Am I ready for recovery from binge eating?

Am I Ready for Recovery from Binge Eating?

During my years of binge eating, and what seemed like thousands of attempts to recover (before I finally found help in Jack Trimpey’s book, Rational Recovery), I looked for the reasons why I wasn’t successful. Through therapy and reading self-help information online, one of the theories I came up with was that I simply wasn’t ready to stop binge eating. Maybe there was something I needed to change in my life first; maybe there was a problem I needed to solve; maybe there was pain from my past that I needed to heal; maybe there was a stressor that I needed to eliminate from my days. Maybe once I found and dealt with whatever was in the way of recovery, then I’d be ready.

I wasn’t even sure what it really meant to be ready to stop binge eating, but that didn’t stop me from looking for reasons why I wasn’t yet equipped for recovery. Since all of my attempts to stop binge eating (before reading Rational Recovery) had failed, it only made sense that there was something getting in the way. Now that I’ve recovered, I see things differently, and I want to help you understand why you might be asking yourself, am I ready to stop binge eating? I also want to share ideas with you to help you feel capable of stopping the habit, and to help you address anything that is truly a roadblock to recovery.

What Does it Mean to Be Ready for Recovery?

I began thinking about this a lot because of an interview I did in February of 2013. I was a guest on Alen Standish’s Quit Binge Eating Podcast (this podcast is no longer available because Alen needed to focus on a health issue in his family). Alen asked a question that inspired me to start writing this blog post about recovery readiness. His question was very insightful, and in asking it, he shared some of his own personal experience and how it was different than mine. Here is what he said:

 Alen:  You cautioned in Brain over Binge that you are only focusing on how to stop binge eating and are not addressing any other underlying problems a person may be having in their life. In my own case I actually had to work on several areas of my own life to better round myself out before I was ready to fully take on stopping my own binge eating disorder. Your book was a large part of that, but it only worked for me because I was ready for it at that point in my life. Based on my experiences and this is just my own opinion, I find that it seems to be a balancing act that only the person suffering from the disorder knows when they are ready to just say no to their disordered eating, and from that when and where to start their recovery process and most important, how to recover. It’s a very individual thing. What are your thoughts?

Below, I’ve included my response with many additional ideas added, to help you if you are doubting your readiness to end bulimia or binge eating disorder:

First of all, I think an important thing to remember when reading anyone’s recovery story, using any self-help program, or even attending therapy, is that you can use what works for you at this particular time in your life, and discard what doesn’t. Sometimes people get caught up in trying to do things exactly right, based on someone else’s advice, and it doesn’t end up feeling authentic. If someone else’s advice doesn’t help you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t ready. It just might not be the right approach for you.

My recovery came about from me discovering useful information about the brain and an approach that resonated deeply within me. This was primarily due to reading Rational Recovery, and having my own insights afterward, as well as continuing to explore simple brain science, which I discussed in my book. Once I changed how I approached recovery, the question of whether or not I was ready to stop binge eating didn’t seem to apply anymore. I put the information and insights into action, and stopped binge eating quickly. Questioning my readiness for recovery was something I did when I wasn’t successful, and once I was successful, the question seemed to just fade away.

I knew binge eating brought me misery, and I knew I didn’t want it in my life; and this was the case since my binge eating began. In that way, I guess I was always ready to recover.

I believe it can be as simple as this: If you want to be free of binge eating, you are ready to be free of binge eating.

Rational Recovery Helped Me Let Go of the “Benefits” of Binge Eating

I also realize that it’s not that simple for everyone, especially if you’ve come to believe that your eating disorder serves a purpose in your life, or helps you cope with problems, or helps you fill some sort of emotional void (see my podcast about emotional attachment to binge eating). I know that when I believed my eating disorder gave me certain benefits, it was much easier to think that I wasn’t ready to give it up. Even thought I knew that whatever theoretical benefits or temporary pleasure I received from the binge eating wasn’t worth the cost, the idea that binge eating was a coping mechanism made it easier to keep hanging on to the behavior.

