Making Commitments Last in Binge Eating Recovery
When I was a binge eater, I seemed to have endless Day 1’s. What I mean by this is—telling myself it was Day 1 of my binge-free life, because I had resolved to never binge again. I had too many of these new starts to count.
New starts were sometimes spontaneous, for example, when I would wake up feeling awful after a binge and declare it was Day 1, and that I’d never do that to myself again. But more commonly, I planned my Day 1 in advance and lined it up with an occasion like my birthday, New Year’s, or even just with the start of a new week or month. I often picked a Day 1 that coincided with my next therapy appointment, or when I was going to start a new meal plan, or a new strategy in recovery. If I had an important event coming up—like a friend’s wedding—when I wanted to be at my best, I’d sometimes set my Day 1 to be a certain number of days or weeks in advance of that event.
Leading up my self-declared Day 1, I would often do things like buy a new journal, or make a new chart to track all the binge-free days I knew I was going to have, or come up with a new reward system for myself for when I was successful, or create elaborate plans for my upcoming binge-free days—thinking that if I somehow blocked out every minute with something to do, then I would not binge. In addition to any planning I did for Day 1, I always did a lot of bingeing as well. I would usually binge all the way until the “official” start date and time that I had set for myself.
My new plans and new commitments had good intentions, but they typically did not last very long. Until I finally recovered for good, I rarely got to day 3 or day 4 without a binge, regardless of the plan I implemented. So it seemed like I was always either bingeing or starting over on Day 1 with a new plan—that led right back to bingeing. Each time, I really thought that setting the new commitment would help, but I stayed stuck in this frustrating cycle.
When I was caught up in this, I couldn’t really see what was happening. I seemed to automatically go into planning a new Day 1 or making a new resolution, without stopping to think about why the last one hadn’t worked. I don’t think I ever really slowed down to observe what I was doing, and how my thoughts and actions were getting in the way of my progress.
Knowing what I know now, I want to help you feel better prepared to make a commitment to binge eating recovery, so in this post, I want to give you some advice on making commitments last.
Avoid Thinking of “Day 1” in a Literal Way—You are Not Starting Over in Binge Eating Recovery
It’s understandable that you want to make a commitment to stop binge eating, and it’s great that you want to be free of this habit that’s causing you so much pain. But, if you’ve been trying to recover for any amount of time, you’re never truly starting over at Day 1. I suggest that you stop thinking of recovery attempts as brand new starts. You can even stop using the term Day 1 altogether.
You already have knowledge and experience that you can use to your advantage as you fully end the binge eating habit, and thinking you have to go all the way back to the starting line makes recovery seem daunting. Imagine recovery to be like running a race with hurdles—the runners don’t go back to the starting line every time they trip over a hurdle. They simply get up and keep running—committed to jumping the next hurdle, and the next, until they finish the race. They begin again from the place where they fall, and they can still complete the race successfully.
You’ve already made progress in recovery, even if you are struggling right now, so look at your commitment as a continuation, rather than a new beginning. You are committed to finishing the race, to doing your absolute best from this day forward, even if you trip over other hurdles along the way. With this mentality, you will arrive at where you want to be, so try thinking of new commitments in terms of renewed focus, not in terms of going backward and starting at Day 1 again.
Even With a New Commitment to Stop Binge Eating, You Will Still Have the Same Brain
The next piece of advice I’ll give you is to know that your new commitment doesn’t undo the binge eating habit in your brain. You may think that your new commitment or new plan will usher in a new you who does not want to binge, or at least does not want to binge much at all. The reality is that the you that shows up to refocus on recovery has fundamentally the same brain pathways and the same physiology that you did the day before your new commitment. Once you repeat the behavior of binge eating many times, it becomes habitual—wired into your primitive brain centers. Furthermore, the large quantities of food that you’re consuming affect your physiology, digestion, hunger signals, and cravings; and recommitting to recovery does not automatically give you a new body and a new brain.
As you refocus on recovery, and stay committed, your brain and body will gradually change as you decondition the habit. Your brain and body will get the message that you’re no longer binge-eating, and they will adapt accordingly. The problem that I made and that a lot people make is thinking that there will be little to no temptation if they are firmly committed to recovery. This is not the case, because your brain is not yet wired as someone who does not binge.
