Back in my binge eating days, I’d often hear a soothing little voice in my ear.
If I was having a tough day at work, the voice would whisper: “it’s OK, pick up some food on your way home”. Like co-conspirators, the little voice and I would plan the binge I’d have later.
Planning was part of the bingeing ritual and looking forward to it helped me get through the day. I’d feel excited as I imagined all the food I was going to eat. All those “bad” and “naughty” things I felt I wasn’t allowed because I was firmly entrenched in the diet mentality.
But the little voice gave me permission. After all, it told me I was having a difficult day and food would make me feel better.
As I shopped for my considerable stash on the way home, I’d pretend to the person at the checkout I was having a party because, naturally, I assumed they were judging me and thinking I was greedy. I’d feel happy as I went home. I couldn’t wait to get in the door.
Then it was shoes off, TV on, hit the sofa and get stuck in.
I’d eat until I got to the point where all I could feel was extreme physical discomfort, shame and regret.
Perhaps you have a similar voice in your head.
I call that little voice The Comforter.
We develop this side of us when we’re experiencing challenging feelings but don’t know how to deal with them, often when we’re children. If we’ve been raised with the idea it’s wrong to express feelings and having emotional needs is shameful, we have to find some way to cope.
Once established, The Comforter becomes such a part of our lives we don’t think to question it. We’re so used to following its instructions, we don’t stop to consider if it’s helping us.
And it really isn’t helping us.
When we’re feeling something, those feelings need our attention. But the Comforter doesn’t believe we can handle our feelings, so it steps in to offer us a way out. “Just eat something and you’ll feel better” is The Comforter’s soothing motto.
So we binge. Then, not only do our original feelings remain unacknowledged, we have a whole new set of feelings to contend with because our Inner Bully doesn’t hesitate to give us a good kicking after the binge, calling us “fat, disgusting, weak, pathetic”.
We then feel so ashamed and worthless, it’s only a matter of time before The Comforter steps in again and tells us to turn to food to feel better.
That’s how we get stuck in a binge eating shame cycle.
So how do you soothe yourself without food?
If you have a Comforter, call it out
You don’t have to call it The Comforter – you can find a name that fits best with you. For example, The Numbing Side or The Soother. Increase your awareness of its presence. When and where are you aware of it most? When you’re alone? Late at night? Notice how often it urges you to eat, then ask it to step back so you get on with learning to handle your feelings.
Permission to feel? Absolutely granted
There’s nothing shameful about feelings – they’re an essential part of being human, so give yourself permission to experience them. Say it out loud if you need to: “I have the right to experience my feelings and take care of my emotional needs”. The more you stay with yourself emotionally, the more you dispel the idea that feelings are shameful.
Breathe into it, lean into it
Instead of escaping from your feelings, try leaning into them – feel them peak in intensity and then wane. If I’m experiencing a really challenging feeling, I like to sit in an arm chair, grip the arms, take a deep breath in and out, and lean into it, reassuring myself I can deal with it. After years of avoiding your feelings, it’s empowering to purposefully do the opposite and it’s a good opportunity to find that place of stillness within you.
Focus on building emotional resilience, not resisting the urge to eat
We’re often told to focus on resisting the urge to eat when we binge (usually by distracting ourselves), but I prefer to focus on building emotional resilience. This gives a purpose to our discomfort and each new experience builds on the last as we learn to regulate our feelings without food.
Explore other ways to soothe yourself
Imagine if food weren’t available – you’d have to do something to soothe yourself, so what would it be? I definitely comfort myself with music, a soft blanket or a hot drink (or all three). I often write down what I’m feeling or return to books whose words console me. Sometimes I’ll reach out to someone I trust. Allowing ourselves to be in touch with our feelings helps us work out what genuinely soothes us.
If you’re really struggling with binge eating recovery, it’s often because you’re still looking for a way to bypass your feelings and avoid a relationship with yourself. You’re still searching for that “quick fix” to make you stop bingeing.
But how long have you been looking?
Instead, try dismissing The Comforter and practise really being with your feelings. Then explore what truly soothes you. It’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be perfect – perfection has no place in recovery from disordered eating.
I binged for 30-odd years but haven’t now for a very, very long time. I can assure you it’s possible to look after yourself emotionally without turning to food.
Believe you can.
Believe in your ability to resolve your issues.
Believe in your capacity for change.
And believe you can soothe yourself without food.
“How Do You Soothe Yourself Without Food?” is the question for this month’s eatonomy group on Saturday 29th February. For more information, please see the Community Page. You can use the Contact form to book a place.