Things were going so well. You felt like you were really making progress and getting your eating normalized and regulated. No binges! Hey! I can do this! Yes!
And then. And then all of a sudden things aren’t going so well. Something happened, it tripped you up, and you binged. Ugh! So discouraging and disheartening. What do you do now?
This is not an uncommon situation. At all. When you are trying to learn a new way of being and new habits, there will inevitably be moments where you relapse into old behaviors.
However, one of the most common mistakes I see people make when this happens is beating themselves up over it. Instead, it can actually be a valuable chance to learn a lot, if you apply curiosity to the situation rather than judgment.
Many years ago while visiting Cologne, Germany, my girlfriend and I had lunch with a German student, Greg, who was studying for a degree in English. He was excited to spend time with native English speakers because he could practice his English. And practice he did. He chatted in English, made plenty of mistakes and asked us to correct him and explain why.
When Greg did make a mistake, he didn’t roll his eyes or curse at himself. He also didn’t stop practicing. Instead, he just got super curious about it, asked questions, and was excited he learned something.
Learning any new skill, including normalized eating, is a lot like this. It happens through practice and inevitable “mistakes.” However, those mistakes don’t have to end your progress if you apply some curiosity to them. In fact, they can be the stepping stones to a very solid recovery.
So, if you find yourself having slipped back into an old go-to habit around your eating such as bingeing and are tempted to chew yourself out, you might try a different approach. What if you just got curious? What if you asked, “What happened?” and asked it with compassion and gentleness?
Applying Compassionate Curiosity
So how do you bring some compassion and curiosity to the moment? Try these steps.
Stop for a moment, take several deep breaths, and review the scene when you binged in your mind. As you do, ask yourself the following questions.
1. How was I feeling just before I binged?
What was happening for you physically and emotionally just prior to the binge? For example, were you angry? Bored? Anxious? Hungry? What did that feel like in your body? Be as specific as you can.
2. What had happened or what was I thinking about that made me feel that way?
For instance, did you have a difficult conversation with someone? Were you anticipating a challenging situation? Did an unpleasant memory come up and you felt triggered? Maybe you hadn’t eaten all day and were physically hungry. Just see what was happening to set the scene for how you felt. (Remember that it could have happened earlier in the day.)
3. Is there another resource I could have used to take care of myself instead of bingeing?
Could you have called a friend? Could you have gone for a walk? Journaled? Played with your dog? Screamed at the top of your lungs? Think of any activity that helps balance and center you emotionally that would have been another option. What would have made you feel more supported in that moment?
Armed and (Less) Dangerous
Once you do this, you are armed with some very valuable information. First of all, hopefully you will be able to see you actually had a very human reason for falling into an old behavior. You were probably uncomfortable and suffering in some way. No need to criticize yourself for that. Being uncomfortable in some way (lots and lots of the time) is pretty much the human condition.
Secondly, you get to see what set the stage for the decision to binge. By really understanding what circumstances you were in and how you felt, you can be clear on areas that are challenging for you. For instance, you can learn that certain emotions or subject matters are especially difficult for you so you can be extra careful with yourself when these arise.
Finally, having more perspective can help you make a different choice next time. Seeing what set the stage for it to happen, you can take steps to respond more skillfully the next go around. Having come up with some possible alternatives to bingeing when you are not in crisis mode can make it easier to use a different method of caring for yourself when you are in the heat of the moment.
By sidestepping the temptation to beat yourself up about your binge, you move straight to the useful part. The super, super useful part. Seeing what happened so you are better prepared next time is how you improve your skill. Just like learning a new language, recovery is a skill you learn through repetition and practice . . . and mistakes. By using a slip as a chance to understand what was happening for you rather than a error to be ashamed of, you will become more fluent in recovery and be that much further along on the path to a healthy relationship with food.