A Letter of Self-Compassion to Understand a Binge

I’m in a slump.

The Bingeing EpisodeUnderstand a bingeing episode

Here’s what happened; despite having a restless night due to a persistent cough, I woke feeling positive and eager to get my workout in.

I finished up around 11:30 and felt hungry. It seemed a little early for lunch but I figured I’d have an early lunch rather than let the hunger get worse.

Reaching into the fridge for salad fixings, I spied a container of mozzarella balls (the big ones) and thought “Well, let me have one of these to take the edge off so I can take the time to make a good, satisfying salad”. I grabbed a ball of cheese and sat down to eat it slowly and mindfully.

When I opened the refrigerator again, I spied a leftover pork cutlet (breaded and fried, of course) and thought “Well, let me just eat this. It’s kind of like protein and fat and carbs all rolled into one and it will take less time than it takes to make a salad”. I swallowed the pork cutlet practically whole.

I realized that I wasn’t able to fool myself any longer.

Losing Control

I could feel the momentum building and I was on my way to a binge. I ate several leftover roasted potato pieces, about 10 crackers with peanut butter and then I ate a handful of pretzels with mustard. 

When I binge, I feel a complete lack of self-control. It’s a terrible way to describe it but it’s almost feral. I shovel ridiculous amounts of whatever is within immediate reach into my mouth as fast as I can.

All the while, I have an almost out of body experience where my mind is watching the insanity that is being played out by my body and fighting a mental battle to get control.

It’s like being on a roller coaster just as it’s reaching the peak: you’re scared, have no control over anything and know that the only way to safety is to ride out the frightening next few minutes. It’s an awful, awful, awful feeling.

I closed the pretzel bag and put it away. I placed the mustard container back into the fridge and then I stood in the middle of the kitchen and started to cry. I felt guilty and weak and stupid and angry at myself.

What happened?

I thought this behavior was behind me.

I haven’t been restricting myself when my husband (the cook around here) has made an especially delicious pasta dish or homemade Italian dessert. I have a taste, eat it mindfully and understand that I have chosen a comforting food over what might have been a “healthier’ choice.

I am exercising and making healthy choices too so I don’t self-berate for these times when a pork cutlet is on the menu. I’m confused, I can’t even point to a contributing factor; I was feeling well and had just put in a good workout.

Where’s the learning?  I don’t know other than to figure that sometimes this bingeing stuff just happens for no sensible reason at all. The one thing I didn’t see coming is that maybe bingeing just happens for no reason.

Beth Turchi

The Response

Our binge eating expert, Dr. Kari Anderson, responded to Beth with a “Voice of Self-Compassion”. We practice this tool in our Pathway(SM) series – it’s a conversation that allows us to look at ourselves with the compassion we sometimes lack, especially after a binge when we feel guilty, upset, and ashamed.

Dear Beth,

Sometimes there is nothing “sensible” or “rational” about what we are needing. After a binge episode, it is important to first try and connect with ourselves emotionally without trying to figure it out.

What I heard was that you “had a restless night with a persistent cough” and you have been consistently “pushing through”. You have a good practice of mindful eating, mostly making “healthier choices” and exercising. The part of mindful eating that you might ask yourself is, “What do I want?” Based on your food choices, you wanted comfort.

Of course you want comfort! You said you were planning to have a “good satisfying salad”. Sometimes you just don’t want what is “good”*, you want a pork cutlet, cheese, crackers and the like.

You just didn’t know that. You are so mindful, working so hard to figure it out, that the part of you that just wants to be comforted and rewarded is feeling deprived and a bit uncomfortable.

Moving from your head to your heart is important.

Don’t be afraid of emotional eating for comfort on purpose, it’s a normal part of eating. Lastly, I want to you know that you have nothing to feel guilty, weak or stupid about. In fact, recognizing the need for comfort and giving yourself a dose of self-compassion will energize you as the pull of deprivation will feel whole again.