In order to feel ready to let the binge eating go, I spent a long time in therapy and on my own trying to sort out things in my life and solve other problems. Some of these problems I did sort out and solve, and some of these problems I didn’t; but there was always another problem I could find and decide that I needed to fix before I could be free of binge eating.

If Rational Recovery would have been another approach saying that it might not work if you have other problems to sort out first, I don’t think it would have helped me. I needed a no excuses approach at the time. I needed to hear that whatever benefits I thought binge eating gave me were irrational and not my true thoughts. I needed to learn that I could quit right away without having to do anything else first. In other words, I needed to hear that I was already ready to let the binge eating go.

Preparation for Recovery is Different for Everyone

I’ve shared my experience, but Alen’s experience was different and uniquely authentic to him; and your experience might be different from both of ours. I agree with Alen that recovery is an individual thing and only the person recovering can decide what they need. This is why it’s important to have alternative perspectives in eating disorder recovery, because some ideas will be a better fit for certain people at certain times than other ideas.

If you read my book, or attend therapy, or complete a self-help program and you don’t improve even after giving it proper effort and practice, this is not the time to put yourself down or lose hope. It’s the time to determine how to adjust the ideas to better suit you, or it’s time look elsewhere for ideas that feel like your own unique truth and that work for you, or it’s time to decide if there is some preparation work you need to do in order to be ready to stop binge eating.

I don’t believe recovery should be a maze or that you should jump around from one approach to another, without being consistent enough to see changes occur. Recovery can and should keep moving forward, but there may come a time when you feel like you do need to work on another area of your life in order to move forward, or keep moving forward.

How Do I Become Ready to Stop Binge Eating?

I’ve spent some time thinking about a way to merge the idea that some people, like Alen, might need to work on other areas of their life in order to feel more able stop binge eating, and my approach which focuses on stopping the behavior without needing to address other issues first. Here are my thoughts…

I believe that recovery from binge eating comes down to 2 goals:  

  1. Learning to dismiss urges to binge
  2. Learning to eat adequately

If you are new to the Brain over Binge approach and want a better understanding of those two goals, you can download my free PDF—the Brain over Binge Basics.

You can use those two simple recovery goals to guide you in determining what you might need to work on, in order to make yourself recovery ready.

It’s not helpful to put too many conditions on your ability to recover, but I think it’s helpful to work on any specific issues you feel are holding you back from being successful at one or both recovery goals. You can listen to my podcast episodes about two common issues that hold people back: food addiction, and weight obsession. Basically, if you think that working on another problem or issue in your life will help you move toward the two goals, then work on that issue or problem.

Of course, you can work on whatever issue or problem you want as a way to live a better life, but try not to wrap up all of your self-improvement work into your eating disorder recovery. You don’t want to be endlessly trying to work on emotions or solve other problems, hoping that will magically make you feel ready to recover, or even take the eating disorder away. But, if you stay focused on the two recovery goals of learning to dismiss binge urges and learning to eat adequately, you can tackle recovery readiness with a much more strategic mindset. I’ll give you some examples so you can see how this could play out in your life.

Let’s say you have poor body-image, and because of that, you are determined to diet restrictively and lose weight in an attempt to feel better about yourself. That might prevent you from eating enough food, which in turn, will make your urges to binge stronger and more difficult to dismiss. If you feel unable to allow yourself a nourishing amount of food to meet your physical needs, you might need to address your poor body-image in order to move forward (for help, you can listen to this episode on body image). This doesn’t mean a positive body-image is a cure for binge eating; but improving the way you view and relate to your body will help you start feeding it properly, and therefore put you in a position to stop acting on the binge urges.

Another example: let’s say you have severe depression that prevents you from wanting a better life for yourself. You don’t have the desire to avoid binges, so you allow the lower brain (the part of the brain that drives binge eating) to overtake you, without even trying to avoid the behavior. You simply don’t have any motivation to let go of the binge eating. Again, improving the other problem (in this case, depression) isn’t a cure, but it will put you in a better position to start overcoming the binge eating. Feeling less depressed will strengthen your higher brain (the part of your brain that can change a habit), and allow you to connect with your desire to live free of your eating disorder.

