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How the 'Paradoxical Theory of Change' Relates to Binge Eating

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Arnold Bessier discussed in his essay in 1970 “The Paradoxical Theory of Change,” the idea “that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions.”

What does this have to do with binge eating? 

It means that you have to stop trying to force yourself to change. You have to stop fighting yourself. I found the paradox of change is that the more I try to control my food, the more out of control I am. When I give up trying to control — and give up food “rules,” i.e. weighing and measuring my food (and my body), eating only this and not that — the less anxiety I have around food. I know. It’s a scary thought, but it works. It sounds counterintuitive, but change comes from letting go, from surrender.

It means that in order to change, you have to go within, get to understand yourself and what’s really going on. Food is not the problem, it’s the solution. What problem are you trying to solve by overeating? How is binge eating helping you? Is it a distraction from something bigger you don’t want to face? What are you escaping from? Binging is a red flag for “something’s not right. Something’s bothering me that I don’t want to face.” What is it that’s really bothering you?

It’s not about what you’re eating; it’s about what’s eating you.

You’re probably not used to thinking about these things and may not even know what’s bothering you, because you’re used to distracting yourself by eating. That’s OK. No need to beat yourself up anymore. Awareness is the first step.

One way to get to know yourself is to identify all of the parts of yourself. Bessier discusses the battle we have within.

“He is constantly moving between what he ‘should be’ and what he thinks he ‘is,’ never fully identifying with either.”

We all have different parts of ourselves. One part is a critical part that tries to help us gain control over our eating. I call this part the “should monster.” This part says things like, “You shouldn’t eat that because you will get fat or you won’t be able to stop; you should only eat…” Perhaps there’s a rebellious teenage part that fights back: “You can’t tell me what to do. I’ll show you!”

This may be the part that binges, that rebels against the should monster. This war that’s going on is a red herring for what lies underneath. The war is a distraction to keep younger, emotionally wounded parts underground and protected.

These emotionally wounded child parts have internalized shame, feeling “not good enough.” These parts may even hold traumatic memories such as abuse or neglect, and feel abandoned and alone. These parts learned to self-soothe with food. They may hold anger, fear and sadness, which can feel overwhelming. In order to heal, we have to heal and nurture all of our parts.

“Experience has shown that when the patient identifies with the alienated fragments, integration does occur. Thus, by being what one is–fully–one can become something else” (Beisser).

Learning to change your eating behavior is an internal journey: getting to know all parts of yourself, knowing their stories, the emotional wounds they’re holding, identifying the roles they’re playing and how they’re trying to help you. It is not exerting more control. It is not letting the should monster or rebellious teenager take charge. It is to find peace within, calling a truce among the warring parts. It is gentle compassion and nurturing the young, wounded parts. We can all be our own worst enemies. Isn’t it time to learn to be your own best friend?

Beisser, A. (1970) The Paradoxical Theory of Change. In: Fagan, J. and Shepherd, I.L., Eds., Gestalt Therapy Now, Harper & Row, New York, 77-80.

Getty image by LUMEZIA

Originally published: May 10, 2021
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