“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”Henry Ford. The mind is powerful and although our mind controls us, we can also control our mind 1. If you keep telling yourself you can't stop, then that is what your mind thinks, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your mind thinks you are powerless, as that is what you keep telling it, then it will help you to fulfil that expectation. To stop binge eating, you need to realise that you can do it. It sounds simple but often it is not.
“The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude” -Oprah Winfrey. The thing I think is most important in stopping binge eating, is realizing that you have the power to do it. Only you can do it, and only you can not do it. Whether you think so or not, you do have the responsibility for what food you put in your mouth. It may seem impossible, but you can find a way to choose whether to stop bingeing or not. When you realize that you control this decision, you can make that decision consciously. When you realise that you have the power over it, it is easier to make a healthy decision. When you realise that you have power over it, it can be like a lightbulb going off. This autonomy, or taking charge of yourself, is not only the key to stopping bingeing but it is also central to being calmer and less stressed.
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” -Leo Tolstoy. In fact, the first step to changing the world (or anything else), is changing yourself. Only you can do that. Whatever you want to change, or whatever ambitions you may have, the first step to getting there is doing the work on yourself first, and this also applies to binge eating. Once you get used to listening to yourself, being kind to yourself and understanding your feelings, you are already beginning to take charge of yourself. This kind communication within yourself is how you move towards having the realization that (only) you can change yourself or achieve anything you want. Realising your freedom to choose and kindness are central to valuing yourself, and this is what is needed to realise you are the one in control of any changes that you make 2. This is what is needed to stop bingeing.
We need to build the foundations of a positive mindset before you can realise that you already have control over what you eat. Many people struggle with the concept of being kind to themselves and how that fits in with bingeing. Surely we can just jump to this critical step of realising we already have the power to do it? It often doesn’t work without the foundations of a kind mindset. One reason is that a negative mindset is linked with rumination or thinking bad things about ourselves. This negative thinking can cause us to be so preoccupied that we are not able to think clearly 1. It can often also feel like we don’t have the mental space or energy to listen to the thoughts beneath the food cravings. Without listening to these underlying thoughts, we end up reaching for food automatically and without consciously deciding.
Why is realising we have control so important? The concept of realising control over your choices is sometimes called agency, autonomy or self-actualisation and is central to many psychological approaches to mental wellbeing 3. It is suggested that all humans have the ability and need to take control of their choices, irrespective of what they decide or what they consider those choices to be. This underlying characteristic of humanity is often seen expressed through art, music or in other creative pursuits. Realising control over your choices is incredibly important but is not the only underlying characteristic of humanity; many more are needed for a fulfilling and healthy life. Being loved is an important one, as are needs for safety, food and shelter. Realising control over our own choices is arguably no less important than some of these more ‘obvious’ human needs, but it is one that is often forgotten.
Why is it so hard to realise you have control? Partly, with choice comes responsibility. Responsibility can be stressful. This potential stress is one reason why we often try to avoid taking responsibility for our actions. Without realising we are in control of our eating; we don’t need to take responsibility for it. When we acknowledge that we have responsibility for ourselves and for our eating, it is a lot easier to successfully change. When you are aware of something and accept that it is us that needs to deal with the consequences, it makes it easier to make healthy choices. Making healthy choices can prevent us from facing the consequences of our unhealthy choices later.
With choice comes responsibility. It sounds so empowering to realise you have control over what you eat. When you also realise control comes with taking responsibility, it can feel a bit less frivolous. However, when you balance the power of control with the associated responsibility, the empowering nature of choice can become clearer. Power without responsibility, and responsibility without power are both incredibly common and also potentially damaging. Have a think about uncomfortable situations in your past, was there an imbalance between power and responsibility? Was there anything you could have done differently? Actively choosing balances the power of taking control with responsibility and accepting the consequences of your actions. It is this balance which is incredibly helpful when deciding what to eat.
We all have at least some power over our choices, although it may not feel that way. We often just need to find it. Many of us may feel that we do not have control, or have been subjected to unfair treatment, traumas or catastrophic life events which mean we do not have as much control over things as other people might do. Everybody has a different life story; everybody has a different situation and a different set of challenges to face. It is likely that most people can find some level of control, even if that is over how they choose to think about something. This is demonstrated beautifully by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning while describing his inexplicable suffering in a concentration camp 4. He describes the power of finding some level of control, even if just over the way you choose to view something. This is a thought-provoking example of how having some control over your thoughts can be incredibly powerful even in the darkest of times.
The most important ‘thing’ you need to stop bingeing depends on the person as everyone is different. However, if I had to pick one thing that is consistently important, I would say it is this; realising you have power to choose what you eat and realizing that you have control and responsibility over what you eat. Having said that, it rarely works on its own without the foundations of listening to yourself to understand what is really triggering eating, inner communication and being kind to yourself. There are also important strategies to stop self-sabotaging and to forgive setbacks that will be discussed in later posts.
It sounds so simple, but it takes practice. The moment you realise that you have the power over what you eat, is the moment you can stop binge eating. That is when you can naturally be healthy. While you may still crave food occasionally, you are likely to rarely succumb as you will know that the craving is a symptom of needing something else (usually not related to food!). Sometimes you can decide to eat the food you are craving and if you decide to, you are the one who consciously decides, it is not an inner compulsion.
Practice: Realise you can stop bingeing
Here are some ways to help you realise that you have control and can choose to stop bingeing for good:
· Have a realistic plan
· Remind yourself of past successes (even if they are not binge related); stopping bingeing can be the next thing you succeed at
· Tell yourself that it is your choice to be healthy; this can be surprisingly powerful
· Have multiple sources of (the right kind of) social support
· Avoid people who sabotage you, or lead you to sabotage yourself
· Remind yourself that you are in control of what you eat
· When you get a craving, let your adult brain explain it calmly to your toddler mind
· Try using affirmations like “I can do it” or “I am happy with my body”
· Use visualisations of your future success; regularly imagine yourself as successful
1. Bandura A. Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. :25.
2. Roland CE, Foxx RM. Self-respect: A neglected concept. Philosophical Psychology. 2003;16(2):247-288. doi:10.1080/09515080307764
3. Mcleod J. An Introduction to Counselling and Psychotherapy. Open University Press; 2019.
4. Frankl VE. Man’s Search For Meaning: The Classic Tribute to Hope from the Holocaust. New Ed edition. Rider; 2004.
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Dr Kirsten Keighley
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The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.