So why haven’t you stopped yet?
I think about that question often when working with new recovery coaching clients. The people who contact me are intelligent, successful, and capable of nearly anything they put their minds to.
So what stops them?
What keeps them from finally releasing the grip food seems to have on their lives?
It’s something I had to come to terms with 10 years ago when I finally put a 20 year eating disorder behind me.
Why on earth didn’t I stop before I let food consume 20 years of my life?!
What I’ve come to learn about myself and other amazing (yet everyday) people who find themselves with food issues like bulimia, binge eating disorder or even lighter versions of emotional eating is that we don’t know what’s going on and how to help ourselves.
Lack of understanding. Period.
You sort of feel trapped by your thoughts and behaviors. I often felt like there was a monster out to get me each day. I would fend it off most of the day and give in when stressed after a long day and say “screw it!“. The urges were so strong I didn’t think anything would stop them. I didn’t believe I had the power to change.
That simply isn’t true.
I’d like to share with you much of what I’ve learned about breaking the vicious cycle of compulsive overeating – or most any annoying habit – for good.
Habits: We All Have Them
Our brain has an incredible ability to survive by conserving brain power. It’s something that goes back to the days of hunters and gatherers who needed to conserve energy because food was more scarce. This same brain is the one inside of you. But, it hasn’t advanced much in tens of thousands of years.
The brain, as a way of conserving energy, links up patterns (or neuroassociations) when a routine is repeated a few times. You don’t have to re-learn each morning how to tie your shoes, wash your hair or make breakfast because your brain learned how to do those things by repeating them a few times. It then stores those patterns or habits in memory for quick recall when needed. This is how habits serve us; they make our lives easier. Habits are a good thing.
Habits that don’t serve us and we feel powerless to change them is when we feel hopeless.
We all have habits. Helpful and not so helpful ones. I want you to remember that you created all of your habits. You created them and you can change them.
The purpose of this is not to get you to change all of your habits; I don’t even want you to try to change all of your annoying habits at the same time. We’re here to understand the process so you can apply this to your life, as needed, to make you feel empowered and alive again.
How [Binge] Habits Form
I’ve enjoyed reading about how habits form and I hope you’ll be as fascinated with this as I was when I started studying it. If you want an easy reading good book on habits I recommend The Power of Habit as a good place to start. For eating disorder specific habit changing, definitely check out Kathryn Hansen’s book Brain over Binge.
From what I’ve read, there seems to be agreement about the three phases of a habit and they happen in this order:
- Cue or Trigger – each habit pattern has a trigger mechanism or cue that starts the next phase. I’ll talk more about triggers in a little bit.
- Routine or Response – once triggered, your brain initiates a routine or act in response to the trigger. Whatever you’ve trained it to do through repetition will automatically be recalled by the brain and the brain sends impulses to act to carry out the routine.
- Reward or Payoff – ahhh…the juice! What we get from fulfilling the routine that entices us or makes us feel good from the routine.
If you’re like me all of this reminds you of the story of Pavlov’s dogs who were trained to respond to salivated when a bell was run and they were given a treat. After enough repetition, the dogs salivated when they heard the bell without any food visible.
When I explain to clients how to understand the seeds of where their eating disorder came from I often tell the story of why so many of us are excited when we see chocolate cake. If you were like me, as a kid I went to enough birthday parties where they served chocolate cake. I was in a high flying environment, having fun with friends, playing, there were lots of games and excitement for hours. The energy was really high and each time there was chocolate cake. I began to link up chocolate cake and being happy and having fun to the point where I think about or see a piece of chocolate cake and I get excited. Just like Pavlov’s dog.
How the urge to binge (or whatever habit you have) came about for you is unique to you. But I bet if you really looked back on your life to when these patterns started you could probably find the triggers and the rewards. My urge to binge and purge started as a diet in high school. I thought as an athlete it was cool when I learned there were Olympic athletes who would eat whatever they wanted, purge it and be able to maintain their fitness and achieve incredible feats of success. So, I started binging and purging without much thought to it ever turning into a 20 year addiction.
What started as a way to enjoy food became a dreadful habit that when I finally woke up and wanted to stop doing it I felt powerless to do anything to stop overeating. I had engrained the pattern for so long I was hooked. Not knowing back then it was simply a habit I had created, I thought I had an emotional disorder or I was really screwed up because I couldn’t stop when I wanted to. I even did it when I didn’t want to do it. The “eating disorder” was now in charge.
Day in and day out I would be compelled to go to the grocery store or doughnut shop. I would go home in a mask of shame to eat and vomit for hours each night. Right after the exhaustion from vomiting wore off I would say I felt horrible and I would not do it again.
But you already know how that turned out.
The next day it was like my car was on auto pilot and I’d find myself in line with all this food at the checkout counter avoiding eye contact with the checker out for fear they would say something about the mountains of crap I was buying. You know what…no one ever did. So I ask myself…
Why on earth would any seemingly normal person do that to themselves?
