Binge Eating, Bulimia and Sexual Addiction

Author: W. Travis Stewart, LPC

man trying to sleepGetting in your car late at night to find a way to satisfy your urges. Planning how you will use behaviors after you leave a social function. Not being able to focus on the person in front of you because your urges are so high. Feeling incredibly guilty for doing something so ‘gross’.

Hiding the evidence of your behaviors. Promising you will never do it again.

Those who struggle with bulimia and binge-eating know these experiences first-hand, and so do people who struggle with sexual addiction. Sometimes these difficult struggles can go hand-in-hand, and both can follow a similar pattern of thoughts and behaviors.

Let’s explore the following pattern which is a modification of the addictive cycle developed by Patrick Carnes, PhD.


Wounded Self

The cycle begins with the assumption that all individuals experience wounding and shame in this life, and can come in the form of severe trauma, PTSD, neglect or the more common hurts in the context of family dynamics, changing schools or teasing by peers.

This wounded self, at some point, experiences shame which, at it’s core, is the belief that we are seen as “deficient and undesirable.”


Shame and DespairThe feeling of shame is intolerable. We feel we must hide, cover up or numb out the experience of shame. The source of shame is two-fold. Perceived shame comes from the perception (real or actual) that others are judging us and finding us defective.

The other source of shame is the sexually addictive or bulimic behaviors themselves.

Preoccupation & Fantasy

Because shame feels so distressing the person looks for a way out. This often takes the form of fantasy or ‘dreaming’ about food or sex.

For sexual addiction, this can mean fantasizing about past or hoped-for sexual experiences while those with bulimia or binge-eating may feel preoccupied with a plate of cookies in the office break-room or planning their next trip to a fast-food restaurant.


Rituals are the ‘preparation’ stage of using behaviors. This may involve driving to a grocery store for the binger or beginning to surf the web for the sexual addict.

It can also involve beginning the day in a certain way, picking a fight with a spouse or wearing certain clothes. Rituals serve to enhance the anticipated behavior as well as induce a kind of trance or feeling of being on auto-pilot.


DeathtoStock_Wired2The actual use of the behavior can last only minutes or extend through an entire day. Either way, the ultimate goal is the same—to experience the relief from pain, anxiety and ultimately the feeling of shame.

One one-hand the behaviors are the high-point of the experience and on the other hand they ‘break the spell” of the trance which began with the rituals. What follows can feel devastating.


“I’ll never change” | “I’m disgusting” | “I can’t believe I did that”

These are all common thoughts which quickly rush into the brain following the use of behavior. The feeling of hopelessness is closely accompanied by more feeling of shame.

This can sometimes immediately lead to another cycle of rituals and behaviors but often results in moving on to the next stage of the cycle.


Men working out in gymThis stage is characterized by the all-too-familiar statement, “I’ll never do that again” and can produce it’s own sort of ‘high’ and desire to ‘get clean.’ In fact, it, like the bulimia, binge-eating, or sexually compulsive behaviors, it may be another way of running from the feelings of shame, and it is just as ineffective.

This resolve fails to effectively deliver someone from this vicious cycle for two reasons:

  • First, is that it only attempts to deal with the behavior, not the experience of being wounded which created the distorted thinking in the first place. In fact, it reinforces the thinking and feeling of being flawed.
  • Secondly, it does little to rewire the neuropathways in the brain which are so strongly associated with the habitual behaviors.

Breaking The Cycle

While this article does not allow enough space to fully address the ‘how’ of breaking the cycle it is worth noting several critical elements:

Increase your awareness of where you are in the cycle. Are you ritualizing? Are you feeling despair? Get out of auto-pilot and take control.


  1. Contrary to Love; Healing the Sexual Addict by Patrick Carnes
  2. The Wounded Heart; Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dan Allender, PhD, p. 64

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 19th, 2015
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