What drives binge eating?

Table of Contents

When it comes to food, it might seem like you’re in the passenger seat and the driver (the part of you that binges) does whatever it wants.

In this blog, we’ll identify what is “driving” the behavior of binge eating and I’ll show you the two crucial steps to change, that you can implement right away.

For starters, imagine yourself as a car. If this seems weird, think about this: we refer to car “bodies” and we take our cars to the “body shop” for repairs.

As you travel on the proverbial road of life, keep in mind that you are not alone. There are three basic parts to all of us: the Self, the Critic, and the Soother/Supporter.

The “Self” is the part of you that has needs, wants, wishes, emotions and conflicts.  When you say, “I feel mad/sad/glad/afraid” that’s your “Self” talking.

The “Critic” informs you of all your perceived transgressions. It is relentlessly judgmental, critical and sometimes downright nasty. (Hint: if you refer to yourself in the second person, it is usually the critic talking, as when you say to yourself, “You have no willpower!”).

The “Soother/Supporter” is understanding, soothing and support. Often, that’s the part that can show up for other people, but not for you.

Ask yourself which of these is in the driver’s seat. Chances are, it’s the critic.

Self-criticism and binge eating

When the critic is behind the wheel, it causes a lot of anxiety, distress, and self-loathing.  And for many people, the critic strikes exactly when they need the most support.

That leads to using food for comfort or distraction.  And then the critic is there to judge you again (“How could you have eaten that?” or “You failed!”) and the cycle continues.

If you speak to yourself in a critical way, you feel bad.  And if you don’t soothe and support yourself, you’re likely to use food for comfort or distraction.

Types of self-criticism

In their study of self-criticism, Jay Earley, PhD and Bonnie Weiss. LCSW identified seven types of self-critics.


This type of critic is motivated to make you fit in end meet whatever standards are prevalent in your family, your culture, or in society. The idea is that if you fit in, you will be liked, and therefore safe from being abandoned, rejected, or shamed. This type of critic keeps you from being your authentic self in the service of conformity.


This kind of inner critic makes you feel bad about being you. It attacks your basic sense of self, and self-worth, and uses shame as a primary way to attack, giving you the idea that you're not worthy of anything good. This is the most destructive type of inner critic and it is often the result of early deprivation or trauma.


This critic is extremely harsh and hols you to to a very high standard in all areas, remaining unforgiving of any human flaw or mistake. It cannot allow you to forgive yourself for any real or perceived transgression. This critic tries to protect you from making mistakes in the future by constantly reminding you of past mistakes, and ends up making you overly self-conscious and hyper critical about actions and words.


This kind of critic tries to make sure that you control yourself lest you become completely impulsive. It uses shame as a way of keeping you in line. Since it has an all-or-nothing approach, it also creates deprivation. For example, your inner controller might tell you that you can’t have any ice cream at all, therefore setting up deprivation, which leads to bingeing.


This type of critic thinks you have to do everything perfectly. You cannot miss a Beat or your credit will tell you that you are a failure. This critic sets the highest standard for anything you do, or anything you say. Often, that standard is impossible to reach or maintain.  The idea behind perfectionism is that if you are perfect you won't be rejected or judged. Since there is no such thing as perfection in human behavior, it always makes you feel like you're not good enough.


Also known as the “slave driver” this type of critic is all about working hard, being successful, and never missing a beat. It overemphasizes accomplishment over experience.  those with this kind of critic have an all-or-nothing view of themselves; they're either working hard or they feel lazy.


This type of critic attacks your sense of self, and its purpose is to keep you safe. The idea is that if you don't take risks oh, you won't put yourself in a position of being wrong, rejected, or experiencing failure.

Here’s what to do to challenge the inner critic:

Step One: Recognize who’s driving

If you would not talk to others the way you talk to yourself, then that inner critic is not truly you; it's a learned response. Determine if that mean voice really “you” or does it belong to someone else–perhaps a parent, sibling, relative, or teacher.

Consider whether your inner critic reminds you of someone you know. Think back and identify if someone talked you or someone else that way. Often, when people are told that they are not smart enough, not good enough, too much, too sensitive, or deficient in some way, they internalize that perspective and start relating to themselves in the same way.

Another reason why people become self-critical is if they do not have enough structure or boundaries growing up. when children are left too much to their own devices or don't feel like they have containment, they will create their own inner parrot and that is often way harsher than any adult would actually be.

Silencing that inner critic is a necessary step to creating a binge-free happy life.

Once you identify the source of that internal critic, it’s time to challenge it so that it no longer drives you crazy. The second step is to banish it to the backseat by doing this:

Step Two: Be a friend to yourself

Think about how you express support for other people. In all likelihood, you are caring, understanding, helpful and friendly.

Imagine if you spoke that way to yourself. If you related to yourself the way you relate to others, you will feel better about yourself.

Imagine a friend told you that she ate way too much ice cream the night before, and she followed that up by consuming a box of Oreos and ordering pizza. It’s unlikely that you’d say something like, “That's disgusting.You have no control, you’re a fat pig, and I hate you.”

If you wouldn't say it to a friend, don't say it to yourself. A better response to a friend would be something like, “ I wonder what was going on last night. It sounds like you used food to cope. Let's be curious about that.”

Talk to yourself as if you were someone you love.  Be nice to yourself.  You will feel better, and when you feel supported by yourself, you are way less likely to eat.

When you are driven by a wish to be supportive and understanding to yourself, as well as to others, you will stop using food to cope.

And that’s how you stop the inner critic from driving you crazy.

FAQs :

Q: I’d been doing really well lately but then I had a setback and binged. What can I do so I won’t go back to square one like that?

First of all, you're not back at square one. The phrase “back to square one” means that you are at your original starting point after a failure.  It's like the game Chutes and Ladders when you go down the chute and end up at the starting point. But life is not a board game and you aren't back to the beginning. It sounds as if you learned a lot about yourself and about why you struggle with bingeing as a coping mechanism. All the work that you've done so far isn't undone by one binge. In fact, you can look at it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself. What caused the setback? What was your trigger? The more information you have, the better equipped you will be to deal with those types of situations in the future. 

Q: What can I do when I mess up and binge?

First, don't get mad at yourself. Instead, be curious. Being curious allows you to figure out what caused that binge. Try to figure out what was eating at you instead of focusing on what you were eating.

Think of it as being a detective. Figure out why you binged in the first place. What was the trigger? And by the way, the trigger is NOT food. It's some situation, thought or emotion That you may or may not have been aware of, as the triggers are often hidden in our unconscious minds. We often get so used to coping with food that we don't even register with the true trigger is.

Think about the events that led up to thinking about food. What was going on? Examine your thoughts, reactions, and emotions.

Then express those emotions. Journaling or talking to a friend or a therapist or coach is a great way to get emotions out, and it’s always better to express those thoughts and feelings than to symbolically stuff them down.

Also consider if the trigger was deprivation. We always want what we think we can't have. If you're depriving yourself of certain types of food, you're going to want those Foods more. the experience of deprivation or the anticipation of deprivation just makes us what we cannot have. That's why dieting, which is always restriction in some way, leads to binging.

The answer? Stop dieting and restricting. If you know you can have pizza whenever you want, you’ll be less likely to binge (yes, really).

Last, remember, there is always hope. You learned this way of relating to yourself, the world, and to food, and you can learn a new way. It is possible to create a new paradigm and anjoy a binge free happy life going forward.

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 The Author


Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.

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