How To Cultivate Hope For Your Recovery When You Don’t Have Any

hope - image of profile of female standing in front of water with sunlight shining on her head

The most important word in the English language is hope. – Eleanor Roosevelt

Are you hungry for hope? If you have battled your body for a very long time, you may feel despair at ever making positive changes. If you cannot stop throwing up after you binge, you may believe you will never get better. And if you look at yourself in the mirror and are convinced you could never like your body, you might feel deeply despondent. So, how do you inject hope into what feels like a hopeless situation? How do we move from hopeless to hope to healing to wholeness?

While optimism is a positive attitude, hope has a goal and a determined plan of action to help you achieve your goal.

Hope is when you look forward to something you desire and have reasonable confidence that you can achieve it.

You have a strong belief that you can reach a cherished goal. Hope is different than optimism where people try to have a positive outlook and “whistle a happy tune whenever they feel afraid.” While optimism is a positive attitude, hope has a goal and a determined plan of action to help you achieve your goal. It is not just a wish but a practical pathway for improving your future. Hope helps to sustain your personal motivation.

When people feel hopeless about making progress in their eating or food issues, they do one of two things:

  1. They become paralyzed and stuck in their misery and do nothing. Since nothing changes, their despair deepens. Eating and weight issues become a chronic way of life with an increase in emotional and physical limitations. A lack of hope engenders passivity, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then resignation sets in.
  2. Or they make a sweeping overhaul to change themselves quickly and dramatically. People begin to follow restrictive or fad diets and punishing exercise regimes. But a quick fix is rarely sustainable because it takes so much energy and deprivation. So people wind up eventually reverting back to their old behaviors.

Neither choice provides much hope for long lasting change.

So how can we stimulate hope when all our best efforts have failed? Jackie, age 24, gave me an unusual lesson in hope. In our first consultation I told Jackie that she had a diagnosis of binge eating disorder. A slow, bright smile lit up her face. She seemed thrilled! I was so surprised at her happy reaction that I asked her why. “Because, up until now, I thought I was just crazy,” Jackie explained. “I have been so ashamed and guilty and felt so alone with my chaotic and sneaky eating. I’ve spent a ton of money on food and even hide food from my family. Now that I know I have a real diagnosis, you are giving me hope that there is something I can do about it. If there is a true rhyme and reason to what I do, then hopefully I can change it!”

Hope begets hope, and you can continue to build strategies against your emotional eating with “bite-size pieces.”

To generate hope with your eating struggles, begin by doing just ONE thing different. Since change is composed of a series of forward moving steps, taking even one step in your own behalf will provide a glimmering of hope. Hope begets hope, and you can continue to build strategies against your emotional eating with “bite-size pieces.”

Dr. Tamara Richardson writes about the Power of One which includes: set ONE goal at a time, resist ONE more binge episode, make ONE more healthy choice, find ONE thing you are grateful for today about your body. 1

Other strategies to encourage your own hope include:

Lessening your perfectionism.

The identity of many emotional eaters is based on performance, pleasing, and striving to be perfect; they are convinced this is what makes them lovable. However, evaluating your life and your eating behavior through the lens of “I must be perfect” will sign you up for a lifetime of frustration and self-doubt. The antidote to perfectionism is believing that, “good enough is good enough.” Erin lamented she was no longer, “my ideal size.” I had known Erin at her “ideal size”, a gaunt young woman with angular collar bones that jutted out alarmingly. She was scary-looking then. Fortunately, Erin caught herself midstream in being self-critical and backed off even before I was going to share with her my perspective. She added, “OK, I know that after three children, I have to learn to be more realistic. I’m allowed to be a larger size with a tummy to show for all my hard work of carrying three kids. My perfectionism could lead me straight back to anorexia. I need to remember it was my learning healthy eating that allowed me to get pregnant in the first place.”

Talking to yourself and being your own guidance counselor.

Tony groans, “Today was a horrible day with my boss. I really wanted to binge and throw up to make myself feel better. But I’ve learned to just distract myself until that mood passes and have a healthy carrot juice instead. I’ll feel a heck of a lot better tomorrow for not giving in. My biggest realization in my recovery,” adds Tony, “is that my frantic moods will pass whether or not I binge and purge.”

Complaining, crying, even howling, and not bottling up hurtful feelings can be a satisfying way of expressing oneself that does not involve detouring emotions through eating behaviors.

By developing a variety of techniques of self-expression, emotional eating does not have to be the only game in town. The comedian Lily Tomlin once declared, “God gave humans the gift of language, so we could complain!” And sometimes using your mouth for “purging” frustration in words and not using it for overeating brings satisfaction from tension and relief. Estee, an anorexic and bulimic patient who was taught all her life to “suck it up,” enjoyed my giving her permission to complain loudly and often. She enjoyed this new found freedom so much that she presented me a coffee mug with this scene painted on it: A customer goes to the Complaint Department of a store and is asked by the clerk what his grievance is. The customer replies, “Pretty much everything!”

Speaking with others who have the ability to just listen (and not necessarily give advice).

Venting our stress rather than acting out with food is a robust tool to lighten our burden. “I love coming to therapy,” laughed Sherry, “because you have to totally listen to me and I don’t have to reciprocate by being polite and asking how you’re doing! Frankly, I don’t care how you are. I just want to talk about myself!”

Tolerating feelings.

Although they can be very intense, feelings are not facts. Thoughts are not facts. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, we distort how bad things really are. Bad feelings will pass whether or not we binge, starve, or throw up. Tolerating, expressing, and digesting challenging feelings, rather than acting destructively, builds “resilience muscles” for the next time a wave of strong emotions threatens to overtake us and lead us down the path of emotional eating.

Changing what you can, accepting what you can’t.

Accept a certain amount of powerless. Take all necessary steps to fix a problem, let go of the results. In the midst of a grueling divorce, Pearl recognized that all the cake in the world was not going to resolve her conflict. She continued her plan of action to solve her legal dilemma while working valiantly not to compound her own pain by overeating.

Meditate on your breathing.

Visualize what you need, ask the universe for peace of mind, and give gratitude for what you do have.

Practice self-care.

These self-care rituals provide balance and inner harmony: enjoyable exercise, nutritious abundant food, deep sleep, relaxation, and times of peace and quiet to recharge your batteries.

Find perspective.

Tian Dayton writes, “Resilient people tend not to let adversity define them. They see their problems as temporary rather than a permanent state of affairs and tend not to globalize. They find reasons and ways—whether religious, creative, or good common sense—to place a temporary framework and perspective around the problems in their lives.”2

Everyone’s path to self-care and self-soothing is as unique as a fingerprint.

Keep refining your unique path.

The last chapter has not yet been written on your life. There is still room and time to cultivate a good, strong relationship with yourself where food is no longer a tool for emotional expression and release.

H.O.P.E. = Hold On, Pain Ends

1Adapted from Tamara Richardson, Ph.D., “The Power of One,”
2 Tian Dayton.

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