From infancy, we develop an intense emotional relationship with food. Eating nourishes our bodies, certainly; but it also brings us comfort, satisfaction, and an incredible sense of security. It provides us with immediate gratification unlike anything else. Depending on our cultural/social influences, we learn to associate food and eating with celebrations of developmental and achievement milestones, holiday and religious rituals/traditions, and grief for lost loved ones. Food envelopes and becomes a conduit for socialization. Alongside this enmeshed social support, food has the power to nourish us physically and emotionally. When food is a part of a balanced life filled with additional sources of nurture and fulfillment, it promotes health and pleasure.
However, when food becomes our primary (or only) source of pleasure – or when it becomes a means of avoidance of unwanted and/or painful emotions – it can lead to self-destructive, compulsive eating. This is known as emotional eating, and/or binge eating. These compulsions highjack the individual’s control over what they consume, and when they consume it; and the resulting dejection that accompanies emotional eating insidiously causes painful, suppressed, and unresolved emotions. The vicious cycle is self-perpetuating, as the individual’s feelings of shame, helplessness, and anger drive them to further emotional/binge eating.
Conventional weight loss programs focus on creating specific diet plans – and may even extend their focus to challenging irrational and unhealthy beliefs and attitudes. But as Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed learned from her thirty years of counseling clients, “No matter how much their beliefs and behaviors changed, they remained stuck in one main area: handling their emotions”. It becomes easier for us to plan another binge than to face the powerfully overwhelming emotional distress at the core of our problems.
Dr. Koenig further stressed that “success in overcoming eating problems is directly related to experiencing a full range of emotions”. Learning how to implement habits born of self-love/appreciation, allowing oneself to properly grieve losses, and giving oneself permission to celebrate life fully and joyfully can lead to greater, holistic self-nourishment.
Koenig identified the seven specific emotions which promote disordered eating: guilt, shame, helplessness, anxiety, disappointment, confusion, and loneliness. When we are able to identify, acknowledge, and experience these emotions in more constructive ways, we don’t need to use food to manage them. Rather, we are given an opportunity to learn who we are, and what we truly want, need, and feel. Imagine no longer fearing or judging those long-avoided emotions! You may not believe that you can tolerate some – or, indeed, any – of them, but with professional guidance, patience, and TLC (tender loving care) toward yourself, you absolutely can. And by knowing yourself emotionally, you can commit to pursuing the new knowledge of what you truly want and need, without resorting to food as a sole source of comfort or catharsis.
How do we achieve this higher self-awareness? Well, our culture has taught us to be human “doings” rather than human “beings”. We rush to busy ourselves with an endless amount of “to do” lists, obligations, and activities – so as to be constantly “achieving” and thus quieting any unpleasant, unwanted emotion. When we cannot numb ourselves with busyness, that’s when some of us turn to food instead. But emotions – even “negative” emotions – serve a vital function in our survival, to ignore or numb them should never be the goal. The sad fact is, some of us have suppressed, discounted, dismissed, and/or avoided our feelings for so long, that when asked, we may not have a clue as to how we feel at any given time. In my practice, clients will often tell me what they “think” when asked how they feel, reflecting their habitual distancing or denial of emotions without even knowing it!
So, the first thing we must do is relearn to access our emotions, and accept that they exist, without self-judgment or deprecation. Just as we do not have to feel embarrassed for being thirsty, we don’t need to be ashamed of feeling angry, hurt, disappointed, etc. Our feelings simply are. The longer and more extensive the disconnect from one’s feelings, the more one must practice becoming aware of bodily sensations associated with feelings. For example, while we all react differently to different situations, a change in heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, etc., may be clues to our various underlying emotions, even when we don’t realize this.
In the process of identifying and acknowledging our emotions as facts, we may need to challenge and dispel commonly held myths about feelings. Some examples include, “I shouldn’t be angry”, or “If I let myself feel pain, I will become overwhelmed by it”. With professional guidance, even the strongest and long-held irrational beliefs about feelings can be challenged and overhauled.
Finally, we must be able to identify and define where those seven focal emotions – guilt, shame, anxiety, helplessness, disappointment, confusion and loneliness – exist inside of ourselves, and what might be triggering them. While one or some of these feelings may resonate with you more than others, they are frequently interrelated.
For example: those of us who are people-pleasers, with excessively high expectations of ourselves, may experience a considerable amount of guilt when we don’t live up to those expectations. We may believe that we are inherently flawed (in comes shame) and must therefore sacrifice, deny and avoid being “selfish” as we serve others. However, we may believe that what we do is never enough – which can make social interactions a constant trigger for anxiety, disappointment, and confusion. Finally, we may begin to feel utter helplessness at our situation – that we are held hostage by our own feelings – and that’s where emotional eating comes in as a coping mechanism. Some of us are even genetically predisposed toward anxiety – and with our brain chemistry naturally unbalanced like that, we may seek the satiety that food offers in supplying “feel good” chemicals.
The final of the seven feelings – loneliness – is one that Koenig identifies strongly with cases of disordered eating. She stresses that childhood abandonment, rejection, or social invalidation, may have left us feeling “disconnected, invisible, and annihilated, as if we didn’t exist”. Such a traumatic experience may make one desperate to connect with “anything” that will give us the immediate gratification; and when it comes to immediate gratification, nothing compares to eating.
As a therapist, I have personally experienced both sides of the proverbial disordered eating coin – restrictive eating and overeating. I understand the sugar highs, and the plunge into self-loathing that follows. I have obsessed about food, eating regimens, scales, and fallen into the rabbit hole of emotional oblivion by numbing my feelings with food. I have struggled with the curse of perfectionism and the need to feel in control of my life – and the horrific despair of not being in control. Coming home to inner wisdom, through the same methods as my own course of psychotherapy, had allowed me to feel the full range of my emotions, leading to a richer, more satisfying life for me.
In my 8-week Weight – You Don’t Own Me series, you will learn to navigate the seven primary emotions listed above, with self-compassion; and you will learn to use them to nurture and assert yourself. You will learn to understand, experience, and manage the emotions that most often trigger your compulsive eating. You can finally put an end to the cycle of dieting and emotional eating.