Now that we recognize what is going on, it’s time to look at how to break the painful cycle of compulsive overeating – or any other negative pattern. I did this with smoking before bulimia and have used it in other areas of my life, as well. Works the same from what I can tell for anything that you’ve habituated and no longer want to do.
How To Break a Bad Habit
First, I want you to know I don’t think there are bad habits because when I coach my clients I don’t want them to feel that they ARE bad (bad habit = bad person). They are just doing things that are or are not serving them.
If we call these bad habits I think it makes us feel like we are bad. And I certainly don’t think anyone who smokes, or overeats or drinks more than they want to are bad people. So, let’s call them habits that serve us or habits that don’t. Sound good?
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been doing a lot of study specifically about changing habits. There are studies that would show that all you need to do to break a bad habit is recognize the trigger, find a replacement routine and you can have lasting change.
I believe that’s possible.
It’s also my experience that some habits are easier to replace than others and some people have an easier time shedding old patterns than other people do. I will offer you my recipe for success and know that the exact recipe that will work for you is indeed unique to you. These are merely guideposts to help you find your path.
Without self-awareness of a non-serving habit there can be no change. I’m going to assume you’re here because you’re already aware of the problem. I bring this to the table because when people contact me about loved ones who aren’t getting help they always wonder why and what to do. I first ask if the person they’re trying to help has awareness of the issue – do they think they have problem? I also bring the idea of awareness to up to remind you there may be habits that aren’t serving you and you’re not readily aware of them.
Awareness also plays a part in the process later because if we aren’t aware of our triggers, routine and rewards then we can’t change the behavior. For now, just remember that awareness must be present before change can take place.
Decide & Commit
These two words play such an important role in the process of habit change that I almost want to scream them.
DECIDE AND COMMIT. Dammit!
Ok, there. That feels more like it.
Until you decide you are going to change…You. Will. Never. Change.
Until you commit to your decision, you will never see results. I am not sure which word of the two is more important, but without both you won’t breakthrough and achieve the results you want.
For me, I decided after attending a workshop that I was inspired to have lasting recovery so I committed by sharing my decision to my support group and to anyone I came into contact with shortly after that decision. That was my way of committing or putting my neck on the line. If I fell back and stated binging again I could never look those people in the eye and integrity is one of my top values in life. I was powerfully committed.
You don’t have to commit publicly like I did, but the most important commitment is to yourself. You have to have the “I am going to do this no matter what it takes or how long it takes” attitude. The commitment must be stronger than the compulsion or there will be breakdowns upon breakdowns and your will is only so strong. I encourage you to get some skin in the game.
Tell A New Story
Whenever I want to set a new goal for myself I know if I don’t have a vision or model for where I’m heading I seem to lose hope and get off track. The same I believe holds true for changing habits. If you don’t see yourself (or have someone to model) then it’s harder for the brain to get you where you want to go. It doesn’t have something to pull it towards or a new way of behaving. The brain works well when there’s something it can focus on and reach for.
The other aspect of this and why I call it “tell a new story” is because the story we tell ourselves about life is the way our lives are. [you might want to re-read that again]
What I want to shine a light upon here is your belief system. Without a belief that you can change this, you also won’t be able to change it. You can’t go against your underlying belief system without working on that underlying belief system.
If you keep telling an old story called “I am a bulimic” or “I am fat” or “I can’t stop myself” then guess what? That is what will come about in your life.
As soon as I decided and committed to my new habits, I started telling myself and anyone I shared my story with that I was a non-bulimic. I can’t tell you how many times in my head I would say that.
I’m a non-bulimic.
I’m a non-bulimic.
I’m a non-bulimic.
Over and over and over and over. I repeated that. I’m a big fan of mantras and emotional affirmations; affirmations that you embody and engage with powerful emotions. Just saying something over and over can create a belief because a belief is just a thought you keep thinking until you believe it. Affirmations said with great energy and enthusiasm (and physical movement) can help speed up the cellular change within your body.
Telling a new story has the power to change your life.
A lot of this has to do with the story you tell yourself…in your head. Those random thoughts that pop into your head. That monkey mind!
You’ve got to begin to monitor and mange your thoughts because they matter. We become what we focus on and think about all day long. So, start to make sure you catch yourself when you’re telling your old story – be easy about it – and release that thought and retell your new mantra. Create a mantra and post it all over your house, car, office, have a ring tone that reminds you to say it to yourself. Whatever works. Patterns are what we’re focused on here.
Earlier we talked about the three phases of a habit: cue, routine and reward. Let’s also call that a pattern or ritual.
The next element of changing your patterns is to document (yes, like write it down) what happens. Here’s what I’d suggest writing down in a journal each time the habit shows up:
- where you were
- who you were with
- what time it was
- what you were doing just before it happened
- what you were thinking about/focused on
- what meaning did you give to what happened
- how you responded (what was your routine)
- what were you needing in that moment that was fulfilled by carrying out the routine
- how you felt after the reward
It’s important to do this right after it happens because you’ll forget details if you try to do it say in the morning or evening.
