Why Labeling Binge Eating As a “Disorder” Can Keep You Stuck

When learning about symptoms of binge eating disorder or compulsive overeating disorder, it can be easy to take on the label of “disorder” and see yourself as someone that’s afflicted with a “disorder.”


Because taking on the concept that you have a disorder and your binge eating is a symptom of it, a great responsibility can be lifted from your shoulders.

I remember thinking this when I was dealing with anorexia, and later bulimia, and then binge eating. I saw myself as someone with a disorder I would have to deal with for the rest of my life. It was this “thing” that was a part of me and required constant management.

Taking on this idea that I had a lifelong eating “disorder” that merely had changed forms, no longer did it seem like I was behaving stupidly and blindly. No longer did I feel an urgent need to quit binge eating, or to beat myself up for being weak. I was simply doing what people with eating disorders do. We eat to live and live to eat (or, in the case of anorexics, who live to avoid eating), and it runs our lives.

Accepting that meant that, even if I started to recover and didn’t binge eat for weeks or months…suddenly I could just snap and binge again, because I had a “disorder”. So, for many years, that’s exactly what happened.

A Recent Conversation Demonstrates This Further

A conversation I had soon after I launched this site demonstrates this point. This was a conversation with a woman whom I’ll call Judy.

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“I just purchased a weight loss program 6 weeks ago and it didn’t do me any good. I only stayed on it for 10 days, then binged again. These things never work,” she told me.

“Why did you go into the program?” I asked.

“Because I have an eating disorder. I’m a binge eater. I’ve dealt with this for years. I read its the most common eating disorder. Many people don’t even know they have it.”

“Ok, so what’s your plan now?” I asked.

“That’s why I’m talking to you now and reading through your website. I need help,” she explained.

“Ok, got it. But what’s your plan now?” I pressed on.

Perplexed, she replied, “My plan?”

“Yes, Judy, what’s your plan? Are you going to go binge eat some more? Or are you going to stop?”

She paused. “I don’t have a plan. I think I’ll probably always be dealing with this. It’s just who I am.”

I asked her, “Does that seem odd to you?”

She started sounding annoyed now. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’ve tried various diets or weight loss programs over the years. You told me you hate living with this disorder and you’re ashamed that you can’t seem to stop binging. But when I ask about the plan for your future with food, you have no idea. Doesn’t that seem odd?” I reasoned.

“If I had a plan, I wouldn’t have a problem and be talking to you!” She huffed.

“Exactly. Which is why I’m being so direct with you. You have something you’re dealing with that clearly you’re unhappy with in your life. You reached out hoping to find a way to stop binge eating, didn’t you?” I pressed.

“Yes, but you’re so matter-of-fact like I can just make a plan and it will go away. You don’t get it. I have a disorder. I will have to deal with this for the rest of my life. No matter what diet I try or how ‘good’ I am, eventually I’ll relapse and cave in. It’s happened for years. I know there’s probably some emotional or spiritual work I could do to figure out where this came from or what I’m using food to run away from…but I’m not really sure. I just like to eat and enjoy feeling full. Life seems impossible and depressing when I looks to my future. I try to take it one day at a time.”

I leveled with Judy. “Ok. May I say back to you what I hear?”

She sighed, “Yes.”

“You just told me you have no plan to recover from binge eating. You plan to flounder with your disorder for years, like you always have. You might experiment with emotional or spiritual work, trying to explain why you are the way you are. And you plan to relapse anytime you feel compelled to do so, because that’s who you are.”

There was a long silence. “Yes, I guess so,” she mumbled.

Understanding What She’s Actually Dealing With

You might wonder why Judy didn’t get angry with me pressing her to this point. This is because she’s of two minds about her eating. On one hand, she wants to keep eating as she is with the label of someone with a “disorder.” On the other, she wants to solve her problem. I described back to her what she’s dealing with.

“I feel powerless and weak when I think about trying to stop. I know what always happens.”

