Why do people do things that they know they’ll regret? The very idea of unwanted behavior seems to be an inherent contradiction that goes against the most basic principles of human psychology, not to mention logic. Why would we choose to do anything that we don’t want to do?
Adam and Eve intentionally violated history’s first recorded diet rule even though they were warned that they would die if they did. This act has been interpreted traditionally as the paradigm for sin, though it can also be seen as an assertion of autonomy. As a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of emotional eating, I’ve come to view the unwanted act of binge eating as the contemporary version of that first transgression: a quiet act of defiance against outside control. Or, as my patients often put it, “I just wanted to be bad.”
What causes this sudden urge to be bad? Have you ever raised your voice on the phone when the fifth customer service person you speak to asks you to explain the problem—again? Did you end up apologizing later for getting irritated when it turned out this was finally the person who knew what to do and politely helped you despite your outburst? That outburst was a binge. Part of you regretted it as soon as it started. But you wanted to do something that would allow you to let go, to break the rules—to be bad. At that moment it felt like the only way to get some relief from the self-restraint that took all the strength you could muster.
It’s what we psychologists call emotion-focused coping. It’s not an ideal coping mechanism, because by the time you need it you’ve already gotten upset. And letting go like that is not as good as other types of emotion-focused coping, like taking a deep breath or counting to ten, because you regret it later. But it works in the moment because it gives you the freedom to let go. It’s a giddy sense of abandon. That’s what happens when someone binges.
In Too Much on Your Plate, I argue that understanding this motive to be “bad” opens up an entirely new way of treating unwanted behaviors like binge eating. Because once people understand what really causes their impulse to binge, the urge virtually disappears. Binge eating is not a breakdown of self-control or a sign of weak willpower. It’s not about the food or any temptation. In fact, it’s not really about eating at all; it’s about the relief of letting go of self-restraint. But if the need for restraint is gone, the need to fight it disappears too. The effect is similar to the change in attitude of the Imperial Japanese soldier who continued defending an island in the South Pacific into the 1970’s, until he was found and told that the war had ended nearly 20 years earlier. It’s disorienting at first, but the urge to fight quickly evaporates.
In the case of people who struggle with binge eating, the initial disorientation involves letting go of the structure and discipline of restrictive dieting. While they diet, they feel safe from their impulse to binge. As long as they can count every calorie and gram of carbohydrates, and continue to follow a structured meal plan, they’re defending their island of self-control. What they don’t realize, though, is that their effort to protect themselves from binge eating actually sets them up for the next binge episode, because they resent the need to diet. Once they realize that they can let go of the dieting, counting, and food restrictions without fear, they can surrender the island and give up their battle with food.
The question is, what’s the food-binge equivalent of the frustrating customer service experience? Under normal circumstances, dealing with others is like good customer service. We need each other and we try to be polite and helpful. Sometimes, we make a transaction that we regret and we try to make it right, and usually things get resolved smoothly. But there are times when the interactions don’t go well, and we find ourselves without bargaining leverage, at the mercy of the other person and feeling taken advantage of.
The human need to feel connected and to belong is so profound that we’re often willing to override our own preferences when they conflict with the expectations of others. There’s a reason that the words “belonging” and “longing” share a common root in Old English. Part of us wants to conform, fit in, and be accepted. We also have a need for autonomy. To fit in, we have to surrender some freedom, but we agree to the trade-off because the loss of autonomy is worth the social benefit. That’s a smooth social transaction.
But sometimes the exchange does not go well. Responsibilities and obligations seem one-sided and outweigh the social value, or the expected benefits simply don’t materialize. Then, the sacrifice feels unfair and we resent the demands made on us. In game theory, this is aptly referred to as “the sucker’s payoff.” This imbalance between control and autonomy creates a build-up of frustration that, like bad customer service, takes a lot of self-restraint to avoid blowing up.
Binge eating is a way to reassert autonomy and restore equilibrium when social expectations feel more like control. It creates a feeling that the only way to make things right is to break some rules, albeit privately. For chronic dieters, the rules that push them to the brink are the restrictions on what they can eat; the demands of daily life push them over it, and those restrictions are abandoned.