Adapting Addiction Recovery Skills to Eating, Part 3



Strategy 3: Abstinence

Abstinence from an abused substance or behavior is an essential part of addiction recovery. This difficult task includes fending off cravings, finding alternate behaviors to meet your needs, and avoiding triggering situations if at all possible.

When the substance you abuse is food, abstinence is not an option. Since eating is an absolute necessity, you are faced with not only fending off cravings to engage in destructive eating behavior, but also the Herculean task of learning to use food without abusing it.

In order to identify and then change your unwanted behaviors, you have to be able to observe them clearly. This is extremely difficult, as most of us try to forget our blunders with food. “I’ll start again tomorrow” is a typical response to avoid looking at today. The first step is to take away the shame you feel about your problems with food. Remember that shame is one of the main triggers that gets you into your food behaviors, just like it is with your other addictions. Shame is also a form of amnesia – it changes “I messed up with my food” into “I am a miserable failure” – clouding the self-reflection necessary to identify the steps that led to acting out with food.

To help you think about your eating habits without shaming yourself, remember that your behaviors came on for a reason. Perhaps you were scolded for eating something as a child, so you learned to eat that food in secret. Perhaps there was not enough food to satisfy everyone at your table, so you learned to eat in a hurry. You are an adult now, and these triggers may no longer be present, yet habits formed at an early age persist even when they are no longer needed.

Try to think about your eating patterns as just that – patterns from the past that can be changed when they no longer fit the present. You might be thinking, “I have tried to change before, why would this time be any different?”. The answer is that you are always different. Time continues to pass, and your efforts so far have built the foundation for whatever comes next. They may also have built a sense of learned helplessness, a belief that you will never be able to change. The fact that you haven’t changed yet doesn’t mean you are hopeless, but it may mean you have not found a method that fully meets your needs. Try to think of any past attempts to change as stepping stones to this opportunity, not proof that you are a failure.

Identify Unwanted Behaviors

The next step is to identify unwanted behaviors from which you would like to refrain. List the behaviors that take you away from your goals or that trigger you to eat inappropriately. If you have several behaviors, you may find that selecting one at a time is more successful for you, or you may decide that “cold-turkey” from all your behaviors is the method you prefer.

Now consider the options you used to build a foundation of sobriety from drugs or alcohol. In many situations, you can use the same skill set you built to practice abstinence from a substance to reinforce your eating recovery. What helped you abstain from drugs or alcohol? Did you find comfort and safety in meetings? Sponsorship? Counseling? Writing? Music? Prayer? Meditation? Reading? Something else? Perhaps you can implement the same strategy or activities to reinforce your eating recovery and new behaviors.

Finally, put these pieces of information together in a written commitment to your new behavior, as well as any related thoughts about this behavior, and share it with your counselor, support group, sponsor, or other supportive person in your life. It may be tempting to share your goals with someone who will “hold you accountable,” but avoid anyone who will shame you when you are imperfect in maintaining your abstinence, as you may be at first.

Here is an example of a constructive abstinence statement:

I learned to eat everything on my plate as a child. I believed that this behavior made me good, and I received messages of approval that reinforced this belief. Now I know that I am good every day, regardless of what I eat at my meals. Yet when I sit down to eat, I still feel the pull of my old desire, my wish to be good, to feel like I count. These are all normal feelings. However I choose new behaviors to get these needs met, and I will abstain from cleaning my plate in order to feel good, or to get others’ approval. I wish to leave food on my plate, even if only one bite, as a way to separate my food from my need to feel right. To support myself in this change in behavior, I will abstain from eating meals with anyone who comments on my eating; I will silently read this page before each meal; I will leave the table momentarily to journal or call a support person if I feel ashamed to be leaving food on my plate; and I will comfort myself after meals by taking a leisure walk while I process my thoughts and feelings. I will reflect on my ability or inability to make this change by talking with my sponsor or my support person every evening, and I will strive to do so without using the words “success” or “failure.”

Other addictive food behaviors from which you may choose to abstain include:

  • Eating out of a package rather than a plate or bowl
  • Spontaneous purchases of foods not on your grocery list
  • Eating when experiencing strong feelings
  • Eating while distracted
  • Giving in to peer pressure to eat
  • Self-harm or self-shaming behaviors after eating
  • and any others that you feel are destructive for you.

See if you can make these changes out of love and caring for yourself, rather than hate and shame. You are deserving of healing, even if you have been told otherwise, or been accused of being weak or useless. If you are tempted to believe that there is no healing for you, or if you are ready to give up on yourself and your efforts to change, please call Casa Palmera at 1-866-768-6719. Our intake counselors are available 24 hours and will support you in taking the steps to get help. You have already had so many successes! Let us help you add eating recovery to the list.