How Do You Handle Setbacks?

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“It was going really well and now it’s not and I’m just so annoyed and angry with myself.”

This is something I hear a lot.

I understand.  You’ve been doing really well listening to your body about when you’re hungry, what you feel like eating and when you’ve had enough.  You’ve been leaving food on your plate (something you thought you’d never do), you’ve turned down ice-cream because you didn’t feel like it (unheard of) and you ate just one brownie rather than devouring the whole batch (say whaaat?!).

Rather than grappling with food on a daily basis, perhaps for the first time in your life, eating has become easy and natural.

“I’ve got this”, you think. “I’ve nailed my eating issues once and for all”.

What a relief.

Then all of a sudden you feel like you’re going backwards.  Your eating has become chaotic again and a voice in your head is telling you to stop all this nonsense and go back to dieting.

I know it’s disappointing and frustrating – but it’s OK.

It’s a setback and it’s a perfectly normal part of recovery.

Setbacks are a vital part of the process of healing your relationship with food.  They’re a chance not only for you to learn more about why you overeat but also to find out what you’re made of.  But it’s unlikely you’ll see them that way to begin with.  For you, a setback probably means you’ve failed.

And that’s the issue.  It’s not the setback itself – it’s how you react to it.

If a friend said to you “I’m seriously struggling with a major issue in my life at the moment and I’m feeling really vulnerable” what would your response be? My guess is that it’s unlikely to be:


You wouldn’t be a great friend if this was your response (actually you probably wouldn’t have any friends).

But while you’d never speak to a friend in such an uncaring way, this is probably how you speak to yourself when you think you’ve made a “mistake”.  If you’ve had a binge, or eaten something you think you “shouldn’t”, a very negative, critical, harsh side of you kicks in and starts beating you up.

It’s a good idea to give that side of you a name so you can easily recognise it when it comes up. I’m fond of “Criticising Git Wizard” (thank you Marcus Brigstocke) but you can call it whatever you like as long as the name conveys its negative function.

Because does it help?

How do you feel when that side of you gives you a hard time?

Do you feel supported and enthused to get back up and keep going?  Or do you feel ashamed, worthless and defeated?  I suspect it’s the latter.

And when you feel that way your inclination will be to withdraw from the world and go and eat.  A lot.  Before you know it, you’re stuck in a shame cycle which is a horrible place to be (I know because I used to live there on a semi-permanent basis).

You’re probably thinking “but that’s how I speak to myself, I can’t change it, it’s just automatic”.

But it doesn’t have to be.

I understand that’s how you’re used to relating to yourself but it doesn’t have to continue.  You could you do things differently.

There’s a saying here in the part of the UK where I’ve lived for the past 17+ years:

“Norfolk people do things different”.

Aside from the fact that I’m not entirely sure what it means, and apart from the fact that it makes the grammar fascist in me want to have a hissy fit, I like it.  I like the idea of “doing different”.

Back to you and your friend who’s struggling with a serious issue.  In reality, what would you say to them if they were upset?  Maybe something like:

“You’re doing so well.  You’re learning.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, you’re doing the best you can. Keep going.  Let me help you, maybe together we can figure out what you need.”

So how would it feel if you spoke to yourself in that way?  Different, I know.  But good different.  Supportive different.  More likely to help you navigate the bumps in the road to normalising your relationship with food different.

In 2011, the actor Denzel Washington gave a brilliant Commencement Address at the University of Pennsylvania.  His theme was “fall forward”.  You can find the full speech here but I’d like to share a particularly powerful part:

“Fall forward.  Here’s what I mean:  Reggie Jackson struck out 2600 times in his career – the most in the history of baseball.  But you don’t hear about the strikeouts.  People remember the home runs.  Fall forward.  Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that?  I didn’t know that.  Because the 1,001st was the lightbulb.  Fall forward.  Every failed experiment is one step closer to success”.

