Overeating, binge eating, stress eating, and emotional eating are powerful coping mechanisms because they help people escape whatever uncomfortable feelings are in front of them.
I define emotional eating as using food to deal with your experience of powerlessness over the struggles and stresses of life. Something always triggers you to overeat, perhaps some friction with someone or an emotionally relevant event in your life.
It’s not the person or the event that sets you off but how those things made you feel. At first you may not even know how you feel. As you work on being your own psychotherapist, you’ll observe the places you’re at or the people you’re around when you tend to overeat. Then you’ll pay close attention to what feelings come up for you around those people or situations.
Simply identifying the times you overeat is a huge first step. It’s a huge step because as things start to come in to focus you’ll be able to put a spotlight on them and that will allow you to analyze them. Inevitably, you’ll have to confront the bad feelings that, up until now, you’ve been trying to get rid of by eating.
Let’s face it; there isn’t anyone who welcomes bad feelings. We look to do something with them, like wish them away. We try to forget them. We take a nap, go for a jog, talk to a friend, distract ourselves with television or a book, have a drink, smoke a cigarette, have sex, or eat a snack.
Ideally, you can get to a point where bad feelings are like bad weather — you know they’ll pass. Just like when you know it’s going to rain and you bring your umbrella, you’ll know how to predict your feelings and what you’ll need to get through them. If you haven’t yet arrived at this place of acceptance, where even bad feelings are a part of you to include rather than to banish, then food will remain your preferred method of medicating yourself.
Why has food become the thing that you consistently turn to when feelings triggered by people or events feel unbearable?
Food serves two very effective purposes. First, it helps you avoid feelings. I call the desire to avoid emotions the “feeling phobia.” Also, food gives you a way to replace bad feelings with the pleasurable experience of eating. I call the pleasurable experience that food provides the “food trance.” In short, eating protects you from the feelings that you don’t want to feel.
If your feelings open the door to your interior world, then eating slams the door shut. It keeps you functioning on a surface level. Although you’re feeling powerless to control what and how much you eat, at least you don’t have to focus on the deeper things that really make you feel powerless (failed relationships, unsatisfying careers, difficult children, etc.).
Many people report to me that as they’re approaching their goal weight they often sabotage themselves and all of their efforts. They wonder why that is. It doesn’t seem to make any sense. You may be able to relate to that experience.
The answer, time and again, proves to be simple: if you didn’t have your weight to think about you might have to think about what’s really bothering you and that’s very frightening. It’s frightening because you feel powerless to change the things that really bother you. You’ve made what I call the “unexamined powerlessness conclusion.” It’s the conclusion that you’re powerless over your feelings and the circumstances in your life that the feelings point towards, so why not just eat instead.
Eating takes you to an earlier place in your development, predominantly because, as infants and children, food is often associated with comfort and love. However, childhood is also associated with powerlessness. As a child, you were, in fact, powerless. You might have been mistreated. Maybe you couldn’t control your impulses. Perhaps you were subject to abandonment or dependent on others to protect and nurture you.
Even if food provides you with some of the comfort of infancy by taking you back to that state of mind, when you use food in this way you’re reverting back to a childish way of dealing with the world. And that reminds you of the powerless feeling of being a child.
You’re an adult now and you have choices. You can be the powerful agent of your own life by facing your feelings and hearing what they have to say to you. Or you can continue eating to cope with emotions, knowing that it actually keeps you stuck in childhood, a place where you were powerless.
Facing your feelings brings you to adulthood, the only place where you have the possibility to finally be powerful.
Emotional eaters can’t see the forest through the trees. In the moment when feelings have been triggered and an unexamined powerlessness conclusion has been reached, eating feels like a life or death decision.
When you distract yourself with food it’s not an apple or a simple cookie. It tends to be large quantities of food, typically unhealthy foods, and the foods are eaten in a voracious aggressive way –- more like stuffing than eating. By the time the eating frenzy has ended the bad feelings have vanished; but they aren’t really gone. They’re just buried under food almost like lost files on a hard drive. They exist somewhere but are temporarily irretrievable. You’re addicted to the escape that the food provides more than the food itself.
You can stop using food as an escape. By finding the upsetting feeling or situation and addressing it directly you can avoid overeating and recover your power at the same time.