Why positive thinking makes bingeing worse

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Ever tell yourself to look on the bright side? Do you try to think positively when things are tough? Maybe you practice gratitude as an antidote to difficult feelings and thoughts. Or you compare yourself to people who are struggling to survive war or illness, or people who are barely hanging on financially.

Some people believe that by simply thinking positively and putting on a “happy face”, you can achieve better results in life and achieve your goals more easily.

positive thinking makes binge eating worse

I'm going to let you in on a secret:

Positive thinking makes you feel worse, not better.

Although positive thinking is often touted as the key to happiness and success, recent research suggests that this approach actually backfires in many cases. When we constantly focus on trying to feel positive and suppressing emotions we label as negative, this can end up making us feel even worse.

But ‌positive thinking often backfires and actually makes things worse. This is because when we try too hard to force ourselves to be positive, we end up feeling bad about feeling bad. We judge ourselves for not being able to maintain an optimistic outlook at all times, which only makes us feel more down and discouraged.

We may feel like we're faking it or putting on a mask. When we try to hide our true feelings, this can lead to feelings of shame and discontentment, particularly when painful, upsetting emotions bubble up at inopportune times.

Ultimately, what positive thinking cannot take into account is the fact that so-called negative emotions are an inevitable part of life. It's not possible – nor is it healthy – to always be happy and optimistic. Instead, we need to learn how to accept these emotions as natural parts of our experience, while also working towards building more resilience and moving past them when they do arise.

After all, you can't positive-think away emotions. You can't drop them, ignore them, let them go, and you can't stuff them down.

How positive thinking backfires

Just weeks after Bette's wedding to her second husband Roger, a drunk driver ran a red light and struck them in the crosswalk, killing Roger instantly and breaking Bette’s spine. Doctors did not expect her to walk again.

Bette proved them wrong. She worked hard and walked out of the hospital on crutches. During the next weeks, well-meaning friends urged her to stay positive.

  • You’re lucky to be alive
  • Roger would want you to be happy
  • Focus on the good and not the bad
  • You just have to stay positive

When Bette’s friend came over for coffee and saw her walking, she exclaimed, “How wonderful to see you up and around. It’s a miracle!”

Bette ate a slice of coffee cake, then another. Finally she put down her fork and burst into tears.

“It's no good,” she wept. “I can't stop thinking about Roger.”

“Look on the bright side,” said her friend. “It could have been worse. We could have lost you, too.”

Her friend urged her to “stay positive.” 

“I am positive,” Bette said. “Positive that I miss my husband.”

Positive thinking and binge eating

If you dismiss your true thoughts, emotions and reactions in favor of looking on the bright side, you are pushing away your truth. If something bad happens, there may be a silver lining, but the bad thing still happened.

When you feel bad, you're more likely to eat for comfort or distraction. That's how positive thinking can actually cause bingeing to get worse.

Forget trying to “stay positive” when things are tough

The only way to get past the challenges and losses of life is to deal with the bad stuff. You can’t think it away, drop it, ignore it, or stuff it down.

Yep, the only way to get rid of bad feelings is to feel, express, and process them.

Bette cried and felt her grief. That’s how she was able to finally get past the pain and say, “I miss Roger. And I’m glad to be alive and walking, literally.”

A new take on “negative” emotions

Emotions are not negative; they are natural responses to the situations we encounter in our lives. Whether we are feeling happy, sad, scared, or angry, these emotions are simply reactions to what is happening around us.

At times, it may feel like our emotions are controlling us or getting in the way of our ability to act rationally. But in reality, our emotions are simply reflections of how we are feeling in that moment. They give us valuable information about what is going on inside of us and can help us deal with challenging situations more effectively.

Rather than seeing certain emotions as something negative or undesirable, we must embrace them for what they truly are: tools that help us navigate the world around us and better understand ourselves and those around us. After all, without emotions, life would be a very dull and stale experience.

