Breaking Up With Binge Eating

The Power Of Possibilities

April 18, 2021 Georgie Fear and Maryclaire Brescia
Breaking Up With Binge Eating
The Power Of Possibilities
Chapters
Breaking Up With Binge Eating
The Power Of Possibilities
Apr 18, 2021
Georgie Fear and Maryclaire Brescia

Taking stock of our past often leads us to conclude that the future will be a repetition: same struggles, same mistakes, same old patterns. But that line of reasoning has a crucial flaw. In this episode we explore the most beneficial perspective to take when it comes to your future, and what you can be absolutely certain of. 

Show Notes Transcript

Taking stock of our past often leads us to conclude that the future will be a repetition: same struggles, same mistakes, same old patterns. But that line of reasoning has a crucial flaw. In this episode we explore the most beneficial perspective to take when it comes to your future, and what you can be absolutely certain of. 

“If I walk into that house, I am going to binge. I just can’t go.” My client Janice and I were talking on Skype, and she was telling me about her upcoming visit to her parents house. Janice has made progress in the last year. 12 months ago, she was on a keto, intermittent fasting plan, but bingeing on store bought cake about once a week. These days, she eats regular meals and hasn’t binged in months. But the last year has been one with zero travel, and working from home, so she’s had ultimate control over her environment. 

Her parents’ house, Janice told me, was a treasure trove of treat food. There would be cake or pie out on the counter top. They’d offer buttery popcorn with a movie at night, and have wine with every dinner. Janice felt like she couldn’t stand being in that environment without caving. 

I proposed the idea that maybe she could stay at a hotel or a bed and breakfast during the 5-day visit. But Janice said that option would cause her parents to be deeply hurt. “They love hosting and my Mom would literally cry if she found out I was staying in a hotel.” 

So, stuck between a rock and a hard place, Janice was dreading the trip, but felt like she had no option other than going. She did want to see her parents, it was the binges she was dreading. She could see herself standing in the kitchen in the dark, the light of the refrigerator revealing her working her way through baked goods, ice cream, potato chips. All her months without bingeing would go down the drain, she figured. 

And then the strangest thing happened. Janice got to her parents, and discovered they no longer had baked goods out on the counter! Her Dad’s type two diabetes had begun to affect his eyesight last year, and that had motivated him to switch to things like sugar free popsicles and jello for desserts, since they didn’t elevate his glucose. Janice’s mom had never had much of a sweet tooth, and still enjoyed her wine with dinner but didn’t mind not keeping sweets at home. 

But it got stranger still. Janice told me it was like someone took over her body. She borrowed the car from her parents on her first full day there, drove to the store, and bought cupcakes, muffins, and other desserts. She then sat in the car and ate and ate and ate. She put her hands over her face while telling me this and her eyes got large, like she was equally baffled and horrified at her behavior. 

She said, “It was like I had already resigned that their home would screw me up and I’d binge, but then when their home wasn’t actually a threat I screwed myself over!” I comforted Janice, and in a matter of days she was back to her baseline of normal eating at home. But there was a really important lesson for her, both for her and for me. And looking back, I missed something I should have made sure we talked about. 

(Intro) 


When Janice had first told me about the planned trip to her parents’ house, it was in despair over the binges she said she “knew” would happen there. I heard her say that, but in my mind, I thought, well she doesn’t have faith in herself, but I have more faith in her. I bet she’ll do better than she thinks. And I focused on reviewing the skills she had gained. Before she left, we talked about the ways she had learned to handle emotions, how she had learned that she thrives best with regular sleep and wake times, and that she could assert herself to ask if they could have more vegetables and fruit on hand so she could make the healthy meals she enjoyed. I encouraged her to remember “they are your parents and they love you, if you need to take an hour to yourself or you don’t want to watch the movie they are putting on, you can excuse yourself to have some quiet time and read.”

The thing I missed, was that Janice was eyeballs deep in a mental trap. She had fallen victim to her own fortune telling. She said if “I go into that house, I am going to binge.” Not “I’m worried what if I binge”, it wasn’t even a question. In her mind, there was certainty. Her + that house = binge behavior. She was so certain of that fate, that when forces actually turned against her, making it harder for her to binge (sugar free jello just wasn’t tempting she said) she went out of her way to fulfill what seemed at that point like destiny.

