Most people have experienced overeating or emotional eating at some time in their life. Sometimes it’s a lighthearted occurrence like mindlessly eating a whole bag of potato chips while watching Netflix. However, some people become held captive by binge eating disorder.
Binge eating disorder is defined in the DSM 5 as recurrent and persistent episodes of binge eating. Binge eating episodes are associated with eating more rapidly than normal, eating until uncomfortably full, eating alone and feeling disgusted with one’s eating.
I am a recovered binge eater. I personally and professionally know the anguish this issue causes women all over the world because I am also a life coach specializing in helping women overcome binge eating behavior.
One of the most powerful ways to help overcome binge eating and disordered eating behavior is to realize you’re not alone. Once you learn about how others have fought through their own challenges, the shame lifts.
My Story of Binge Eating and How I Overcome It in 8 Steps
I would like to share my story with binge eating and how I found healing.
For me, my disordered relationship with food started in high school. The alchemy of teenage hormones, newly-realized pressure to be thin, and my perfectionism led me to try my first diet. I was 16, and I didn’t feel at home in my skin. I was gaining weight like most young women do and hated the loss of control I felt.
I compared myself to my “skinny” girlfriends and thought I should have abs like Britney Spears.
I remember finding my first diet like a scene from a movie. I was at a shopping mall bookstore, back when bookstores still existed. I walked through the rows and saw a book, a well known 90s diet plan.
I followed the diet religiously. I lost weight and people rewarded me with glowing compliments, fueling my need for approval.
Thus began my cycle of restriction. For the month leading up to my Junior prom, I followed my diet and took it to the extreme. After prom, I came home and experienced my first binge episode. I didn’t know it at the time but as I grabbed the tortilla chips and cheese and made a huge plate of nachos, I was in the throes of a binge.
I ate with a numb ferocity that I couldn’t understand.
For myself and the hundreds of women I’ve coached, once you have a binge eating episode, it’s almost as if something switches in your brain. You access a feeling from food that is emotional and euphoric, but only temporary.
For years after, I cycled between food restriction, militant exercising, and powerful binge eating episodes. Over and over, the pendulum of my eating swung from one side to another. If I was eating according to my diet or set of rules, I felt in control and “good.” If I was eating outside of the plan, I was bad, wrong, immoral and ashamed at what I saw in the mirror.
Through college, my binge eating thrived. The restrictive phases filled me with hunger, fear of food and anxiety. The binge eating phases helped soothe the anxiety and shame I felt.
After each binge, I would emerge from feeling worse about my body and vowing to be even more rigorous and restrictive.
By my mid-20s, I’d sunk into an exhausted state of depression. The harder I tried to lose weight and gain control with food, the worse I felt. My body image was at rock bottom.
I was spending so much of my mental energy worrying about food that I was barely participating in my own life.
Vacations were a disaster because I was confronted with delicious food and an unrestricted schedule. I’d completely lose my mind, eat out of control and instead of making memories …
Relationships were almost impossible. It was difficult to be present and loving with a partner when I felt ashamed of my eating behaviors and my body.
I knew I didn’t want to live the rest of my life stuck with food obsession and a terrible body image. Bravely, I started the slow, hard work of ending binge eating and beginning a new, more fulfilled life.
Through a layering of therapy, support groups, trial and error, and personal reflection, I eliminated my binge eating. I also created a life filled with passion, purpose and love.
1. I Stopped Extremism
My first diet was the catalyst to my first binge eating episode. If I had never gone on that diet, it’s possible I could have avoided binge eating altogether.
Drastic food restrictions and rules are like pulling back a slingshot. Once you remove a food group, the brain fixates on a desire for them. When willpower finally erodes, the slingshot releases and you’re thrust into a binge eating episode.
During my recovery, I had to stop following blunt rules for myself around food. Instead, I continually practiced balance. It was not easy. In fact, eating in a balanced way is one of the hardest behaviors I had to learn.
Instead of living either on a diet plan or off a diet plan, begin to practice living in the middle. You will feel a sense of relief when you stop experiencing extreme periods of restriction followed by unhinged periods of eating.
2. I Stopped Black and White Thinking
I am a perfectionist. Black and white thinking helped me to interpret the world. I saw things as either good or bad, giving me a calming sense of order.
During my recovery, a therapist broke the news to me that the world is not black and white. She told me that a person could be good, but also make bad choices. A person could be healthy and also eat fast food.
