A client caught my attention recently when I asked how her purging was going and she replied, “I don’t do that any more.” I asked what she meant and she said she simply decided that she was no longer going to engage in bulimic behavior. Sure, she admitted, she’d been tempted, but she kept telling herself that the part of her life when she would binge and purge was over. She described how she’d handled the urge to purge by telling herself she’d just have to quit bingeing if she didn’t want to throw up and that she wasn’t’ going to die if she ate “too much.”
She sounded different than she had in the months we’d worked together—more adult, tougher, more confident and certain. I felt as if, looking into her mind, I would see that something had shifted. Will she continue not purging? Can’t say; that’s up to her. But I do know that something changed when she uttered the words, “I don’t do that any more.” Which, of course, got me thinking about what disordered eaters do say to themselves that causes them to purge—or abuse food or their bodies. It sure as heck isn’t, “I don’t do this.”
The words we tell ourselves are the underpinnings of our behavior. Half the time we don’t even realize what our brain is saying, but the thoughts are there even if they haven’t formed cogent sentences. They’re often more of a vague sense of, “I shouldn’t, but” or “I can’t possibly not.” There is an old saying that goes like this: If you tell yourself you can’t, you can’t. If you tell yourself you can, new possibilities open up.
But more than avoiding negative programming, to overcome dysfunctional behavior, you have to give yourself positive directives—like “I don’t do this any more.” Those words say a lot—I’m done with this behavior; I used to do this, but not now; that’s not who I am any more—and ground you in the present. They move you beyond past experience and unhealthy old patterns into the present. Most importantly, they change how you view yourself and this shifting of identity is key. Even if you aren’t convinced that you won’t abuse food or your body tomorrow (Who can know?), it doesn’t matter. In the moment, you are healthy and saying the right things to yourself.
In order to recover from eating problems, you have to try on new identities. Maybe it’s time to stop calling yourself a binge-eater, compulsive or emotional eater, food abuser, anorexic, bulimic, or disordered eater. You may have been those things yesterday or even earlier today, but each day you get a new change to define who you are.