It is true that you don’t want to binge anymore. You, in your higher brain—the part of your brain responsible for your goals and plans and rational thinking—absolutely does desire recovery. But it’s also important to understand that your lower brain is still conditioned to react as if the habit is absolutely necessary, and it will still send urges for the behavior.
When I didn’t understand my lower and higher brain, it was so frustrating that—despite my shiny new chart to keep track of my success, despite my beautiful new recovery journal, or meal plan, or therapist—I still felt driven to binge. Because I didn’t realize that desire for the habit is a normal part of habit change, I lost focus and I lost my commitment when I had that desire. When I started feeling those binge urges on Day 2, 3, or 4 of my fresh new start, I assumed it was because I truly did want to binge after all.
This made me so angry with myself to want two completely different things—complete freedom and non-stop binge eating—in just a matter or days, or even hours. When the urges to binge got strong, I gave in; and in those moments, it was as if I concluded that binge eating was what I really wanted, and that the new commitment I’d made wasn’t actually me.
But after the binge, I always wished I could erase it. I wished I could go back to being that “new commitment” me. So yet again, I created a new plan and I said that this time I would keep my promise. I’m telling you this so you will understand that a new or renewed commitment does not make your urges to binge go away. Having urges to binge even when you are committed to recovery is totally normal, and does not mean anything is wrong with you. It means your brain is operating as it should.
When you make a commitment to recovery, it then becomes your job to begin to rewire your brain, using whatever support and whatever approach helps you. The day you decide to focus on recovery is the day you will begin to chip away at this habit in your brain. The commitment may help give your higher brain some strength and motivation, but you will still feel a pull toward the harmful behaviors at times, and it’s important that you don’t let this surprise you. You can allow those tempting feelings to pass, while keeping your commitment to remain binge free, and those urges will fade in time.
A “Last Binge” Will Only Make New Commitments More Difficult
I’ve talked and written about the “one last binge” mentality before, and I encourage you to check out this blog post and podcast episode for more on this topic; but there can be another layer to this mentality as well—which relates to making new commitments. What can happen is…in the days before you know you want to really commit to recovery, you can have thoughts that say having “one last binge” will actually help you when it’s time for your commitment to begin. You may believe these thoughts for two reasons:
First, you may think that having a last binge or a last string of binges before a new commitment will finally make you feel satisfied. You may believe that you’ll finally feel like you’ve had enough, and then you’ll be totally ready to give up the habit.
Looking at it from a brain-based perspective, this belief does not make logical sense. Each time you try to have a “last binge” to fully satisfy the habitual desire, you only strengthen that desire and the neural pathways and physiological processes that fuel it. You teach your lower brain that you need to binge even more—you do not teach it that you are ready to quit. This sets you up to have a more difficult time when the day of your commitment arrives.
Due to your “last binge” or “last binges” (in an attempt to silence the urges once and for all), you’ve created stronger urges, and also stretched your stomach and affected your digestion so that cravings are worse, and it’s harder to eat normally. Going into a recovery attempt while dealing with the acute after-affects of binge eating makes everything much more challenging. You can definitely overcome these challenges, but you’ll make it easier on yourself if you don’t have these big, “last” binges.
The second reason you may believe you need to have one last binge, or several last binges, before you refocus on recovery is because you think the binges will make you feel so badly afterward that you will never want to do it again. You know the pain that comes after binges, and you may think that the pain will deter you from ever wanting to binge again—which will make your new commitment last. But, this is also working against you—again because of how the brain works:
When the lower brain is conditioned to binge, or to have any other destructive habit, you’ll still have a desire for it regardless of the pain that it causes. When you are feeling driven to binge, you don’t usually remember the pain of past binges. As much as you can try to remind yourself of the pain, it doesn’t convince the lower brain. Binge eating in advance of a new attempt to quit will not somehow make the lower brain remember the consequences of binge eating.
Any thoughts that say “one last binge” will benefit you and your commitment are faulty, lower-brain thoughts that you can learn to dismiss. The sooner you can start dismissing these thoughts, and any other thoughts that encourage binge eating, the better position you’ll be in to break this habit for good.
I hope the ideas I’ve shared here will help you make a new commitment and make it last!
If you want help becoming and staying binge-free, you can get my course (only $18.99 per month), and also get personalized support and accountability with one-on-one coaching or group coaching.