After connecting on an emotional level with yourself, you can now “try and figure out” what happened. Thank you so much for sharing what binge eating feels like, it’s so personal, but so helpful for others because you are describing a binge eating episode to a T.

The Feelings Behind a Binge

I’ve always said that the binge isn’t so much the quantity, but the feelings of being out of control that accompany it.

The out of body experience is really your attempt to cope with the incongruence of your value system and your current behavior. A protective mechanism, in part, that has gone awry.

It’s the dissociative response that makes it mindless.

What Can I Do to Interrupt a Binge?

You may ask yourself, what can I do in these situations?

If you find yourself in the middle of a binge, sometimes the best thing to do is to “just leave”. What I mean is leave the opportunity to continue.

Get outside, take a shower, or do anything to change the sensory exposure. Fight against the tendency to think that “you’ve already blown it, so I should just get this out of my system”. The “pull” is the wanting of your brain and it will do almost anything to get its reward.

Usually at this point, you may realize that you aren’t even “liking” what you’re eating anymore, but you’re compelled to finish the binge.

Interrupting the neuropathway with an abrupt exit can help. Those early in the change process find great empowerment in interrupting the binge. It implies volition, which speaks to one’s autonomy, a key to long term change.

Vulnerability and Self-Compassion

Recognizing vulnerability also takes a bit of self-compassion.

Feelings of deprivation are deep within us both biologically and psychologically. It is not uncommon for someone to trigger feelings of deprivation after a “good” workout or when our restrictive mind sneaks into our decision making.

Once you know you are vulnerable, you may be able catch the binge earlier in the chain of events. Slow this event down and create a mindful experience by making sure that your entire meal is (even if it is pork cutlet, pretzels and crackers*) plated. Sit with it and eat it as mindful as possible.

Read This Related Article:

What Do You Need to Hear Right Now? From Self-Criticism to Self-Compassion

“I know there are no good and bad foods, and a good satisfying salad is really good sometimes,but a pork cutlet is equally as good when that is what you are really wanting.”

You may have never dreamed of doing this, in fact the process of standing and eating or going back for more over and over is part of the binge process that creates cognitive dissonance and therefore a need to check out.

Our restrictive mind will fight against our eating in certain ways intentionally. In fact, it may take the reward of the process of the binge out of it.

Ask yourself, do I just need to check out for a while? Or do I really want all this food?

Other Ways to Find Comfort

Lastly, in order to reduce your vulnerability, I recommend trying to find some pleasure and comfort in other ways, proactively. If we are taking moments throughout the day to give ourselves real comfort and experience pleasure, we may not need to always find this in our food.

Remember that our meals don’t always have to be liked, they can be just functional. But, your voice of self-compassion must reassure your “deprived” brain, that you are getting your needs met in other ways and you will be taken care of.

One of the things that trips many people up is their definition of healthy eating. I see you put quotation marks around the term which suggests you get the disconnect. It can be a big help to grasp that health-promoting behaviors extend far beyond nutrition and exercise.

Getting the comfort we need is very healthy. Recognizing that helps us better allow ourselves to use food for comfort in a way that is truly comforting, i.e., that doesn’t turn into a binge episode that is far from that.

The Message About Binge Eating:

Sometimes figuring out why we binge isn’t as important as validating our emotional experience, which sometimes is much deeper than what appears on the surface.

The voice of self-compassion can calm the self and disengage the judgment and anxiety that comes after a binge. Compassion doesn’t take away regret or given you permission to continue the behavior, it just takes the judgment out of it.

We want to thank Beth for sharing her heart and vulnerability for the benefit of our better understanding our own behavior.

Kari Anderson, Binge Eating Expert

Kari Anderson, DBH, LCMHC, CEDS

Learn More About the Women’s Center for Binge and Emotional Eating Therapy

One response to “A Letter of Self-Compassion to Understand a Binge”

  1. wendy nickerson says:

    Thank you for this post.

    I sometimes feel a sense of panic and hopelessness when I end up binging after trying so hard and feeling successful in eating and living healthily for a few weeks.

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