Ep. 71: When Weight Holds You Back: Reaching Your Own Healthy Size (Interview with Heather Robertson)
Brain over Binky: Childhood Habits, and Letting Go of Harmful Behaviors without Drama
*Originally posted on May 1 , 2011. Updated and re-published on July 23, 2019 (My little boy I wrote about here is almost 13!)
My four-year-old son gave up sucking his “binky” (pacifier) a couple weeks ago. We had already reduced his use of it during the day, but he was still very attached to it at naptime and bedtime. We decided to offer him a reward to quit. We let him pick out a toy in exchange for his pacifiers, and he’s been thoroughly enjoying the airplane set he chose, and he’s seemingly forgotten about his pacifiers.
This is a kid who I could have never pictured without his pacifiers. When I think back to his baby years, the main image in my mind is him looking at me with big blue eyes and sucking away on his pacifier. When he was very young, we couldn’t leave the house without a binky, and when I kissed him goodnight, I had to always make sure he had one for his mouth, and a couple extra in his bed so he’d be sure to find one if he woke up in the middle of the night. He loved his binkies, they were his favorite way to self-soothe.
An Lesson in Simply Letting Go
I didn’t think it would be as simple as it was for him to give up the pacifiers. He had a few nights where he slept less and fussed more, but now, he acts like he never had them in the first place. My husband and I were prepared to give him lots of extra comfort during the initial “withdrawal” phase; but it turned out that he was fine without them. He stopped performing the habit, and in turn, the desire for the habit seems to have gone away already. I can’t be absolutely sure because I haven’t talked about the pacifiers in over a week, as I don’t want him turning attention to them unnecessarily. I told myself I’d only talk about them if he started the conversation; but he hasn’t, and because he’s a very talkative kid, I think this is good evidence that he’s not thinking about the pacifiers.
Observing my son simply let go of this habit that he was so attached to just weeks ago has me thinking about how people – young and old – have the ability to give up bad habits without much drama. I’ve been drawing parallels between a child giving up a pacifier and adults giving up their harmful behaviors and addictions. I believe that if adults who struggle with destructive habits could model the example of young children, then giving up those habits would be much less complicated.
Adult Habits are Treated with More Complexity
Why are adults told they are diseased or psychologically unwell because they have a bad habit or because they repeatedly overuse a substance? Why are they often excused from simply quitting, and told they are powerless? We do not tell our children they are powerless over their habits (otherwise, there would be widespread adult pacifier use).
Was my son “addicted” to his pacifier? I realize that the word “addiction” can be charged and has different meanings to different people, but I think I could argue that yes, he was addicted to his pacifier, even though there was not a chemically-addicting substance involved. But, did being “addicted” mean he was flawed or broken or had underlying emotional issues he needed to resolve? Absolutely not. Did being “addicted” mean he was not capable of simply stopping the behavior moving on with his life? No. And, I want to encourage binge eaters to believe that they are also capable of simply letting go.
The way I quit binge eating was indeed very similar to the way my son quit using his pacifiers. I stopped letting a binge be an option. I decided that I didn’t do it anymore, no matter what, and the urges to binge faded when I no longer acted on them. It did take longer for my urges to binge to go away than it seemed to take for my son to lose his desire to suck his pacifiers; and this is possibly because a child’s brain is more plastic and more easily changed than an adult’s. Nevertheless, my brain moved on and developed new neural pathways; and I developed new interests and things to think about; and the feeling of wanting to binge became merely a memory.
Your Lower Brain May Act Like a Child, but Your Higher Brain Can Guide You to Freedom
A difference between my son and me was that my son wouldn’t have chosen to stop sucking his pacifiers on his own, at least not anytime in the near future. He needed my husband and I to tell him when it was time to stop, and take the pacifiers away. Likewise, the more primitive part of a binge eater’s brain (which I call the lower brain) is “addicted” to binge eating and wants to continue the habit indefinitely, receiving whatever temporary pleasure and comfort it brings. The lower brain needs a higher authority to say “it’s time to stop,” and in adults, that voice of reason is the prefrontal cortex (which I call the higher brain). The higher brain is the part of you that knows binge eating is not what you truly want, and it is the part of you that is capable of dismissing the urges to binge. *For help learning how to dismiss the urges to binge, you can get my free eBook.
Ending Binge Eating Can be as Straightforward as Quitting Your Childhood Habits
If, right now, you believe your binge eating brings you comfort and pleasure that you can’t live without, just think of all the children who bravely hand over their binkies, or stop sucking their thumb, or stop carrying their favorite blanket everywhere they go. I know that not all children give up their habits as easily as my son did, but even if there is a difficult phase in the beginning, the child eventually stops and it just isn’t that big of a deal.
