to feel anxious, worried, or upset.
Create a Vision of the Future
“If you can imagine it, you can create it.”
If you don’t know where you want to be, how will you know when you get there? One way to do that is to create a vision board, a visual depiction of how you want your life to look, a visual that shows what success and happiness look like.
Let’s imagine your ideal life. Consider what your day looks like. Think about the people you interact with each day. What is your job?
What do you do for fun? Look through magazines or a newspaper, and cut out the words and images that appeal to you. Or, go online and find images that fit your vision.
Create your vision and watch yourself grow into this new life. Self-sabotage becomes trickier when you know exactly what you want. So instead of feeling bad if you sabotage yourself, learn from the experience and keep going.
Keep in mind the difference between relapse and sabotage. Relapse means returning to old coping strategies, such as bingeing or being preoccupied with food and weight, because of an external trigger or situation that causes unbearable emotions and often a sense of helplessness.
Self-sabotage results from an internal trigger, often occurring when things are going well, causing some inner conflict about success and well-being.
Relapse and self-sabotage are not signs of failure but indicators of underlying conflicts that need your compassionate attention. The journey towards liberation, as with all changes we make in life, is non-linear, filled with difficulties, successes, and setbacks.
Embracing self-awareness and cultivating patience can make a significant difference. Remember, healing is a process. Whether you’re on this journey yourself or supporting a loved one, know that help is available, and change is possible. There is always hope!