Healthy Living Blog

Below the Surface of a Binge

“Within dysfunction, there is function.” This is one of my favorite lines in psychology, from Marsha Linehan, PhD, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. This line, so simply stated, says so much. It tells us that behaviors that appear dysfunctional, harmful, wrong, negative, abnormal, etc., have their own functional purpose underneath the unhealthy and possibly ”destructive”’ visible surface. The “function” of an ultimately unhealthy behavior or habit can be hard to see, but it IS the positive effect hidden inside. It might be there to meet a need, fill a void, soothe/numb a strong emotion, communicate pain, provide protection, offer pleasure, or bury a wound.

Binge eating offers a good example of what Dr. Linehan was referring to in her quote. The behavior itself (regular bouts of eating with a loss of control) and the possible outcomes (physical and emotional distress, social/work impairment, weight gain, exacerbation of health problems) can easily be labeled negative, harmful, and dysfunctional. But if this was the whole story, if all of the effects of bingeing were negative, why would the behavior persist?

Decades ago in psychology, Edward Thorndike identified the Law of Effect, a basic  premise that behaviors with no rewarding effects will soon cease, while those with some meaningful or needed result will continue. Working effectively to manage binge eating often requires us to keep Thorndike’s principle in mind. If bingeing were all bad it wouldn’t stick around as persistently as it often does, so an important part of recovery is to explore the functions of the binges that may contain just enough “reward” to maintain the behavior. When the functions are identified, there is a clearer pathway for change that involves helping individuals to develop tools and build lives that meet the needs previously fulfilled through binge eating.

In addition to its recovery implications, understanding the functional parts of binge eating means something else to me as well. Please, please do not judge those who appear to be struggling to manage their weight or eating behavior. Here’s why:

  • You do not know the experience of the person inside that body. You do not know how their behaviors have been functional in their lives
  • You do not know if that person gained weight as a child because it protected them from an abusive adult
  • That person may have lost their spouse, parent, child, friend, or sibling and did not know how to cope with the intense grief, loneliness, and fear that showed up, turning to food to soothe and escape
  • The person you judge may be juggling two jobs and caring for aging parents leaving little time and energy for taking good care of themselves

It is hard not to judge. Our brains are very good at it and they do it all the time, sometimes it’s even useful (e.g., “Should I save my money to pay rent or spend it on these shoes?”). But sadly, many of our judgments are less productive. And some are quite harmful.

Some of the most destructive are those we direct at ourselves. And those judgments can be relentless when you struggle with something that seems an obvious “flaw.” In western culture, carrying excess weight and having difficulty moderating food intake are readily labeled as flaws. If your difficulty managing food manifests as binge eating or something similar (e.g., compulsive overeating or emotional overeating), your brain might have even greater ammunition for its judgments. However, if you find yourself agreeing  with Dr. Linehan,  that there is a purpose or goal connected to the binge eating, would the judgments be as harsh?

There is no need to dismiss or ignore the ways that bingeing may be hurting you or preventing you from the living in the ways you want to live, but can that awareness be held at the same time as appreciating that your behaviors may be serving some important functions? Could this balanced awareness be used to soften the intensity and hard edges of the self-judgments about bingeing? If you knew that this softening was a key element in recovery (it is, by the way), would you allow yourself to try it?

the confidence to believe in myself again

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