Tag Archive for: binge eating recovery

Identity and bulimia Katherine Thomson

Identity Reconstruction in Bulimia Recovery

I am excited to bring you a guest post from Katherine Thomson, PhD about recreating your identity as you stop bulimia and binge eating disorder. Katherine contributed some extremely helpful ideas and advice to The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, and she also shared great insights and information in three of my podcast episodes so far: Episode 35 on Fostering a Positive Mindset in Recovery, Episode 52 on Food Addiction, and Episode 53 on Weight Obsession

In this post, Katherine will help you understand how to gradually break free of your identity as a person with bulimia and binge eating disorder, and encourage you to stop forming your self-image around your weight and how you look. You’ll learn creative and refreshing ways to reconstruct your identity and improve how you feel about yourself during recovery and beyond. 

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Identity Reconstruction in Recovery, by Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.

I was “skinny chic” for all of ten brief months in my early 20s and then spent the better part of the next decade chasing after a body and self that would have been better off put to rest.  For me, recovering from an eating disorder was a painfully slow, tedious process, and it’s only now that I can look back and see the things I could have done differently to cut myself some slack, things that would have sped up the entire recovery process considerably.

It’s Easier to Recover if you Feel Motivated

People recover from bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder using all sorts of methods and techniques.  What worked for me can basically be boiled down to plain, old fashioned behavior modification, using classic tools like setting goals, rewarding progress, and slowly shaping behaviors until they began producing desired results.  Habit formation. I believe this approach works brilliantly when people can turn the process into a game and make it fun. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges in my approach, one I face with clients repeatedly: How can people get excited about shaping a new future if they’re stubbornly attached to the past?

Because I was attached to the past, I postponed everything, telling myself that I’d do all the things I wanted to do once I was satisfied with the number on the scale, the contents of my fridge, the contour of my cheekbone, and my ability to never, ever – God forbid – eat a pack of Oreos after a stressful family get-together.  The problem with this mindset is that it not only robs you of joy, but it isn’t very motivating.

How I Discovered Identity Reconstruction

I landed upon the importance of identity reconstruction in recovery thanks to a dear friend I met eons ago in an eating disorder support group I attended in my early 20’s.  I had recently gained a significant amount of weight over the course of 12 months. Unbeknownst to me at the time, both the low and high weights were numbers I would never again see on the scale, and I would have felt better if I’d known that.  But all I could think about at the time was how heavy I was and how terrified I was of gaining yet more.

Each day was a struggle to leave the house and be seen by the world, and many mornings I didn’t succeed.  My wardrobe at the time consisted of half a dozen ankle-length floral skirts from Goodwill paired with dark, long-sleeved tees.  To make matters worse, I was still bingeing fairly regularly and saw no signs that I would or could ever stop. I logically knew it made sense to be kind to my body and that I should I find a way to do so, but I couldn’t bear looking in a mirror, let alone taking candlelit bubble baths or slathering myself with scented lotions.

After one meeting, I asked a woman in the group, someone I admired who was about six months ahead of me in the process, how she managed to stay optimistic and feel good about herself.  “Dramatic flair,” was her answer, pointing to the miniature french braids at the crown of her head and shimmery scarf looped around her hips. This young woman was artistic by nature (today, she is a professional artist and owns her own business), and it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe she hadn’t always looked the part so thoroughly.

She took me to her place one afternoon and cracked open a photo album.  Together, we scanned over pictures from her skinnier days. It is very sensitive for someone with bulimia or other forms of disordered eating to show others photos from all-time-thin days, and I am eternally grateful that she shared this with me.  The photo I remember most clearly was of her riding a bike, skinny arms and legs flexed over the frame of a beach cruiser, and a tensely grinning face with enormous eyes. Her clothing was nondescript: shorts, tank, and flip flops.  I was stunned by how childlike she looked. She was in her early 20s in the photo but could have easily passed for a high schooler. There were no signs of her artistry, her wisdom, her “dramatic flair.”

I asked a few more questions about how she landed upon her updated personal style, and later that week, I set out to update my own appearance.  I went through my closet and tried on all the items that still fit until I found something that made me feel somewhat elevated: a red v-neck tunic with ¾ sleeves and a hem that hit slightly above the knees.  I straightened my wavy hair, made a center part, and added dark lipstick and large hoop earrings. I looked in the mirror and felt nothing short of relief. I looked older, more womanly, and most importantly, I had driven a wedge between myself and the waiflike ghost that haunted me.  Did I like how I looked? Not really, because my self-judgment ran very deep at that point in my life. But it was a welcome lateral move: I had taken myself out of the harsh lights of self-scrutiny. I could work with this.

