Stop Binge Eating Using Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills

Do you ever wish you could press pause during an awkward conversation while you figure out what to say?  Or maybe you’d love it if you could stay home and let your body go to the doctor without you, so you wouldn’t have to listen to yet another lecture about your weight and struggle to find a way to respond. Learning to improve social interactions can benefit everyone, but if you struggle with binge eating or overeating, interpersonal situations often present more of a challenge.

As a therapist helping people overcome binge eating and overeating, I teach all my clients interpersonal skills. These skills help you get what you want and need from others in relationships. They also help you strengthen relationships, learning to balance change and acceptance.   

Binge Eating as a Coping Tool

Binge eating is effective as a coping skill because it makes uncomfortable moments like those above more tolerable. Binging can allow you to feel numb, to distract from discomfort in the mind and body. But this doesn’t actually help you in the long run. After the numbness wears off, you still feel ineffective. You might just end up overeating again to distract again from this amplified discomfort. So, if you’re trying to stop binge eating, it’s helpful to have another way to navigate difficult interactions with others (at least until Elon Musk develops a magic remote control like Adam Sandler had in “Click.”)    

Those Who Binge Eat May Have More Interpersonal Struggles

If you struggle with binge eating, interpersonal situations might be harder for you for several reasons. First, there’s not always a “right” way to manage interactions. Those who binge often have a perfectionist streak, so anything with a gray area makes your inner critics go nuts.  If there’s no right way to do something, this means there are also a million wrong ways to do it. 

Second, you may have grown up in an environment with few role models for healthy communication. If you felt down or lonely and your feelings were not validated, you may have turned to ineffective skills such as avoidance or people-pleasing to get your needs met. 

Finally, although things are improving, sometimes people with the best intentions say hurtful things to those struggling with binge eating. This is especially true if you’re in a larger body. A coworker might suggest a fad diet, or a doctor might recommend losing weight to help with joint pain. This places one who already has difficulty speaking up in an awkward position, without the skills to navigate it. This leaves you even more vulnerable to binge eating to soothe these feelings.    

Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Binge Eating Disorder

In previous blog posts, I discussed a therapy approach called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT, which research indicates is an effective therapy for Binge Eating Disorder and Bulimia Nervosa. (Click here to learn more about DBT in general.) DBT skills help you stay calm and manage uncomfortable emotions more effectively. I have introduced three skill sets in these blogs: Emotion Regulation, Distress Tolerance, and Mindfulness. All three are incredibly helpful tools for ending struggles with binge eating and overeating. I teach all of these tools to clients in therapy for binge eating and overeating. 

Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, also recognized the need for positive social interactions when she first developed her DBT approach over 30 years ago.  Interpersonal Effectiveness, introduced in this blog post, is another DBT skill set. Research suggests that strengthening interpersonal skills can help end binge eating. Learning to use your voice to get your needs met, you may feel less frustrated, disempowered, and disconnected. You may then turn to food less often to numb or distract from emotions. To this end, in therapy for binge eating I help clients practice ways of expressing their emotions to others, asserting their needs, and generally navigate uncomfortable social interactions. 

Basics of Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills

In the DBT Model, Interpersonal Effectiveness teaches the nuances of asking for what we want, considering the needs of others, and loving and respecting ourselves no matter what the outcome is.  

For example, imagine that I’m driving with a friend to a restaurant, and when she picks me up, she’s blasting death metal, which I can't stand, at full volume.  I might have an internal battle about saying something, since she’s the one driving, but honestly, the noise is really stressing me out.    

I can try dropping some hints about it, maybe even rubbing my temples to make her think I have a headache.  She might not even be that attached to the music -- maybe she just has that station on from when her son used the car the day before.  

Still, it would be easier not to say anything, and it’s important to me that my friends be happy. So what do I do? Having social skills isn’t about learning telepathy so that people magically know what you want, or about changing yourself to be okay with everything. It’s about learning how to ask.  

DBT uses the acronym DEARMAN to guide us because although asking is not rocket science, it’s way easier said than done.  This is why it’s crucial to use the skills we’ve explored in previous blog posts, like distress tolerance and opposite action, to support you in trying new things.  

DEARMAN as a Template for Making Requests

This acronym helps us remember the building blocks of social skills in the moments when we’re out of our comfort zone and need them the most.  It stands for:

Describe the situation objectively, sticking to the facts by steering clear of interpretations.  So I wouldn’t say, “This horrible music is bothering me.” I would say something like, “I want us both to enjoy the drive, but when I hear music like this at this volume...” Then on to the next step.

Express how you feel clearly, using “I” statements.  Something like, "I want us both to enjoy the drive, but when I hear music like this at this volume, it really makes me feel anxious and gives me a headache.

Assert your needs directly.  “I’d love if we could lower the volume and find something we both like -- maybe a throwback to that concert we saw in college?” 

Reinforce the benefits of your request.  This can be as simple as smiling and saying thank you.  No matter what happens, the goal is to be able to stay connected and positive about the interaction.    