I think one of the hardest things to define at first may be the “need”. Many of us have trouble seeing our needs and that’s why these non-serving patterns persist. If we knew what we really needed and could give it to ourselves we wouldn’t need these non-effective routines to try and fulfill those needs. We’d simply give ourselves what we needed in the moment and feel good about it.
That’s the kicker and the key to all of this work. We get to see what we most need and can start giving it to ourselves and the negative routine can be replaced with a self-serving and enjoyable routine.
Keep in mind the goal of writing this down is NOT to work on changing the behavior. This is data capture time. Just write what happened and allow it to happen. I also suggest not beating yourself up for when it happens. That won’t serve you and only adds energy to the negative feeling of dis-empowerment you already have surrounding the habit itself. You might document the pattern for several days or a few weeks.
Experiment With Change
The next phase of the process is to begin to replace elements of the routine with other activities that can give you the same result or reward (fulfill that underlying need).
I used to have a habit of leaving work and going to the grocery store and eating all the way home only to purge when I arrived. I replaced that with going to the gym or meeting with friends after work instead for a while. That worked in most cases, but there were other times I was triggered and I had to find other things to do to self-sooth or cope with whatever was upsetting me at the time. Some things would work and some wouldn’t. If you want ideas for self-soothing and coping mechanisms, be sure to download my ebook where I share my best techniques on arresting the urge to binge.
The goal of this is to begin to interrupt the patterns in your brain that have linked up your cue-routine-reward pattern. If you can break that cycle for a while, replacing it and still having a positive outcome you can replace the non-serving routine with a better one.
I once had a coaching client who at 2pm each day would go to the cafeteria in her office and overeat and then purge because she felt bad. She began setting an alarm at work to get up from her desk, go mingle with a co-worker and then come back after 10 or 15 minutes. She found that the 2pm hour she wasn’t really hungry. She was a little bored and lonely after working at her desk by herself all day. She replaced the old pattern with a new one and felt better each day.
If you’re like me, you’re going to have stronger and weaker moments during the process. Some days you’ll flat out give in and follow your old cue-routine-reward. Other days you’ll win like a champ and feel like a super star.
Whatever your path looks like at the moment…re-commit to change. Recommit to it constantly. Whatever you need to do to keep your commitment strong is what you want to do. Replacing habits will take some time. It took you some time to put them into place so expect it will take you some time to replace them.
I’ve found that if you have an “enough!” moment where you have a huge breakdown, maybe shed a lot of tears and really feel the impact or pain of the habit you’re often very internally motivated. That moment of motivation to get out of pain can be intense enough to carry you through to permanent habit change. For most of us, the commitment is something we do each and every day.
You’ve got to be invested in the change and really fucking want it in order to achieve it. If you decide and don’t commit or un-commit (aka give up) you can only expect the brain to play out your old habits. Let me say this:
They will persist.
You are the essential element in this process. Your commitment to yourself – possibly one or other people – is what your success is destined upon. Change is hard in the beginning, messy in the middle and beautiful at the end. If it’s messy or hard…keep going. Keep committing.
For me, committing looks like writing my goal down every day in my journal or day timer and reading it. Seeing what I’m working towards – my new story – is what keeps me inspired to try again today…and tomorrow.
Encourage Your Self
Throughout this process of habit change I want you to remember to be your own best friend. If you had a friend trying to change this habit for themselves, how would you talk to them when they called…when you text them…when you emailed them..when you saw them. Would you give them a big high five? Would you say “that’s ok, keep trying” when they had a slip? Would you congratulate them or pat them on the back when you saw them? Sounds silly, but how you encourage your self will help you a lot.
Put down the shame stick, stop beating yourself up and get in action.
Stay in action.
Be kind to yourself.
Say nice things to your self.
Do nice things along the way to yourself.
Recognize you are a human being learning as you go.
Be an uplifter to your self. Cheer your self on!
An Invitation to You
If you’re still with me I believe there’s something in your life you’re really wanting to change.
Yes, that thing that you just thought about.
That annoying habit you’re here to work on.
Are you ready to decide and commit to this process so you can forever free yourself of that nagging habit and take back your life?
Fantastic(!) if you are. If you’d like to show that commitment to yourself, go ahead and write what you’re committing to below in the comments and we’ll celebrate you for taking the first step.
If you’re not ready yet…what’s keeping you from deciding and committing? You might look at how this habit is serving you. It’s got a hold on you because you think you need it to meet your needs. I mean, “what would you do if you didn’t have it?”
Could you function and be normal again?
Could you be happier if you didn’t do that thing you do to yourself?
Would your relationships improve – or maybe you’d finally be able to have a close relationship again?
Would you feel free?
Really free. Free to be do or have anything you wanted?
What’s that worth to you? What are your happiness and freedom and connection with others worth to you?
If you look at this as simply a habit you can replace with something else and get the same result…why not try?
I look forward to reading your comments – or email me a question if there’s something I can help you with.
With love and light,