Learning something new is a complicated weave of triumphs and botches. When we want to learn a new skill, we start with easy aspects of it and then progress, after practice, to more difficult levels. This makes sense. If you play piano and want to play a new complicated piece of music, you practice. And you don’t beat yourself up because you can’t play that piece perfectly the first time.
It still amazes me, when in the throes of an eating disorder, a person will get up each morning and think, “this is the day I will change” and expect perfection the very first day. At least that’s what I did, for many years.
If you’ve been overeating, binge eating, eating emotionally, (or whatever you call your disordered eating) for a long time and expect to get up one morning and eat perfectly that day (or any day), you will be disappointed. There is nothing wrong with the good intention, but change comes in increments. It is a process of forwards and backwards. If you don’t allow yourself the freedom to fail, you will fall back on the old ways every time you don’t live up to your expectations.
Over the years, I’ve read many books on eating disorders, been to therapy sessions and in-patient programs. And during all that time, there are only a handful of things I remember as being useful. Of course, I probably just wasn’t ready for most of the information. (Even if someone gives us the answer to our problem, we won’t won’t hear it until we are ready.)
One useful thing I remember was in a book called Overcoming Binge Eating by Dr. Christopher G Fairburn. I don’t remember any content of the book, except for a small chart that I copied and printed. The goal of the chart was not to keep track of what you ate, but to keep track of your eating behavior.
For example, after each meal, I could choose to mark on the chart whether I overate, ate enough, or not enough. I could mark whether I binged or purged. And I had to write where I was located, i.e. at the kitchen table, standing in front of fridge, on the couch watching a movie, etc. As I filled out this chart each day, I wasn’t trying to make any changes, so I learned not to judge my behavior, just write it down.
After a week or so, I could see the instances of disordered or unacceptable behaviors decreasing. And when they did spike, they correlated with some perceived stress I had in my life.
I know what you are thinking, “Well, I know I eat when stressed, that’s my problem!”
I knew this too. But until I saw it on a chart, it had been a fault in my mind -something I was ashamed of and wished I could change. Seeing my failures on the chart took the judgement away and gave me the confidence to see myself as a person who uses certain behaviors to relieve stress instead of a person who is faulty, broken and needs repair at all costs. The chart keeping allowed me to see my behaviors objectively -it normalized me.
And, initially, I thought it would lead to being able to stay on a diet or learning how to eat clean to lose weight. But it did much more than that. It opened my eyes to the fact that I didn’t have to beat myself up every time I made a mistake. And it allowed me to view failures as an important part of my success.
I am not a good record keeping person, so I didn’t do this chart very long. But that’s all it took to propel me forward. And it was part of a focused effort I maintained each day to try to free myself from food struggles. The freedom from bingeing came about rather quickly, but even after almost 5 years the ups, downs and the learning process still goes on. I expect and welcome it for a long time to come.
If I can overcome this, you can too! More articles on beginning this journey. Bingefree First Steps