They say old habits die hard. Changing behaviors is not an easy thing to do and this is particularly true of eating disorder behaviors, which not only are highly addictive, but often exist to fill a deeper and sometimes unknown psychological or emotional purpose. Yet, doing so is important because not only are the ED behaviors often damaging in and of themselves, but they serve to numb a person out from their deeper feelings and can mask what might really be going on for them.

Sometimes eliminating behaviors is held up as the Holy Grail of Eating Disorder recovery, but that is not exactly the case. Sometimes we get caught up in this because we think of ED recovery like substance use recovery. The behaviors involved in substance use a far more black and white than the behaviors associated with eating disorders, either you used the substance or didn’t. Eating disorder behaviors can be more nuanced and more difficult to lump into behavioral categories. For example, if someone ate in excess of what they ordinarily would on a given day, is that necessarily an eating disorder behavior? What about the fact that people’s appetites vary from day today and sometimes life can get in the way of perfect adherence to a prescribed meal plan. What about a day in which someone is intuitively not as hungry and they don’t eat as much as they ordinarily would? Does that mean that they are restricting and engaging and eating disorder behaviors? It gets tricky to discern. Seeking guidance from professionals can be helpful in discerning what is eating disordered behavior versus normal variation.

In addition, the cyclical nature of eating disorder behaviors makes them so tricky to change. These behaviors create a vicious cycle as they offer a quick fix for dealing with a negative emotional state, but really only serve to perpetuate it. The cycle goes roughly as follows: the individual experiences a negative thought or feeling state that they find intolerable. Then they engage in an Eating Disorder behavior which serves the function of temporarily numbing that negative feeling state. The behaviors also elicit a neurochemical rush, which literally feels enjoyable to the person. Yet that enjoyment and the numbing from their previous negative state is short-lived and what soon follows are feelings of guilt and remorse about the behaviors. Because the behaviors are out of alignment with most people’s values and what they really want for themselves, the good feelings quickly turn into negative feelings, and these negative feelings about the behaviors add insult to injury and start the whole cycle again.

In order to exit from the behaviors one cannot apply the same stringent and punitive methods that got them into those behaviors in the first place. Self-flagellating after using a behavior will not make it go away, it will only provide more ammunition for those behaviors to occur again. The answer instead is having compassion and understanding about the behaviors. When an eating disorder behavior occurs, it is an opportunity for a person to reflect upon what is really going on for them internally. Reducing their behaviors to a sense of shame and guilt will not help them develop any understanding about what truly fuels the behaviors.

A way that is helpful to shift your thinking about eating disorder behaviors is to view them metaphorically. For example, binge eating is often a way of filling oneself up with something. Food maybe the literal thing that one is using to fill up, but what might be going on underneath is the sense of emptiness that a person is trying to quell. Similarly, purging may seem to be an attempt at getting rid of food or unwanted calories, but when looked at metaphorically it could be a means of getting rid of an unpleasant thought or feeling state instead. If you start thinking about your behaviors metaphorically, you can understand why they happened and where they come from.
Changing behaviors is important in recovery, because the behaviors serve as a dangerous red herring, often distracting a person from the deeper workings inside of them. To recover one needs to have a significant reduction in behaviors for long enough to experience what life is like without them. And the reduction needs to last long enough for the underlying feelings or processes that the behaviors were suppressing to come to light, so that material can be worked with therapeutically.

Behaviors cannot simply be extinguished or reduced, they also have to be replaced in order for true behavioral change to take place. This is where the acquisition and implementation of coping skills comes in handy, and also where filling one’s life with value-oriented actions can take the place of eating disorder behaviors. Old habits may die hard, but when they do they can give birth to new and more values-driven behaviors, they can lead to a new life.

Written by Matt Keck, MFT. Matt is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Cielo House Comprehensive Eating Disorder Treatment Centers.