I am not trying to minimize the problem of adult addictions by comparing them to childhood habits, but I am trying to help you see that quitting a harmful behavior does not have to be so complicated. It also does not have to involve a major personal transformation or solving your life’s problems. Deciding to give up a harmful habit does take courage, but it’s well worth it, and it may not be as difficult as you think. After a couple of weeks binge-free, you may be surprised to feel your desire to binge fading quickly. You’ll feel confident when you realize you didn’t truly need the habit after all, and you’ll feel free when you realize you are so much better off without binge eating in your life.
The Brain over Binge Course will help you let go of ideas that are making habit change more complicated than it needs to be, and help you tap into your own power to end binge eating without drama.
Dieting Prevention Tips
“It’s fine to raise awareness about eating disorders, but I believe more focus should be on preventing dieting, because eating disorders are not illnesses that inexplicably happen to people. Nearly all cases of anorexia and bulimia, and a large number of cases of BED, would never occur without the initial diet.” –Brain over Binge, pg 276
Dieting prevention is a multifaceted topic, and there is not one way to ensure dieting does not happen in a young person—or anyone, at any point in life. In Brain over Binge, I mentioned some things that may have helped me personally avoid turning to dieting in my teen years, and one of them was: less emphasis on weight in the family. I frequently heard comments from my parents, relatives, and family friends that led me to believe remaining slim was of extreme importance. When I naturally put on some weight during puberty, it was more concerning to me than it should have been, I believe, because of my previous exposure to a lot of dieting and weight talk.
I’ve made an effort to keep that type of talk away from my kids as much as possible, although I can’t shelter them from what they hear outside of my home, or every little thing that may come up in what they watch. It’s impossible to control the culture and the often unrealistic images children may see, but something we can do as adult role models is to be aware of what we say and the effect it could have. Even seemingly innocent comments about food and weight can add up over time, causing children to feel like dieting and obsessing about weight is a normal part of growing up. Conversely, when adults offer a positive example, it can help young people avoid falling into unhealthy restrictive behaviors.
If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder or other food issues, I know it can be a priority for you to not pass those struggles on to your children. I want to offer some simple tips to help keep dieting and weight talk to a minimum. I’ve listed several suggestions of things not to say around young people, but consider that this advice can be useful for any conversation you have—in order to reduce your focus on your body and food, and help you focus elsewhere.
Stop saying negative comments about your own body (even if you’re having negative thoughts about your body).
Stop talking about your desire to lose weight.
Stop commenting on the weight of others. (Don’t say who has lost or gained weight, or who is too thin or too fat. Teach children that we’re all different and we’re all worthy, and that people are much more than their appearance.)
Don’t say that certain foods will make you gain weight. (It’s fine to teach your kids which foods are the most nourishing for the body, but don’t make it about body size.)
After you’ve eaten, don’t express feelings of guilt. (If you believe you made a poor food choice, just move on and try to make a better choice next time.)
Don’t warn children that one day they’ll have to watch their weight, and therefore stop being able to eat what they want. (The truth is that an attitude of deprivation leads to more overeating and more weight gain in the long run. Of course we want kids to make good choices around food, but instilling a restrictive mindset won’t help them reach that goal.)
Accept compliments on the way you look, without responding with something critical or negative about your body or size. (just say thank you!)
Don’t give weight-related reasons for not having desserts or other foods. (If someone offers you cake for example, and you don’t want it, just say no thank you. Don’t say that it will go straight to your hips or that it will ruin your diet.)
Don’t tell your kids you exercise in order to lose weight or prevent weight gain. (Tell them it’s about being strong, feeling good, having energy, and taking care of your health.)
Make choosing healthy foods about health and self-care, not weight. (If you eat something healthier than what your kids are eating, don’t tell them it’s because what they are eating is too fattening or has too many calories.)
Don’t criticize yourself about what you are choosing to eat. (Don’t say, I shouldn’t be eating this. When you choose to eat something, eat it and enjoy it, without beating yourself up. Model the fact that no one eats perfectly.)
Don’t make comments about children’s weight. (There’s no need to make children turn attention to their body shape, even if you think you are offering them a compliment.)
All of this advice does not mean that you can’t teach children about nutrition or what habits will lead to a healthy life. Talk to them about nourishment. Talk to them about eating to feel good. Talk to them about playing outside for fun, and moving their body for the pure enjoyment of it. If you can model a healthy, balanced, and active lifestyle—while also avoiding teaching children to diet and try to control their weight by depriving themselves—it gives them the best chance of maintaining a positive relationship with food and a healthy weight for a lifetime.
If you struggle with binge eating and want guidance as you recover, here are some resources for additional support:
Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $10.99/month. Includes over 120 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.
Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.
One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.