I was a bit incredulous at this notion. It seemed like a trap to pull me over to the dark side of eating junk food and becoming a criminal.
But I started to open up to the idea that yes, there is a grey area with everything. I started to dip my toe into indulging without restricting the day after. I realized I didn’t burst into flames if I went out for drinks on a weeknight.
I began to see the world in a softer, more forgiving way. This helped me to see myself with more forgiveness, too.
To this day, I bristle at the terms cheat meal and clean eating. I don’t believe in defining food or behaviors as good or bad.
3. I stopped fearing food and hunger
I’d been on so many diets and restricted myself so much that I was drastically out of sync with my hunger signals. I feared binge eating so much, that any hunger pang sent alarm bells off in my brain.
I worked hard to first acknowledge and notice hunger. I started to allow my hunger to be just a physical sensation. Then I learned to deal with hunger in a natural and sane way.
I’d slow down and ask myself, how hungry am I? What am I hungry for? Or is this really hunger or something else?
4. I processed my emotions with movement
Because my emotions had often led to a binge episode, I was very avoidant of feeling emotional.
To heal my binge eating, I knew I needed to dislodge the emotions I’d been avoiding for years — a big job.
I first allowed myself to notice my emotions. And I noticed a lot of them, like sadness, fear, disappointment and shame.
When it was very hard to sit with my feelings, I used movement as a way to process them. I took short walks through the office building where I worked, like a mall-walker. The movement helped me to process things as I moved my feet. Plus, movement helped to create endorphins, which further helped my healing.
5. I found my self-love
Much of my disordered food behavior was born out of a faulty idea of self-love. Early on, I had developed the idea that I am worthy if I achieve things and I am worthy if others say so.
These ideas festered until I was completely dependent on outside validation.
During my binge eating recovery, I had to chip away at my need for external validation. Deep down I found the truth. I deserve love, and I am worthy.
When I was a young girl, I was full of exuberant confidence. Through self-reflection, I accessed that unfettered self-love. Then, I was able to begin the process of rejuvenating my self-confidence.
Remind yourself that you are worthy and lovable regardless of your appearance or food behavior. If this is challenging, work hard every day to build your self-love.
6. I got perspective
Yes, health absolutely matters. Yes, the ability to be physically active matters. But aside from those aspects of weight, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as we think.
During my recovery, I opened my eyes to the idea that my stress over weight and appearance were largely a perspective issue.
My ability to enjoy the world is not changed by the fact that I’ve gained 20 pounds, my perspective was the problem.
My ability to laugh until my stomach hurts with my girlfriends is not related to whether I ate two donuts yesterday. My perspective was holding me captive to the idea that I could not enjoy life unless I was “on plan” or within a certain weight range.
7. I sought support
A milestone in my recovery was attending a support group for people suffering with food issues of all kinds. I remember walking into the meeting, so terrified, but also filled with a spark of hope.
For the first time I looked around and didn’t feel alone and deeply ashamed. It was like coming up for air after 10 years of being under water.
Even though it is terrifying, sharing your struggle with food with someone can be transformative. Find a support group or confide in a friend about your issues. You will feel relieved and unburdened.
8. I renewed my passion for music
My biggest passion in life has always been music. I love to sing, write songs and play piano. When I was in the depths of disordered eating, I lost my enthusiasm for creativity and I barely touched my piano.
When I focused on repairing my self image, I began doing more activities that made me feel energized, happy and capable. Playing piano reminded me that I have so much more to offer than my appearance. As I started playing music again, my self-confidence began to bloom.
Find activities and hobbies that you can lose yourself in. Think about what you loved to do as a child. Maybe you loved to sketch. Maybe you enjoy craft projects or a HGTV style home project. Embrace a healthy distraction and be reminded of how capable you are.
You Can Break Free, Too
Rebuilding my relationship with food and repairing my body image was a long process. I had to tear down my faulty foundation of perfectionism, need for approval, and black and white thinking.
Living with balance is not effortless. I work hard daily to protect the healthy and happy life I have built. Even though my journey was not quick and painless, it was undeniably worth it.
I am able to be present in my life instead of buried in thought about what food I should or should not eat next. I am able to sustain a happy marriage, deep friendships and a thriving coaching business.
Don’t let fear of food and self-doubt hold you back from truly living. Seek the help of therapists, support groups and the people that love you. A beautiful life is waiting for you.
Brynn Johnson is a life coach helping women stop binge eating and live a life of freedom. She blogs over at Swandive Co. and helps driven women find a more freedom-based career and life.