To summarize what I’m suggesting: If you don’t feel ready for recovery, get to work on the issues you believe are preventing you from eating adequately or dismissing binge urges.  

In contrast, what I’m not suggesting is this: If you don’t feel ready for recovery, work on the problems or emotions that you feel binge eating helps you cope with, and expect that resolving those problems will make the binges go away.

Sometimes what I’m suggesting and what I’m not suggesting can involve the same problem. If that seems a little confusing, I’ll explain, using anxiety as an example.

Let’s say you think you binge to cope with anxiety, so you try address that anxiety by relaxing more and avoiding anxiety-provoking situations. You do this hoping that decreasing anxiety will decrease your need to binge. If the binge urges habitually come when you are anxious, this approach might indeed help you avoid some binge urges (which may be helpful in some ways), but reducing anxiety isn’t truly helping you learn how to dismiss the binge urges when they come up. There are likely other situations where you have urges, and you still binge. Furthermore, it’s impossible to control every situation and feeling in your life, so when anxiety inevitably comes up, you may find yourself swept away by the urges.

The problem with this approach to reducing anxiety is that you are trying to make a problem go away in hopes that binge urges will go away too. But, this usually doesn’t work, and it’s more effective to learn to avoid acting on urges in any situation or in response to any feeling.

On the other hand, if something about anxiety is making it more difficult for you to dismiss binge urges or eat adequately, then it makes sense that you’ll need to address it before you feel ready to stop binge eating (listen to Episode 65 on managing anxiety).  For example, if anxiety about weight gain is keeping you depriving your body of food, then yes, that anxiety is something to work on as a part of binge eating recovery. The distinction can seem subtle, but I think it’s important not to make recovery too complex or think you need to work on too many things to be ready.

I want to make sure you realize that I’m not telling you to just resign to deal with certain problems. You can absolutely work on whatever issues you want to work on, but as much as you can, keep that separate from binge eating recovery. Otherwise, you could keep working on other problems indefinitely, hoping that will take your binge eating away, without getting any closer to accomplishing the two recovery goals that change your brain to end the binge eating habit.

Although I believe recovery is an individual thing, I hope that keeping the two recovery goals in mind will help you zero in on what’s truly necessary for you to do to be ready to stop binge eating for good.

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For help learning to dismiss urges to binge and eat adequately, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Course.

Is binge eating subjective?

Subjectivity in Binge Eating

If you never binged again, what would that mean to you? I’m not talking about all the ways in which your life would be better or the relief you would feel to put your eating disorder behind you; I’m talking about something much more simple. I’m talking about defining the behavior you want to get rid of.  If you commit to never binge, you may need to give some thought to what you won’t be doing, because binge eating can be a subjective experience.

Defining Binges

There is not a calorie cutoff where any more is a binge and any less is not, and the clinical definition of binge eating leaves room for interpretation. According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a binge eating episode is characterized by:

  1. Eating a larger amount of food than normal during a short period of time (i.e., within any two hour period)
  2. Lack of control over eating during the binge episode (i.e., the feeling that one cannot stop eating)

The DSM also says that binge eating episodes are associated with three or more of the following:

  1. Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  2. Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
  3. Eating much more rapidly than normal
  4. Eating alone because you are embarrassed by how much you’re eating
  5. Feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after overeating

All of my binges had the characteristics above; but I think more importantly, I could define my binges by what they felt like. There was an unmistakable mindset and way of eating; I just knew on an intuitive level what I considered a binge, and what I did not consider a binge. It seems to me that the majority of people who binge also have the same intuitive clarity about defining their binges, or they develop that intuitive clarity by observing their behavior and increasing their awareness surrounding their eating. However, some people do get stuck trying to figure out what is a binge for them and what is not, and if that’s the case for you, it is even more important for you to give some thought to what quitting binge eating will mean.