I love the idea of falling forward, rather than back.  And, believe it or not, you have that choice every time you experience a relapse.

Next time you’ve eaten something you didn’t want to or you catch a glimpse of your reflection in a shop window and the Criticising Git Wizard or whatever you’ve called it starts trying to shame you –

Stop, take a breath and think:

Am I going to fall forward or fall back?

To fall forward, replace the usual negative message with something you would say to a dear friend who was in need of comfort, reassurance and encouragement.  You’d do that for someone else, now it’s time to do it for yourself.  Not just once but every time that negative voice has a go at you.  It’s hard at first but it becomes easier over time.

The problem isn’t that you lack determination, resilience and resourcefulness.  The problem is that you don’t yet know you possess those qualities.  Setbacks give you the chance to find out.  Not just with eating but with everything in life.

So when you’re faced with a challenge, remember these two things:

Be more Norfolk and do different.

Be more Denzel and fall forward.


Here are some more ideas about what to do after a binge.

What Are You Waiting For?

We can spend so much of our lives waiting.

Waiting for something to happen.
Waiting for things to get better.
Waiting for the ideal moment.

I know I did (and sometimes still do).

There was an awful lot of time between acknowledging to myself that I had an overeating problem and healing my relationship with food.

Most of that time I spent waiting.

Continue reading “What Are You Waiting For?”

How Can Fear Make Us Fat?

Let’s say you’ve managed to normalise your relationship with food.

You’ve been eating in tune with your body for a while – you’re eating when you’re hungry, you’re eating exactly what you feel like, and you’re stopping when you’re satisfied. In addition, you’re getting better at acknowledging your feelings and you’re finding ways to meet your emotional needs directly. Now that you’re no longer overeating, you’re really beginning to work with your metabolism and, whaddaya know, you’re starting to lose weight.

All good.

Or is it?

Continue reading “How Can Fear Make Us Fat?”

Why Am I Doing This To Myself?

After I’d finished yet another secret binge.
After I’d made myself feel sick from the vast quantity of food I’d eaten.
After I’d told myself how weak and pathetic I was.
After I’d said I hated myself with utter conviction.

As I sat alone in physical and emotional pain, this is the question I would ask over and over again.

Continue reading “Why Am I Doing This To Myself?”

What’s The Big Deal About Exercise?

“I’m just one of those people who hates exercise”. That’s what I used to say. And I believed it. Man, did I hate exercise. I felt angry (and guilty and ashamed) at the mention of the word and, I have to confess, I’m worried some of you may stop reading this post for the very same reason, but I hope not.

Continue reading “What’s The Big Deal About Exercise?”

What Does Dieting Do To Us?

Uh-oh, it’s January.

The time of year when, even if you’ve been doing really well normalising your relationship with food, you can suddenly find yourself bingeing again.

Why? Because in January it’s impossible to escape the barrage of adverts for slimming clubs, weight-reduction schemes and meal replacement products. Social media is abuzz with the latest celebrity eating plans, while endless newspaper and magazine articles try to convince us of the new wonder diet “that really works”.

Continue reading “What Does Dieting Do To Us?”

Who Are You?

Excluding how you look, who are you? Take a minute to think about it, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.

Are you drawing a blank? If so, you’re not alone. Generally, people with overeating issues have little or even no idea who they really are. They’re so focused on what’s outside of them – their appearance – that they rarely consider what’s going on inside. They’re also very quick to dismiss their positive qualities and yet are world champions at identifying their supposed “defects”.

Continue reading “Who Are You?”

What’s Your Pleasure?

We reach for food when we’re not hungry in order to detach from our emotions. The problem is that in doing so we cut ourselves off from all our emotions, even the enjoyable ones.

The struggle to understand and acknowledge what you’re feeling is an essential part of resolving your issues with food, so working out what brings you pleasure can be a lovely way to start.

Continue reading “What’s Your Pleasure?”