Focusing on food as the cause of emotional eating is a classic case of your defense mechanisms at their worst. Emotional eating is not about the food. And by focusing on that, you can’t allow yourself to work on what truly IS driving the behavior.
Peace with Food
I just taught a one day Peace with Food Retreat, where I spent the day with a group of 10 wonderful women who gathered to learn about how emotions and food are related. The biggest surprise in my Emotional Eating 101 course?
Emotional Eating is not about the food.
I taught about the physiological and neurobiological aspects of eating, laying out scientific theory and connecting it to behavior. My students got a chance to practice powerful tools that aid the process of reconnection to self. They also got to explore and gain insight into how food came to be the way to meet so many unmet needs. We laughed, we cried, we shared, we felt met, known and seen. And in sharing our common humanity we were able to transcend the shame, guilt, negative self-image and pain that emotional eating was related to. We were not alone. And you are not alone.
Emotional Eating 101
While a retreat like my Peace with Food may be the way for many of my students to really start learning about the deep roots of emotional eating, for many, this behavior has only recently come into light. If you’ve just recently started looking at your patterns of eating as they relate to emotional regulation, you may want to read ahead. And even if you are an Emotional Eating Insight Master, you may still use these points below to deepen your self-relationship. No matter where you are in your emotions and food storyline, here are the basic truths that show up in most of my emotional eating workshops and retreats, one on one consults and conversations. They are also truths I have personally faced, experienced, and still live with today.
1. Emotional Eating is not about the food
While food is the tangible character we can focus on, praise, glorify, vilify, reject, crave, hate, love…emotional eating is not about the food. If food was a puppet, it’s still your own hand inside that is moving it. Focusing on the food as the cause of emotional eating is your defense mechanisms at work, keeping the focus away from what is truly driving the behavior. Emotional eating is not about the food, but that doesn’t mean food doesn’t play a big part. Only through looking deeper at the unmet needs that food is meeting, can we start to loosen the patterns, get insight, awareness and slowly move towards freedom.
2. Emotional NOT Eating is just as much of a problem as emotional eating
While society has normalized food restriction as great discipline, willpower and commitment to well-being, food restriction can often serve the same goals as overeating, eating when not hungry, and obsessing over certain foods being good or bad. It’s the same behavior, only using NOT eating to regulate emotions rather than overeating. You can eat or not eat to disconnect from self and manage how you are in your life, moment to moment. One is not better or worse than the other, despite what we may be conditioned to believe.
3. “It’s not why the addiction, but why the pain” – Gabor Mate
By focusing on the behavior (eating), we may conveniently continue to look at behaviors, and not at what is driving them. When we tell someone to just eat whole foods, or just start to eat healthy, the reasons they emotionally eat do not go away. At worst, other coping behaviors may show up. Oftentimes, healthier eating can end up taking the place of emotional eating, yet still serve the same purpose as the behavior you’re trying to overcome. We just replaced one kind of emotional eating with another.
4. You are not alone
A part of the cycle of emotional eating goes like this…
- Something is too much or too difficult to bear.
- You find yourself overwhelmed or shut down.
- You need to eat to disconnect from what you are feeling.
- You eat.
- It works (or you would not be doing it!).
- Then you tell yourself that what you did was bad (or some version of that) and make a plan how to remedy it.
- You do something to yourself – tell yourself you screwed up, shame yourself, feel guilty or go for a compensatory behavior – a workout, a diet, shopping, a new relationship, you name it.
A big part of the shaming cycle is this feeling that you are alone, you are on the outside looking in, everyone else has their act together and you are the only person who is losing at this game.
The reality is you are not alone.
In a room full of women at a retreat like my recent Peace with Food, you look around and think: “wow, I am each of you and each of you is me. This is our emotional eating. Not just mine.”
5. Emotional eating helps you cope
This is everyone’s least favorite realization. The same behavior you often hate has helped you survive. The truth is emotional eating is not black and white. It has helped you and it has harmed you. It has saved you and it has disconnected you. It points the way home and it points the way to hell. It’s super hard to hold two opposing ideas in your head – but you can do it. It’s a secret of adulthood that that’s totally possible.
6. Emotional eating can be about body image
It goes without saying that the media and what is culturally acceptable has shaped us, our self-image and our expectations. Beauty Sickness, as Renee Engeln tells us below, is real.
Acknowledging how each of us has been unconsciously brainwashed to have expectations of our bodies that are neither realistic nor healthy – like looking 20 forever – is a big start. We can begin to develop the media hygiene necessary to avoid the old, and start to surround ourselves with the new – images that inspire us, grow us and remind us of our common humanity.
Peace with Food
My retreat last week was an act of saying YES to connection and accepting ourselves as we are. It was about committing ourselves to self-care that is not about fixing what’s wrong. It was about saying YES to our complex nature, to the need to be connected, to stopping the madness of trying to do it all alone. It was an act of vulnerability and courage of kindness and compassion. Even though emotional eating is not about the food, can you see how big a role food still plays?
If reading this made sense to you, know that freedom from emotional eating is absolutely possible for you. If this article touched you, I invite you to reach out to me at email@example.com. I’ve made room in my schedule for a few emotional eating coaching sessions. These thirty-minute working sessions are typically $75. Today I’m offering them at half price for those of you reading this article. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s get started.
PS. Want more tools to help with emotional eating? I recorded a podcast episode all about it, and I know you’ll love it.
You can listen by click on the resource button here!