Mindful.  Pay attention to your hopes, thoughts, and feelings to avoid distraction.  It might be tempting to backpedal or get into an argument, but if these urges arise, do your best to notice them and keep your outcome in mind.

Appear confident by considering your posture, tone, eye contact, and other cues.  This helps to send yourself a message that you’re worthy of getting your needs met, and to communicate the same to others.    

Negotiate by offering to meet someone in the middle if doing so works for both of you.  “Okay so you want rage and I want pop. How would you feel about settling on some of the angrier Beyonce songs . . . ?”  


When people already have low self-esteem and negative experiences with stating their needs in the past, it might be unreasonable to expect to go from zero to assertive.  But there are actually ways to build this muscle. Sometimes people find it helpful to get exposure to assertiveness in low-stakes situations.  

For example, you might try walking into a store and asking to use the restroom without buying anything. Notice what thoughts and emotions arise when I even suggest this.  Then practice a coping skill like Radical Acceptance to manage these uncomfortable feelings around speaking up.  

The more you take these actions, the more comfortable you’ll feel taking up space by expressing your needs.  Before long, you’ll build confidence to tackle more vulnerable challenges, like advocating for Health At Every Size with your doctor (“Can you please share other evidence-based interventions that might improve my knee pain besides weight loss?”)  

GIVE a Hoot

So now you’ve got an idea of how to make a request. In therapy for binge eating and overeating, we always  celebrate the times when you find the courage to speak up.  

At the same time, we’re not quite done.  Communication is also about listening to other perspectives.  Ironically, this can be especially hard for those of us who are used to accommodating others’ needs.  This is because in these situations involving direct communication, we’re not in our comfort zone of anticipating what they want and giving it to them.  Instead, we’re listening to their needs in response to our needs.  And our needs were already hard enough for us to assert once!  Now, if we don’t get what we want, we would have gone through all that for nothing?

It’s hard not to take these conversations personally, especially when we’re first trying these tools.  The GIVE acronym helps us connect with our big-picture goal in learning these social skills: fostering positive interactions no matter the outcome. GIVE stands for:

Gentle.  Don’t attack, threaten, or judge during these interactions.  This isn’t about either of you being right or wrong, winning or losing, etc.  Sometimes it helps to think in terms of being, “You Two versus The Problem,” instead of thinking in terms of “You versus Them.” 

Interested.  Listen to the other person without interrupting.  Notice if you have any fears that listening to them means that they’ll convince you, manipulate you, etc.  Remind yourself that listening actually helps people feel more open to compromise, not less.    

Validate.  Acknowledge their feelings.  This doesn’t mean that you agree with them.  It just means that you respect their experience as a valid point of view.  

Easy.  Try to smile and act light-hearted.  To clarify, this is not about people-pleasing and stuffing down your feelings.  It’s about showing optimism that you can work through this collaboration in a way that feels fair for both of you.  

The FAST-Track to Meeting in the Middle

Okay.  So you’ve made your case.  And she’s offered her perspective.  What now? This can be especially nerve-wracking and you may be tempted to use the superpower of disappearing, or at least shrinking to Ant-Man size.  

You might think about apologizing for making waves, and going back to the tried-and-true approach of silent resignation when something bothers you.  Because right about now, binge eating seems like a much better coping strategy than inconveniencing other people.  

But, not so fast!  The FAST acronym helps us remain true to our values.  If you grew up in an environment where you needed to suppress your emotions and make your caregivers happy in order to get your needs met, changing these behaviors can actually feel like a threat to your survival.  But these tools help to remind you that you’re an important part of the community around you.  

Fair.  Be fair to both parties.  Have empathy for others, but equally for yourself.   

Apologies.  It’s important to apologize if you’ve done something hurtful, but don’t apologize for making a request, having an opinion, or disagreeing.  Sometimes clients do well with a dollar jar to keep track of how much they’re apologizing throughout the day. You’d be surprised! 

Stick to Values.  Don’t compromise your values just be fit in or get what you want.  Stand up for what you believe in.  

Truthful.  Avoid exaggeration, acting helpless as a form of manipulation, and of course, lying.  

In considering the suggestions above, some folks worry that if they upset people by being honest, they’ll have even fewer friends.  Paradoxically though, speaking up can actually help you feel less alone than people-pleasing.  You will be seen and acknowledged for who you are, not for the pretzels you’re twisting yourself into.  You’ll also cultivate confidence and creativity to solve problems in different ways, which will allow you to let go of some of the negative coping skills that haven’t been serving you.     

If you want to learn interpersonal skills to decrease binging or overeating, I’d love to work with you! If you’re looking for binge eating therapy in Plano, Texas or just want to make peace with your body, contact me at 469-850-2420 or for a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.

My specialties include eating disorders such as anorexiabulimiabinge eatingovereating or compulsive eating, body image issues, anxiety and depression. My office is in Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, and McKinney.