Things got Easier

For the next year, I dressed like this pretty much every day. One of the first things I discovered was that there were in fact parts of my body I could like and appreciate at my larger size.  I liked my neck, upper chest, and calves. I hadn’t really noticed them much because I had been so fixated on the hated roundness of my face and softness in my middle. The more comfortable I felt with my appearance, the easier it became to eat in self-respecting ways.  Overeating didn’t seem as worth it, and I didn’t have as much to hide from.

In the many years that have transpired since, I’ve been through several identity reiterations.  What I’ve come to learn is that whenever I’m experiencing a period of not liking how I look, it’s nothing more than a symptom of growing pains.  It sounds so cheesy to say this, but I’ve come to appreciate the seasons of life, and I have a lot of respect for how hard it is to struggle toward something that doesn’t yet exist, something that is still struggling to take form.

Focus on the Future

Today when I work with clients, I press the importance of getting excited about the future.  The goal is to take all that motivation and euphoria that used to be linked to dieting and funnel it into the more expansive goal of self development.  This is a major feat because almost everybody I work with is still trying to reclaim something that no longer exists. More often than not, clients are completely stuck between a rock and a hard place, knowing they can’t go back to restriction but feeling uninspired toward the future.  How many times have I heard people tearfully insist, “I’ll always be fat! I’m doomed to become my mother! There is no point.”

I try to drill in the idea that everything will be smoother if they can abandon such thoughts.  I know it’s not easy, not at all. It takes discipline to choose not to believe these thoughts.  Let me say it again: It is NOT easy to let go of grief and self-pity.   But doing so will get you everywhere. I tell people that chances are, they will be happy with their bodies and appearance again.  Most people with eating disorders eventually settle into a body that is slimmer than she or he had predicted, but it usually takes time because the legacy of starvation is profound.  Early in recovery, even small amounts of weight loss can set the stage for rebound bingeing.

Try it out Yourself

How can someone get started on this process and create a transitional identity that allows them to look eagerly toward the future rather than longingly toward the past?  Here are some concrete recommendations and journaling prompts to help get you started.

  1. Think of a person that you have found to be attractive across a range of body sizes.  Maybe you have a coworker who was very slim before having children and is now larger but beautiful in a different way, or maybe you know someone who used to be a petite gymnast who is now a sculpted rock climber or sultry dancer.  If you can’t think of anyone who fits this description, do searches for celebrities who have recovered from eating disorders.
  2. Reflect on this person or people and ask: What are some of the uniquely beautiful attributes of this person in their larger form? Do they look more loving? Mysterious? Glamorous?
  3. Now, it’s time to shift your attention inward.  When you find yourself longing to reinhabit your former, thinner self, which specific qualities are you yearning to experience? Confidence? Delicacy? Grace?  (list at least five)
  4. Of these five qualities, which of these are actually independent of body size and can just as easily apply to someone medium sized or larger?
  5. What five things can you do this year to evolve your personal style?  Don’t limit yourself to your appearance. Would you like to be a better conversationalist, learn carpentry, become more ecologically responsible, practice minimalism, learn to surf, or master a culinary artform?
  6. Think ten years down the road.  How old will you be? How do you hope to be at this age?  Be bold and ambitious. It’s never too early or too late to be a politician or stand-up comedian.
  7. How can you begin branding a new identity using safe, reversible symbols and accessories?  Consider temporary tattoos, ear cuffs, funky shoes, new drapes, or slowly replacing your cosmetics or kitchenware with eco-friendly varieties.
  8. Now, choose three concrete actions you will take this week and schedule them into your calendar.  Make the time.
  9. Choose one simple action you will take today before going to bed tonight that affirms the direction you want to develop yourself.  This could be buying a how-to book, setting your alarm 30 minutes earlier than usual, or cleaning out your backpack or medicine cabinet.

Why it Works

I’m a social scientist by training and in heart, and I can’t miss the opportunity to wax theory a bit.  When eating disorders were first being seriously researched in the early 1980s, one of the earliest discoveries was that they seemed to crop up during significant life transitions.  The most common of these tend to be puberty and the year following high school graduation. Subsequently, relapses are most likely to occur after college graduation, once small children are grown, once grown children leave the house, after career changes, after divorces, at retirement, and when people enter assisted living environments.