Janice’s story shows how coming to the conclusion that things will go badly has a powerful impact on our behavior. It doesn’t prepare us or bolster our defenses, it just makes us more likely to CAUSE things to go badly. Then, we say, “see? I was right!” confirming our negative view.

In the last episode I introduced the topic of cognitive distortions, in particular fortune-telling as well as it’s cousin, mind-reading. Both fortune-telling and mind-reading are varieties of jumping to conclusions. Fortune telling is making a negative prediction about the future and believing it as if it were an established fact. Mind-reading is making a negative prediction about what someone else is thinking or feeling, and not bothering to check.

If you’ve been paying attention to your own thoughts, you may have noticed that you do one or both of these regularly. You might think, “Yes, I typically expect things to go badly, but if I’m wrong and things turn out better than I expected, there’s no harm done.”

However, research indicates that there is harm done. A 2014 paper published in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research found that out of all the types of cognitive distortions (and there’s more than a dozen, fortune-telling was the only one uniquely associated with suicide attempts. Anticipating more negative events in the future almost perfectly overlapped with a rise in the feeling of hopelessness. (source: https://sci-hub.do/10.1007/s10608-014-9613-0


When you feel hopeless, how do you act? If you’re like most people, you find inaction is the natural response. It’s no use, so you don’t waste effort on a project you are hopeless about. So fortunetelling, and the closely linked sense of increased hopelessness, ties a person’s hands when it comes to taking consistent actions. And those actions that fall off when you feel hopeless include eating healthy, engaging in physical activity, and putting effort into practicing the skills that you need to defeat binge eating or emotional eating. 


So if you want to stay motivated and bring your best effort into improving your eating, or your fitness, your relationships, your career, really anything, it's valuable to fight back against your own fortune-telling thoughts. 

Before I move into exactly how to do that, I also want to touch on mind-reading. This cognitive distortion happens when we conclude that other people are thinking negatively about us, without appropriate evidence. Like fortune-telling, this tendency to jump to conclusions about other people’s thoughts impacts our relationships and highly correlates with anxiety. 


(Source: Maric, M., Heyne, D. A., van Widenfelt, B. M., & Westenberg, P. M. (2011). Distorted cognitive processing in youth: the structure of negative cognitive errors and their associations with anxiety. Cognitive therapy and research, 35(1), 11-20.)

Let’s say you and I meet in the grocery store. We’re both buying cereal and you pull the same box off the shelf that I just tossed in my cart moments earlier. I say, “I love the new flavor of this cereal,” and you chime in “me too! Did you try the blueberry almond flavor yet? It's also really good.”  You smile politely and walk away. 

On the surface, a normal friendly interaction. But, if I’m a habitual mind-reader, I can actually be harmed psychologically by this innocent little chat. That person seemed in a hurry to get away from me, was I too weird? Do I smell bad? God, why did I open my mouth at all, I always sound like a dummy.” I glue my eyes to the floor, finish my shopping, and spend the rest of my trip feeling even more self-conscious than before. 

And that was with a stranger. Imagine how difficult your daily job would be if every time your boss asked you to edit something, you think “They can’t wait to get rid of me and hire someone better.” Or if every time you went out to eat you thought, everyone in here is noticing my acne and thinking I’m gross”. How could you enjoy being intimate with your partner if the whole time you’re thinking, “they’re probably so grossed out by my body”?  In short, mind reading is poison for relationships. It leads to us withdrawing, avoiding connection, feeling anxious and self-critical. And guess what, we aren’t much fun to be around when we’re like that! 
Now that we’ve established that fortunetelling and mind reading are actually harmful cognitive distortions, what do we do to retrain ourselves out of these patterns?


First, recognizing it is half the battle. Once you can catch yourself, “oops, I’m mind reading again”, or “there I go with the fortune telling”, you have already crossed the biggest barrier by acknowledging that this could be a processing error! 

It’s important to note that making predictions or having expectations about the future is normal and healthy. Where it becomes problematic is when we believe that the negative outcome is destined, or already set in stone, or to use one of my least favorite phrases, “meant to be”. When we firmly believe these negative forecasts, we don’t consider other options. Then, we’re committing fortune telling. 