Don’t Let Perfectionism Influence Your Binge Definition

I believe it’s important not to overthink what is a binge and what is not. A lot of people with eating disorders have perfectionistic personalities and might get caught up in trying to have an ideal diet. If you are aiming to eat perfectly, you may find yourself wondering if all non-hungry eating should be considered binge eating, or if overeating should be in the same category as bingeing, or if you should include eating any amount of junk food in your definition of a binge. It’s important for you to know that these behaviors should not be automatically classified as binge eating.

You never want to have a definition of a binge that requires your eating to be overly restrictive or requires you to eat perfectly.  There is certainly a point when overeating or eating junk food can become problematic and can cross the line into binge eating, but there is subjectivity in where that line is, and only you can truly decide.

I think I would have driven myself crazy if I would have treated every craving for junk food or every desire to eat when I wasn’t hungry as an urge to binge. I think it was important that I defined my binges by what I knew them to be, and not by over-analyzing or creating rigid food rules for myself. I do value health and eating well, but eating in a way that is less than perfect is perfectly normal.

Awareness Helps You Define Binges and Dismiss Urges

Be curious about defining your binges. Try to see when you personally, subjectively feel like you are going from normal (imperfect) eating to what you would consider binge eating. Heighten your awareness to notice what is happening, how it feels, what you think, and what behaviors are present that are typical of your binges.

When you are first learning to recognize your binges and separate them from your more normal eating habits, you may only have insight into what happened after the binge. But, if you remain aware, you will start to see clearly what’s happening during a binge, and then before you start a binge, so that you can choose not to act on the urges and not engage the habit.

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If you need more help with this, the Brain over Binge Course ($10.99/month) guides you through defining your binges and recognizing your urges. 

The Anorexic and Bulimic “Voice”

It is my belief that in bulimia/BED, the urges to binge are the one and only cause of binge eating. Most of the time, these urges have a “voice” – one that sounds like your own – which strongly encourages the destructive eating behavior. In bulimia/BED, the woman usually views the voice as her enemy; she knows (at least on some level) that the voice is not expressing what she truly wants. In Brain over Binge, I briefly talk about how this situation is sometimes different in anorexia, because many anorexics believe the voice that encourages the destructive eating behavior (restriction/starvation) is expressing what they truly want – to lose weight. I recently came across a summary of a study which aimed to systematically examine this voice in anorexia, and I wanted to share it here along with some insights for binge eaters.

This study aimed to investigate experiences of and reflections on living with an anorexic voice. Participants were invited to write about their anorexic voice in the form of a poem, reflection, letter, or descriptive narrative. The written contributions were then analyzed by researchers. The study found that anorexics bestowed both positive and negative attributes to their anorexic voice; it was found that anorexics viewed the voice more positively in the beginning stages of the disorder and more negatively over time as the disorder developed. The participants felt an affiliation toward the voice, which researchers said could explain their ambivalence to change. The researchers recommended that therapists persist in their endeavors to penetrate the tie between anorexic patients and their anorexic voices.

I think that once the anorexic patient begins to view her anorexic voice negatively in any way, that is the opportunity for the patient to penetrate the tie. Just as in bulimia, the anorexic doesn’t lose volitional control of her actions; she retains the ability to override the anorexic voice. Whereas to stop binge eating, one must not act on the urges to binge; to stop anorexia, one must act (eat) in spite of the urges to starve. She must put food in her mouth despite what that voice is telling her; but to do this, she has to believe (at least on some level) that the voice is wrong.  If she thinks that voice is right – if she has an affinity for it – she will continue following it.

Even though individuals with bulimia/BED usually don’t have much trouble viewing their destructive voice as negative, I thought this study could still be useful for binge eaters, especially those who are just learning to separate themselves from their urges to binge. Like the participants in this study, you could write a poem, a reflection, a letter, and/or a descriptive narrative that reflects on your experience with the voice that urges you to binge. Getting to know the voice is helpful in order to recognize the many ways it presents itself. You could write about what you hear (in your head) that encourages you to binge; you could list all the “reasons” the voice gives you to binge; you could describe all the sensations you experience when you hear that voice. It is my hope that in doing this, you will realize that all of this “neurological junk” is not truly you, and you do not have to follow that voice.