“And when you think of it all, what do you normally do?”

“Give up and eat anyway, because what’s the point of continuing to try to fight it? It’s not realistic. You don’t seem to understand what it’s like. Have you actually had binge eating disorder?” She asked.

“Yes. For many years. And I also believed that I had a disorder and would just have to manage it for the rest of my life. But then I cured myself.”

She retorted, “Thinking you can just cure yourself is denial. You’ll snap and binge one day again, even if you’ve been ‘good’ for years.”

“Judy, there IS a solution. What do you think your life would be like if you weren’t binging regularly?” I asked.

“I don’t know…I have no idea. It does take up a lot of time, energy and money, I guess. I usually binge at night when I’m alone. If I wasn’t doing that…I would probably be working on my side business at night. I’ve always wanted to be an interior designer. I took a class once. I would probably be finding other classes and going to meetups to find local designers.”

“Ok, awesome! So I’m guessing you’re feeling your conflict right now: on one hand, you would like to stop binge eating and do other things in your life, but on the other hand you’re worried you’ll have to deal with binging for the rest of your life, and you’re ready to accept that you’ll relapse. So you might as well just keep eating as you are because you’ll just end up doing it anyway.” I said.

Parts In Conflict

“Yes, I really do feel like there’s two parts to me. It’s like part of me is like, ‘screw it, I’m just going to fail again anyway,’ and rationalizes overeating almost every night. The other part of me is fed up and irritated that I keep doing the same thing no matter what I try. I’m sick and tired of feeling like I’m weak and perpetually stuck. But when I think about really trying to stop this time, there’s a voice in my head saying, ‘You can’t do that. It will be the same way it always has.'”

I explained, “What you’re hearing is your voice from your ‘lower’ or ‘animal’ brain and your higher, ‘logical’ brain. Your higher brain is conscious of what’s happening. It can see the situation and feels the frustration. Your lower brain is triggered and wants the food, and will keep doing whatever it needs to to rationalize getting it.”

“Ok, that makes sense. Sometimes I watch myself going for more food and its like I know I don’t actually want to be eating more food but then another part of me makes it okay and I keep going. I even hear it right now! It’s telling me to go eat after I talk to you to prove that this is dumb and it can’t be fixed.”

“Exactly! Yes, that’s it! The more you can start to distinguish the two parts, the more you can recognize their opposing desires. The animal voice is a real beast…it’s primal in nature, and it’s not logical. It’s designed to keep you alive and will do whatever it can to get you to do what it thinks is right to keep you alive. If it has somehow decided that the food is necessary for you to be happy, or to feel safe, or to feel calm or to feel cared for, it will do everything in its power to make sure you get it.” I shared with her. “It’s not bad or wrong, it’s just operating on what it believes you need.”

“Right! Yes, it’s like I can’t fight that part of myself off…once I start thinking about eating more food, I can’t stop thinking about it until I just cave in. And it’s become such a habit that every night it’s like I’m programmed to do it. If I try to ignore it, the urges just get stronger,” she said.

“Yes, that’s right, they sure do. But the cool thing is, once you can start to recognize what’s going on in your head, you then have power. You have the power to now zoom out and see your animal urges and recognize them for being primal urges that don’t realize that you don’t actually have to eat all the food to survive, or to feel safe, comforted, calm, nurtured or whatever it is that you feel when you are in the process of binging.” I said.

I went on. “Then all you need to do is learn how to deal with your urges and how to re-program new habits into your brain. Step by step, you’ll gain leverage on yourself and your binge eating will be a thing in your past.”

“Holy cow, no one’s ever really explained it so logically before. That makes sense. I feel more empowered just listening to you. This means I’m not crazy!” She sounded relieved.

“No, you’re definitely not crazy, Judy. I promise you can learn how to overcome your urges and feel liberated with food.”

I pointed her to my book and heard from her 3 weeks later: she hadn’t binged once since reading the book. I have a feeling she’s well on her way.


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