It’s also true that we can have a sense of someone’s demeanor by their body language, we might be able to observe that someone is looking comfortable and relaxed, or sad and distressed.  But these indicators don’t tell you everything, and they aren’t always genuine. They don’t tell you why the person is upset, or in a hurry, or seems distracted. 

The truth is, we can’t read the future, and we can’t read details of other people’s thoughts. Some things may be more probable than others,  but there are almost always multiple or innumerable possibilities. And it’s best to stay open to them. 

Here’s an example, as I step off my front porch, crunch, my ankle twists and I crumple in pain. “There goes my whole summer”, I think. I start to cry, not only for the pain, but because I’ve been planning hiking and biking trips with my friends, and all that just went up in smoke because I’ll be on crutches and in a cast. 

But did it? All the info I have in this moment is that there’s pain, and that I heard a crunch. I don’t actually know if my foot or ankle is broken, or sprained, or if I just stepped on a branch and landed on it oddly. I’m putting myself through all sorts of misery thinking of what I’m losing out on months ahead but I might be fine in a number of hours. See how fortunetelling can lead to despair? 

A wise response to my own barrage of doomsday thinking would be, hang on. We don’t know what happened yet. Let me get inside, put some ice on it and see what happens over the next few minutes. Some things hurt really badly but aren’t severe injuries. It might be a sprain, or a strain, or just a bruise. If I need to get it checked by a doc, I’ll have my husband drive me to the ER and they’ll xray it and we’ll know more. I don’t have to jump to conclusions about what will be happening months from now, let me just focus on tonight. I don’t know what’s happening yet. 

Let’s say I’m at a job interview and I notice one of the interviewers suddenly gets a stern look on his face as I’m talking. I must have said something foolish or that he didn’t like, so I get nervous. My fluid, easy manner now is rigid, scared because I am second guessing every word, not knowing what I said wrong. My self-consciousness is making me perform worse in the interview. Maybe I lose out on the job, because my nervousness gives the impression I’m easily agitated. When all along, the interviewer’s stern look could have had nothing to do with me. Maybe he was trying to hold in a fart or resist picking his wedgie. It’s mind-reading if I conclude that a look must be a negative reaction to me.

Here’s another example, perhaps one that hits closer to home. You start putting into place some of the exercises I recommend in this podcast. Everything goes well for a week, but then you have a slip. “This always happens,” you tell yourself. “I always do well for a week, but that’s the max I can ever stick to something. Starting tomorrow I’ll be really successful and good, but in 7 days, and then do this all over again.” This type of fortunetelling is sneaky! Because we’re using a past pattern to extrapolate what will happen in the future, it feels like we have data. That should make our conclusion a logical one, right? 

Wrong. It’s wise to take into account a past pattern of activity. But if you assume that’s how things will inevitably continue in your life, you are robbing yourself of the possibly the most important capacity you have: the capacity to change and grow. 

The past is a good predictor of the future if all of the players and conditions remain unchanged. If I mix ingredients in a pot, simmer it for 40 minutes and it becomes lentil soup, I can remember that. Next week or next year, if I mix the same ingredients in a pot and cook for the same amount of time, it’s reasonable to expect the same soup. 

But try as you might, you are changing all the time. And if you are trying new methods, new skills, there’s every possibility that things could go in a fantastically new and different direction.  

This is where Janice fell short - if she had recognized that she was not the same person who had binged at her parents house so many times, she might have been open to the idea that things could be really different this time. And she could have focused more on making those possibilities she desired come into reality. 

So in line with the title of this podcast, I want you to think about possibilities, whenever you notice you are mind reading or fortune telling. Remind yourself that anything can happen, that you might not have all the facts right now. And the future is not determined yet. While there is the possibility that things will fall through or you’ll be rejected by certain people, there’s also the possibility that things will unfold into far more beautiful a picture than you even imagined. And you never know who might be thinking about how impressive, unique and wonderful you are. After all, you’re here listening to a podcast about how to change and grow into the person you want to be, which makes you pretty awesome in my book.