Binge eating. It’s that powerful drive to eat lots of food, usually the kind we’ve labeled “forbidden,” usually extremely quickly, and often in secret. We’ve likely all had this experience at least once. I describe a little of my own experience in part 1 of this article along with the first place to look when it comes to getting over your binge eating once it no longer serves you. I talked a lot about diet and how to tweak it to ensure your binges aren’t being driven by imbalanced eating.
Now in part 2 of this topic, we are going to explore some of the other reasons why you might still be tormented with binge eating, even if your diet is awesome. I’ll be honest that most of these reasons are a little less straight-forward to fix. You won’t just be able to add something here, take away something there and suddenly you stop binging like you can when it’s diet-related. But I will share some practical things you can do to start the process of getting to the root of your binge eating, and help to heal it.
These underlying reasons for binge eating are not exhaustive. There can be several other reasons why you might binge on a particular day, and there are usually several reasons at once. But the following are some common underlying factors that can drive you to binge eat.
You’re in tight control.
When you think about a binge, one phrase you might use to describe it is “out of control.” You may feel like you’re not even in your body, but watching yourself from the outside doing these behaviors you feel powerless to stop. This feeling of being so not in control of yourself is frightening, and once you snap out of it, you vow to never let it happen again. You regain control of yourself more tightly than ever. Until the next binge.
Maybe you tightly control your diet at all other times when you aren’t binging. You’re strict about what you can and can’t have, when and how much. Rigid is a good word to describe it. You may be controlling your food intake so tightly that it dictates where you go out to eat, which social events you can go to, or takes up all your time during the day to plan how you will compensate for going out with friends later.
Your control seeps over into other areas of your life. You have a need for order in your world. You have a vision for how things should go. You have your routine set and the day planned, and if only the kids would pick up after themselves, if only your boss would do it this way, if only your spouse would listen, if only your friends would go to that other place, if only the politicians saw things your way, if only the weather would conform itself to your plans, and damn it! if only ice cream had no calories! Then, then life would be wonderful! In this case, the purpose of the binge is to bring some semblance of balance back into your life.
The psyche works like this, too. When you’re going around trying to be general manager of the universe, you put yourself under huge pressure. It even shows in your body, your face. Picture your face when you feel this sense of trying to control your world. Your jaw clenches, brow furrows, mouth downturned, and your body contracts. It’s only a matter of time before balance is restored so all that pressure is released.
Just like if you have a tightly wound rope, so twisted up on itself that if you let it go, it violently unravels itself in a burst of speed and energy to get back to its natural state. And you know the power of an elastic band that has been stretched many times its original length. That’s you in tight control until finally the pressure becomes so much you find yourself ravaging the kitchen in a whirlwind to find release.
Where to start: First become aware of all the areas of your life and other people’s lives you tend to try to control. Make a list of all the people, things, places, events you try to control. Next to each item on the list, write down how you react when you can’t control those things. Note where you feel it in your body, what your thoughts are, and what your actions are.
Once you are aware of your own tendencies and how they affect your thoughts and actions, you need to start to practice relaxing and feeling OK even when you aren’t in control. You can do this anytime and anyplace, but a great time to do it is when you notice your body starting show warning signs of tight control. The moment you notice it, stop what you’re doing and take five slow, deep breaths. Realize that you are trying to manage the universe again. It helps to kind of laugh at yourself a little when you realize this to remind yourself how silly it is to imagine we are in control of the universe. Don’t judge yourself for thinking this, just be aware of it, and relax into the moment.
You aren’t living authentically.
Just like trying to be the general manager of the universe puts a huge amount of pressure on a person, trying to suppress who you really are to the world puts you in a pressure-cooker, and also takes an enormous amount of energy.
We all go through times when we suppress who we really are for the sake of being liked. Especially during puberty, it seems everyone does this to some extent. But when it goes on year after year, decade after decade, it drains your energy, and the energy you have left is not allowed to be expressed in an authentic way. It builds up and builds up, until eventually you act out in the form of binge eating.
For some the binge can be a release of pressure, just like those in tight control, and/or it can be your inner rebel finally getting air time. If you constantly suppress your true self, resentment starts to build. Resentment towards the world because you don’t feel safe enough to let your guard down, and resentment toward yourself for not showing up in the world authentically. Binge eating isn’t really something considered “socially acceptable,” so indulging in it is kind of like a F*** YOU! to the world and at the same time, a self-punishment for not being able to stand up to it.
Binge eating makes total sense as a coping mechanism because it gives you release and a sense of defiance. Some use alcohol, some use drugs, or gambling or shoplifting, or whatever. Many different coping behaviors can be used for the same underlying issue.