What’s going?  At all of these junctures, people are experiencing fear of an unknown future.  When someone is scared of becoming someone with a whole new set of responsibilities and social interactions, what do they do? They become obsessed with trying to reinhabit a smaller, earlier form; and that obsession drives them to take up harmful dieting behaviors that lead to eating disorders.  It feels safe and familiar to focus on getting to a desired weight or body size.  It’s scary to go away to college. It’s scary to retire. And it’s not at all surprising to me that eating disorders are becoming more of a problem than ever among people who are middle aged and elderly because we live in a society that shuns aging.

By becoming enthusiastic about what lies ahead, we get in touch with personal power again, and this gives us the confidence and momentum to get into action.  From a state of feeling even slightly more empowered, mood improves. Eating improves. Life gets fuller, you have new experiences, you take yourself slightly less seriously, and eventually you’re able to access a wider range of problem solving abilities using experimentation, creativity, and fun.

Katherine Thomson, PhD is a medical sociologist in Berkeley, California and has been helping individuals recover from bulimia and other forms of disordered eating, as well as recreate themselves since 2013.  

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If you want additional help ending bulimia and binge eating disorder, you can get the Brain over Binge course for only $10.99 per month.

You can also get personalized support and accountability with one-on-one coaching or group coaching.

Brain over binge course affordable help

Affordable Help: An Alternative to One-on-One Coaching

If you’ve read my blog posts or listened to my podcast, you’ve likely heard about the Brain over Binge Course. In this post, I want to talk from the heart a little about the course, how I created it, and how it could help you end binge eating.

I wrote Brain over Binge thinking that if I could just help one person, it would be worth all the time and effort I put in. I feel humbled every day that the book has helped thousands, and I continue to get frequent emails saying that the book has changed a person’s life and they are done with binge eating.

I also get emails with questions and requests for more personalized help, beyond what’s in my two books; and over the years, my desire to help just one person has grown into a desire to free as many people as possible from this habit. As an extremely busy mom of 4, I’ve realized that one-on-one coaching isn’t the right fit for my life at this time, and I am able to help more people with the course format. (I know many people still want that one-on-one help, which is why I’m now referring people to Binge Code if they decide private coaching is the best way forward).

The course offers an affordable alternative to private coaching and group coaching, while still providing powerful guidance.

In the course, I answer nearly every question I’ve been asked since publishing Brain over Binge in 2011 (and I’m continuing to create new course recordings to address questions and concerns). I’ve always kept notes of common questions that I received through email, and issues that came up frequently when I did one-on-one and group coaching. I’ve seen so many common themes and common areas where people need some extra advice, so I decided it would be helpful to consolidate all of my answers, insights, suggestions, and experiences, and record those responses. This went from an idea to a mission that I poured my heart and soul into and that took up much of my life for many months. The result was over 80 Q&A recordings that are now part of the course. (In total, the course contains 117 tracks and counting!).

Just like with my books, what’s made it worthwhile is to hear from people who have benefited from the Q&A’s. Here is just one quote from a course member:

“The Q and A’s were unbelievably helpful. Thank you, thank you. I feel completely confident that I’ll remain binge free for the rest of my life because, for the first time, I have the tools for ongoing recovery.”   

Now, I also want to share the other side of this, in order to help you make a decision that’s right for you. The one negative response I got about the Q&As was that it felt more impersonal to have tracks to listen to rather than a person to talk to. That’s a valid concern if you are someone who does better speaking to someone directly and getting feedback. In this case, private coaching would be a better choice.

Private coaching (and even group coaching) can be expensive, but it is definitely valuable to have a coach to talk to, and I would not want to discourage anyone from doing that. However, if private coaching isn’t feasible for you, or simply doesn’t feel like the right fit right now, I hope my course can be the next best thing. 

I want everyone to get the help they need regardless of cost, and that especially applies when medical and nutritional interventions are necessary. However, for those who are stable physically and who are not suffering from severe and complicating mental health conditions, I hope my course can provide guidance in a refreshing and effective way.

I think back on my own recovery, and despite the thousands of dollars my parents and I spent on therapists, what ultimately led me toward recovery was a $12 book in 2005 (Rational Recovery). But, many people feel like they need more than a book (whether it’s mine or someone else’s), and that’s perfectly okay because everyone is different.

The Brain over Binge Course can be a next step that is still very affordable but provides so much extra guidance. It is now only $10.99 per month with no commitment required, or you can purchase it for a one-time fee of $179 if you think you’ll use the course for a long time.

