Posts By: Kathryn Hansen

How to let go of “wanting” to binge


My name is Kathryn Hansen, and I’m the author of Brain over Binge (2011), and The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide (2016).

My focus is primarily on helping people stop binge eating, so in this post I’m going to address a binge eating issue that may be causing you some confusion and stagnation in your recovery. The issue is a common inner conflict, which can be described like this: You often feel like you want to binge, but you also know that you want to recover.

Any eating disorder recovery program or philosophy would agree that wanting to recover is absolutely necessary for lasting success. If you are here on, you can rest assured that you have enough desire for recovery to move forward. If you didn’t want to recover, you’d be binge eating and purging without regret and without feeling the need to change. But the reality is, you are experiencing consequences in your health and your life that create motivation to move beyond bulimia.

The problem is: you don’t feel your motivation to recover all of the time, especially in moments when you feel you want to binge. During those times, it can be tempting to give up altogether, or at least temporarily, in order to get what you think you want:  a binge.

Below, I’m going to explain this inner conflict in a way that I hope will provide a fresh perspective. Then, I’ll explain how to get through the times of “wanting” without letting it derail your recovery efforts.

Two Types of “Wanting”

To understand why you sometimes feel like you want to binge even though you know you want to quit, it’s important to understand that there is a big difference between feeling like you want something in the moment, and truly wanting that thing.

On a simple, basic level, we all have two different types of wanting:

1.  Primal Wanting:

Primal wanting comes from the more primitive part of our brains—from a region that’s often called the “reward system.”  The reward system drives us to perform pleasurable activities, survival-based behavior, and encourages us to avoid pain—whether that’s emotional or physical pain. The reward system makes us “want” to perform our conditioned habits and makes us “not want” to do things that aren’t pleasurable or that we perceive might be painful in some way.

When the reward system is working properly, “primal wanting” isn’t usually a problem. It drives us toward natural and necessary behaviors, and stops us from getting hurt.

However, this same reward system can be activated by destructive behaviors and habits that have been reinforced over time, especially habits that involve pleasurable substances like drugs and large amounts of binge food. In destructive habits, primal wanting could also be called “false wanting,” because it tricks you into believing you want something that you really don’t want.

When it comes to bulimia, the reward system becomes conditioned to react as if binge eating is vital to your survival (and pleasure). When this primitive system is triggered, it gives you that strong feeling of wanting to binge.  It’s only doing its job because it senses that you actually need to binge, but you know that you don’t. (*Note: If you are still dieting restrictively, you certainly need more food, but you don’t need to binge). 

2.  Rational Wanting:

The second type of wanting is a less immediate “want.”  Rational wanting arises from the more logical, cognitive, uniquely human elements of your brain.  Rational wanting often involves working toward a goal, or at least involves some waiting to get what you want. It’s not driven by the thought of immediate pleasure without regard for long term consequences.  This type of wanting describes your desire for recovery.  Even though you may not feel and see it all of the time, you—your true self—wants to live free of your eating disorder.

Knowing that there are two different types of wanting, driven by two different pathways in the brain, helps you make sense of your inner conflict. 

To sum it up:  The primitive part of your brain is automatically, and often persuasively making you feel you want to binge, while your higher, rational brain truly wants recovery.

This explains why your urges to binge feel like such an intrusion—those urges get in the way of your goals, your real desires, and the person you know you can be.

Knowing that the binge urges are just an expression of irrational, false wanting gives you a clearer picture of why you have this inner discord. 

How to Disregard Primal/False Wanting

To start overcoming this, it’s important to look at when you feel that you “want” to binge.

Is it when you are having urges, in the moments leading up to binges? Or is it after and between binges when you are feeling connected to your true self and your desire to recover?

In the vast majority of cases, you only temporarily want to binge prior to a binge; and afterward, you realize that you, in fact, didn’t want to binge at all.

When experiencing the post-binge consequences, it’s easy to recognize that it was only false wanting that got you to act on the urge. You feel regret, and it’s then that your desire for recovery naturally resurfaces.

The good news is that you don’t need to binge to allow your desire to recover to resurface. Your rational, true desire for recovery will resurface even if you don’t binge—once the urge passes.

The key to recognise false wanting

The key is to be able to recognize false wanting prior to a binge, not just afterward, so that you can avoid acting on the urge.

To do this, it can help to write down the thoughts and feelings that make you feel you want to binge.

By writing down your thoughts and feelings every time you start to hear all of those thoughts and feel that desire, you’ll recognize it for what it is: just the brain’s reward system doing it’s appointed task, and you’ll know it’s just a temporary state you can pass through.

You can learn to experience the false wanting in a different way—using detachment.

Detachment means that you aren’t actively bringing attention to what you are experiencing. Without the fuel of your attention, those feelings of desire will fade way, the urge will pass, and you’ll reconnect with your rational desire to recover. You’ll also be so happy that you didn’t let the false wanting derail you from what you truly want.

If you can pass through those feelings over and over, the primitive brain learns; it becomes re-conditioned and re-wired, and it gradually stops producing the desire to binge.

*I focused on binge eating here, but know this same concept can apply to other eating-disordered behaviors you sometimes feel like you “want” to do—like dieting and/or purging—which can become conditioned habits as well and are often driven by false wanting. You can find out more about this strategy and other helpful ideas for ending binge eating in my new book:  The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide.  To learn more, visit my website: