The Zig-Zag Nature of Recovery

People like to think – or hope – that they can stop emotional eating once and for all, and never have to deal with it again. But you don’t ever forget the old behaviors, and it’s dangerous to think that one day you’ll be immune. If you have this unrealistic expectation, then even the urge to eat emotionally can make you feel like a failure.

The truth is – based on both my own experience and years of working with others – that once you have used food to soothe emotional pain, the impulse never goes away completely. People have a natural tendency to revert to old comfort behaviors, especially when under stress.

What stands between the urge and the action are the tools you learn in the Normal Eating® recovery program.

If you feel an urge to eat emotionally, sit with the feeling and discover what it’s about. Maybe you’ll sit for 15 minutes, and then end up eating anyway. But that 15 minutes is still an important success.

Every minute you pause is a victory because you have to be able to pause before you can stop. Change is incremental. The trigger to eat is in the moment, overeating is in the moment, and recovery is in the moment.

In the beginning, your moments of recovery are spaced out – rare. Then they become more and more frequent until eventually it takes a major trigger to prompt emotional eating. It’s not like you flip a switch and then you’re fixed. Recovery is a continuum – you get more and more solid. Over time it will take more and more to trigger you into eating emotionally, and you’ll get back on track quicker and quicker.

Daily reminders are a good way to stay on track. You might read a passage from Normal Eating for Normal Weight, log into the Normal Eating Support Group, or visit this blog.

Something to Try…

What if, despite your best efforts, you fall back into emotional eating?

For starters, have some compassion for yourself. You weren’t "good" before and "bad" now. You’re a person who uses food to deal with difficult emotions, and you’re in the process of learning new methods of coping. You ate because something was bothering you that you didn’t know how else to deal with. Recognize that it was an expression of distress. Don’t make your distress worse by beating yourself up for it.

Second, be on guard against the black-and-white thinking of perfectionism. Recovery isn’t on or off, and people aren’t good or bad. Human progress is always "sloppy" – two steps forward, one step back – not neat and linear. We will always be works in progress, and that’s okay.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

This article was first published in the February 2009 newsletter.

2 thoughts on “The Zig-Zag Nature of Recovery

  1. Hi Sheryl,

    I just came across your site today, and am just reading through the articles now. Thank you – there’s some very helpful stuff here.

    I wanted to say thanks very much for this one specifically, because I had no idea what recovery was supposed to look like until you described it.

    I did have the impression – or rather the hope, as you pointed out – that after some mysterious point a switch would go off, and emotional eating would not be an issue anymore. Not so, huh? It’s good to know.

  2. MeatProduct

    I just came to this one myself. I see its been on the site for awhile but I had not noticed it. I was posting a comment in the Forum and asking a question about “should I be expecting a disappointment down the road” or something like that. I have been very aware of my thoughts about eating these last couple weeks. I feel as though I have made progress and its been a little too easy this time around. What a great point. Its an ongoing process which might get easier to work with time and practice. Looks like there is no cure. But who cares, do we want a cure or do we want relief from the pain and suffering? I will take the relief over a cure if I can have it.

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