I hope you will take time to learn more about the other features of the course, and consider if this is the right opportunity for you. If you sign up, I hope the course leads you to a binge-free life.

To end this post, I want to share one more testimonial from a course member:

“This course hit the mark on so many fronts. It was well organized and easy to use. I loved all of the audio recordings, including the informational Q&As. Most importantly, it spoke to me and helped me to solidify my decision to stop bingeing. Every week I learned something new that deepened my resolve to quit bingeing and enhanced my understanding of this terrible habit. Thank you Kathryn! This course was a wonderful addition to your two books.”

simple approach to binge eating recovery (podcast)

Episode 55: What a “Simple” Approach to Binge Eating Recovery Means (And What it Doesn’t Mean!)

Brain over Binge Blog

The Brain over Binge Blog: Tips to Help You Achieve Recovery

I created the Brain over Binge blog to give you a variety of tips, ideas, information, and insights to go along with my two books. Even if you haven’t read the books, you can benefit from my posts, especially if you’ve learned the basics of the Brain over Binge approach in my free PDF or by listening to my podcast. I hope what I have written so far on the blog, and what I will write in the future, will help you toward freedom from binge eating.

This post and the next (Tips to Help You Achieve Recovery, Part 2) will be a central part of the Brain over Binge blog, because I’m writing it for people who need extra help in recovery. This two-part blog series will give you additional ideas if you are struggling to stop binge eating, and if you are having a difficult time letting the binge urges pass rather than acting on them. I’ve heard from many women and men who understand the Brain over Binge approach and know they have the ability to avoid binges, but they still find themselves following the binge urges. (For more about the urges, listen to Episode 2: The Cause of Binge Eating: Urges to Binge).

Are You Having Trouble Avoiding Binges?

The first thing I want to tell you is that not everyone stops acting on binge urges immediately. Even if you develop a new and empowering perspective about your binge eating, and even if you know that you are capable of overcoming the harmful habit without needing to solve other problems first, that doesn’t mean your recovery will be automatic. You are on your own path, and different ideas work for different people in different ways. That’s not to give you excuses, because you have the ability to end binge eating for good, but you always want to have self-compassion along the way. Being self-critical is not an effective way to move toward change.

To help you create the change you want, I’m going to list some common obstacles that may be getting in the way of you successfully avoiding binges, and I’ll explain how you can move past these obstacles. I’ll also share and link to other useful posts and resources on the Brain over Binge blog and website so that you can get more information to support your recovery.

Recovery Obstacle #1: You Are Arguing With the Binge Urges

Several people have asked if there was anything specific I did or told myself to detach from the urges to binge. Besides briefly reminding myself of the brain-based information I’d learned and the fact that those urge thoughts and feelings weren’t truly me, there wasn’t any specific mental dialogue or action that helped me separate from my lower brain—the primitive part of the brain that created my urges. (You can listen to Episode 3 and Episode 5 for more information about the lower and higher brain). I simply accepted the experience of the urges, without letting those urges affect me and lead me into a binge.

I think trying to have any sort of mental dialogue with the urges to binge is counterproductive, because it engages the lower brain. The lower brain sends automatic messages to try to get you to maintain a habit it senses you need, and there’s nothing you can say to yourself to make those messages go away. Actually, the more you try to say things to yourself, the more you end up arguing with the urges; and you therefore give the urges more attention and significance, which makes them stronger.

I’m going to use an analogy to try to explain this:

Let’s say you are in an argument with someone, and you are listening, getting upset, and arguing back.  Your words and actions are helping to fuel the disagreement. Whatever you say, the person has a counterargument, and emotions run high. But, if you eventually realize that arguing is futile and not worth your time, you will just quit listening and letting the person’s words affect you. You will still hear what they are saying, and you will still have the experience of being in an argument, but that experience will suddenly feel very different. The person’s words will no longer make any difference to you, and you’ll no longer feel so emotionally charged. That’s detachment. That’s how you can experience the urges to binge.

You don’t need to announce that the urges aren’t worth your time. You don’t need to say “I’m not listening anymore.” Detachment is a mental shift that you can make without any dialogue with the urge thoughts. You can just let the lower brain do what it’s been conditioned to do, without reacting to it, and it will eventually fall silent.