Where to start: Start by imagining how you would be, how you would act, what you would say, how you would show up in the world, if there were no one around to judge you. Write down all the details you can think of. What would you wear? How would you behave? What job would you have? What friends? What hobbies would you have? Where would you live? What would you believe in? What music would you listen to? Everything.
Next go through that list and pick one thing you can actually start doing now. If everyone lost the ability to judge you, pick one thing you would do differently, authentically, and do it.
Something is unresolved in your past.
Binge eating can often act as a bookmark to hold the place of some unresolved event in your past. It comes as a signal, an alert that it’s time to go back and take a closer look at something you need to resolve.
Just what the event is that the binge eating is alerting you to is something only you or you and a counselor can say. But some common things from the past that can easily be left unresolved include the following:
- Abuse (sexual, physical or emotional)
- Death of loved ones
- Divorce (yourself or your parents)
- Moving (schools or homes)
- Being bullied
- Lack of affection
- Any kind of trauma
Where to start: If you have a past unresolved trauma, it can often be very helpful to work with a trained counselor or therapist to help you unravel the events and find new ways to cope. Whether you do or don’t work with someone around this, talking about it with someone you trust takes you a long way down the road to healing. The more light you give to past traumas, the less it has to stay hidden inside you where it leads to behaviors like binge eating or other coping mechanisms.
No matter what the past event is that might be contributing to binge eating today, you must FORGIVE YOURSELF. Forgive yourself for not being able to resolve whatever happened, and for any coping strategies you used. You did the best you could with the insight you had at the time. Whatever you used to cope was simply you trying to take care of yourself the best way you knew how. No blame in that.
Once you understand that binge eating is simply your body’s way of alerting you to take another look at something in your past, commit to learning some new coping mechanisms that serve you and your body rather than hinder it. It doesn’t mean you will never use binge eating again, it just means you will broaden your options for taking care of yourself. Make a list of some other ways you might choose to cope with uncomfortable feelings. You don’t always have to use this list. The goal is just to have other options available for when you’re ready.
You’re ignoring your feminine.
What on earth does this mean? I could spend a lot of time talking about this subject by itself, but in short, we all have a “masculine” side and a “feminine” side, both men and women. This particular reason for binge eating typically applies to women, but it can apply to some men also. When I say “masculine” side, I’m talking about the part of us that is goal-oriented, driven, logical, linear, fixed, organized, to the point. When I say “feminine” side, I’m talking abou the part of us that is intuitive, empathetic, flexible, spontaneous, and subtle.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying women are all the feminine qualities and men are all the masculine qualities. We all have both sides to us, some are more dominant in masculine qualities, some are more dominant in feminine qualities, and some are pretty even in both. An interesting side-effect that occurred since the women’s rights movement is that when women began gaining social equality, they began to take on and be praised more for their “masculine” qualities, and not their “feminine” qualities. Kind of like, women are equal to men as long as they act like men.
Men and women are equal, but not the same. It’s sometimes hard to get that concept across without sounding biased in some way. And while of course we all have varying amounts of “masculine” and “feminine” qualities as individuals, over the past several decades the feminine qualities have been downplayed in our society as somehow less than, somehow not to be taken seriously.
An example of how masculine qualities tend to dominate both men and women is the diet industry. Diets are very numbers-oriented, step by step, rule-oriented, measurement-oriented systems that take out the body’s natural intuition. Even the goal of the diet is typically to conform the body, both men’s and women’s into a hard, toned figure that’s more masculine in shape. The soft curves of the feminine are not honored or desired by most of society.
So a lot of women (and men) who naturally have more feminine qualities, often feel pressure to suppress a whole side of themselves for fear of not being taken seriously. And if you’ve been reading the rest of this article, you know by now that self-suppression and pressure to act a certain way will eventually lead to some sort of explosion, in this case binge eating.
Where to start: Write down all the more feminine qualities you have been suppressing or ashamed of in any way. In what ways do you show your masculine side? Your feminine side? If no one was around to judge you, what ways would you be more in your feminine? Pick one thing from that list and start practicing!
These are a handful of deeper reasons why you might be binge eating. Again, you may have multiple reasons for binge eating, or different reasons not discussed here. But these are some great places to look once you have made sure your diet isn’t contributing.
Binge eating isn’t just something that’s here to annoy you or cause you shame and discomfort. It’s a message from your body’s and psyche’s wisdom alerting you there’s some area in your life you need to take a look at, to become aware of. I believe we all have no choice but to learn and grow, and that we will keep running into the same obstacles over and over until we finally learn from them what they are here to teach us.
If this article rang true for you, please share it, and I would love to hear from you in the comments!