Think realistically (not positively)

If you ignore upsetting emotions or situations by “staying positive” it will continue to eat “at” you.When you acknowledge what you truly think and feel, even if it's painful or upsetting, you can deal with it and heal.

Of course Bette was upset and in emotional pain. She lost her husband and spent months in the hospital. How else could she feel? And, continuing to grieve would help her heal, so that eventually the pain would lessen and she’d be able to get on with her life.

Comparison and binge eating

Aimee recently gained twenty pounds. This caused her a lot of anxiety but then she dismissed her feelings. She said, “I shouldn't worry about such trivial things like gaining weight. People are starving in Ukraine. I have no right to be upset. I need to be more positive.”

That was not a helpful way for Aimee to talk to herself. A better response would be:

“Of course I’m upset about gaining weight. It’s upsetting when my clothes are tighter.

And yes, people are starving in Ukraine but their pain does not minimize mine.

I’m going to pay more attention to why I’m eating, to what’s eating “at” me, so that I can reverse this trend. But in the meantime, it sure is challenging. What do I need right now to feel better?”

3 Steps to Soothe Yourself without Food

Step One: Acknowledge your experience

Step Two: Validate your emotions

Step Three: Comfort yourself with words

The next time you deal with difficult thoughts and feelings, try to accept these feelings as part of the natural human experience.

Validate that you’re feeling this way. Acknowledge those emotions without judgement or resistance and let them pass through you without trying to fix or change anything.

With time, you will start to feel better and able to soothe yourself–even when things aren't going exactly as you'd like.


I hate myself for bingeing. What can I do to stop?

What you have to put a stop to is that level of self-hatred. If you say things like, “What's wrong with me? I can't believe I ate that. I have no willpower or control. I suck. I hate myself”… 

Well, welcome to your inner critic.

Guess what? You might binge just to escape your own mean voice. Here's how to make your inner critic shut up for good.

1. Be curious, not critical. Ask yourself WHY you ate something, instead of focusing on what you ate. Is something eating “at” you? Or are you eating in response to hunger or deprivation?

2. Talk to yourself as if you were your own best friend. If your best friend ate a bunch of ice cream, you wouldn't say, “How disgusting. You make me sick.” You'd be kind and supportive.

3. Talk to yourself in a soothing, kind, tone. A warm tone is like a verbal hug.

Try it out. You won't believe the difference.

I’m usually good during the day but I can’t stop eating at night. What can I do to change?

Many binge eating episodes occur at night. Why is that? For one thing, we're busy all day working, or taking care of kids, doing a lot to keep us occupied.

At night, instead of being in a state of “doing” we enter a state of “being” when unwanted thoughts and feelings can creep into our minds. Before those thoughts reach conscious awareness, they can trigger a binge episode.

In fact, we often turn to food so quickly that we're not even aware of what's going on inside. We avoid anything that makes us feel bad or powerless or afraid or anxious or lonely.

If we don't have the strategies to deal with those thoughts and emotions, we may use food to cope because bingeing helps us escape, numb, and comfort ourselves.

So the next time you want to eat at night, get really curious about why, instead of focusing on what you’re eating. What problem is that solving?

What do I do once I identify why I’m bingeing? Do I just sit with my emotions?

Here's what you do after you identify why you want to binge. Instead of heading to the kitchen or the drive-through, here are three creative ways to deal with your emotions:

No 1: Write all your thoughts and feelings on a sheet of blank paper. Then tear it into tiny pieces. It may sound weird but it's a great way of getting your emotions OUT and then symbolically getting rid of them.

No2: Journal. It really does make a difference. There's something about writing that gets everything out of you and onto the page, which is better than stuffing your emotions.

No 3: Draw your emotions. Or paint them. What color is anger? What does pain look like? Conceptualize it artistically and you'll feel better.

When you express your feelings in one of these ways, you’ll stop eating to cope.

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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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