Recovery Obstacle #2: You Are Letting Binges Lead to More Binges

After learning information about the lower/higher brain, completely changing how I understood my bulimia, and realizing that I had the power to stop acting on urges—I still binged two more times. But, I didn’t see the binges as a sign of failure or as an indication that I couldn’t be successful with my new approach to recovery. I saw that I had simply acted on urges to binge, but that it was not inevitable for me to act on binge urges that would follow. After those two binges, I didn’t feel like I had to start over, or find a new approach. I just took a look at what happened, and saw how I could prevent it from happening again.  I explained this in more detail in my first book: Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, and How I Recovered for Good.

If you have a binge while you are trying to recover, don’t make it mean more than it does. It doesn’t mean you won’t recover, it doesn’t mean you can’t utilize your higher brain more effectively next time. Something helpful you can do is to mentally go back to determine what led you to act on the urge. I’m not talking about figuring out what events or feelings “triggered” the binge, I’m talking about determining how the urge itself led you into the binge. How did your lower brain get what it wanted? What binge-encouraging thoughts did you believe? When did you lose that detachment and separation from the urges?

You might feel discouraged about a binge, and that’s okay, but by analyzing what happened, you can keep the binge in perspective. You may realize it was just one enticing thought that hooked you and made you decide to follow the urge. You’ll be prepared to experience the next urge without believing the lower brain’s faulty messages.

Recovery Obstacle #3: You Feel Like You Want to Binge

In Brain over Binge, I also talked about how learning to stop acting on binge urges wasn’t truly difficult for me, but it was tricky at first. My lower brain could be deceptive, and by far the most tempting and common reason it gave me to binge was because I simply wanted to. I had thoughts telling me that it didn’t matter what part of my brain generated my urges, because I wanted to binge nonetheless. I had thoughts telling me I should definitely follow my urges because a binge was my true desire. As long as I stayed detached from those thoughts and viewed them as meaningless, they could not affect me.

This topic of wanting to binge comes up a lot in those who are trying to recover, so I’ve addressed this issue in two other posts on the Brain over Binge blog: Is “Wanting to Binge” Holding You Back in Recovery? and Do You Want to Recover?: Why It Sometimes Feels Like You Want to Keep Binge Eating.

It’s so important to be able to dismiss ANY thought or feeling encouraging binge eating as the neurological junk that it is. This includes those messages that tell you binge eating is worth it, or that it is really you that wants to binge. You don’t need to disagree with those thoughts or try to argue them away, because like I talked about earlier, that doesn’t work; but you can remain unaffected by those thoughts and feelings until they pass.

Recovery Obstacle #4: You Are Not Eating Enough

I’ve brought this up a lot on the blog so far, but I believe it’s the most common reason for struggling in binge eating recovery. If you are not eating adequately, you are keeping your body and brain in survival mode, and I truly believe that urges that arise because of food restriction are harder to dismiss than urges that arise due to habit. Eating less than you need is not compatible with the Brain over Binge approach. If you think this may be a problem for you, these two blog posts will give you some useful information as you give up dieting:  Weight Gain From Binge Eating Recovery? and What are Your Motivations for Dieting?

Recovery Obstacle #5: You Need Additional Guidance in Recovery

Some people can read a book or learn the basics of a new approach, and then apply it with consistency—without any additional help. But, this is not always the case. Most people need to have a way to reinforce what they’ve learned, or need some questions answered along the way, or need additional clarity about how this approach applies to their specific situation, or need some help staying focused as they put an end to binge eating.

There are many ways you can get additional guidance, clarity, and reinforcement—and that may be outside of the Brain over Binge blog and website—but if you resonate with my approach and would like extra help and additional recovery resources, I want to tell you that I’ve created the Brain over Binge Course to serve as a powerful way to keep you on track and moving toward freedom from binge eating. I’ve also made sure that it’s affordable for anyone who is committed to ending binge eating (you can get access to the course for only $18.99 per month)

As a part of this course, I’ve recorded detailed answers to nearly every question I’ve been asked over the years, so that you can get the information, ideas, and advice that you need to support yourself on your journey to freedom from binge eating.

Here is what one course member had to say:

This course is exactly what I needed to hear! I’ve read countless books on the BED-topic (including Brain over Binge) before, without any success. The course is full of deep insights and packed with valuable and practical information. I really appreciate the rational and organized form everything is presented. I’m exceedingly thankful for the course – it has really changed my life! THANK YOU!!!

Continue to Part 2 of this blog series.

Binge eating weight obsession Katherine Thomson (podcast)

Episode 53: What Can Hold You Back in Binge Eating Recovery, Part 2: Weight Obsession (Interview with Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.)

Brain over Binge Bright Line Eating

Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?