Everybody Eats for Emotional Reasons
Everyone eats for emotional reasons. Sometimes. It’s normal and perfectly okay. Just as it can be okay to drink alcohol for emotional reasons, too. Sometimes. Doing either (or other addictive behaviors) on rare occasions to avoid what you feel is not problematic unless you are doing it too much or it is your primary way of coping. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to deal directly with life’s challenges so addictions are not uncommon, including an addiction to food.
Why you chose food as your way of coping may have occurred on many different levels.
It may have begun in childhood. Perhaps you watched your mother diet and/or comment negatively on her weight. Perhaps she used food to stuff her feelings and in turn taught you the same. Perhaps she commented on your body size and/or what and how much you ate.
Perhaps your father was emotionally distant, away from the house more often than the regular 40-hour work week, and when he was home he wasn’t exactly communicative or available.
Perhaps the message you received (directly or indirectly) was that perfection was best and feeling happy was the only acceptable emotion.
Dieting and Emotional Eating
It may have started when you began dieting. The diet left you feeling deprived. You eventually binged (otherwise known as breaking the diet) and hated yourself because of it. You promised to go on the diet again to regain control. You got stuck in the binge / purge cycle which is really an emotional avoidance cycle: You diet and feel good, you break the diet (because everyone does) and feel shame; you diet again to avoid feeling shame. This non-stop cycle keeps your focus on food and weight as a way to avoid what you are really feeling. All the while, your feelings get stronger rather than go away.
It probably started with all those “loving” comments about how you should lose weight. These words in their various forms begin to translate to “you aren’t loved as much when you’re fat.” I know this isn’t what the person (often parents’ comments are the most damaging because you need their love so badly) intended to say, but that is how it is heard, especially when you are a kid whose very survival rests in being loved.
Certainly, it started when you were told to stuff your feelings. Anything from “I’ll give you something to cry about,” to “here, have a cookie, you’ll feel better,” sends this message. In our culture, we don’t do emotions well; we are taught not to feel. Not too helpful when you are a child and so naturally full of emotion you can’t help but express them. You learn quickly that it isn’t okay to express that negative feeling and stop them in any way possible. Since you haven’t yet learned how to do that in a healthy way, you turn to unhealthy means: food.
All of these situations will leave you trapped in a cycle of emotional eating. Emotional eating, bingeing, dieting, beating yourself up for eating, feeling shame about eating or wanting food, hating your body, exercising too much or avoiding exercise, are all ways that you hide from your emotions.
These are all great distractors. After all, if you are worried about how much you weigh, or how much you ate, or when and how much you will eat again, or what will people think about you, or how your body is so fat or gross, then you don’t have much time or energy left for anything else, especially your feelings which all these thoughts distract from.
So when you start to work on your relationship with food and your body, improving how you feel about yourself and how you eat, such as stopping the crazy cycle of yo-yo dieting, what you will have are your emotions. Anything you have been stuffing down will start to come up. That’s okay. It’s good. Your emotions are a part of who you are and what you think so allowing yourself to have them will improve your life significantly.
It isn’t always easy; after all, you have been trained away from your emotions so having them may seem overwhelming and daunting, scary and impossible. If you need help, get some. There is no shame in needing help to face what you have learned to fear.
The Road to Happiness
Having emotions will help you feel happy. Everyone wants to be happy right? Pushing down all the negative feelings will not leave you feeling happy. With all the negative feelings, down go all the positive ones as well. Therefore, when you allow the negative feelings to surface and release, you will also bring up more of the positive feelings. And you will become more whole.
In the articulate words of a client who has been experiencing her emotions and growing because of them, “I love that you enlightened me to the fact that having ‘happy’ as a baseline is not real. Reality is experiencing the full range of emotions. That is so powerful for me and has opened my eyes to how amazing life is, in that we get to experience so many different feelings, each one always different than the previous.”
Regarding emotions, others clients have said, “Feeling my feelings makes me feel empowered,” and “I feel more alive when I feel all my feelings.”
I love emotions…all emotions. I used to be afraid of them but now I relish in them. That doesn’t mean they are always easy to have or express, but I feel much better when I do and I feel closer to those to whom I share my feelings. Therefore, I will always write about emotions and help you appreciate them, too.
If there is any topic you would like to hear more about, please let me know. I am happy to help you get in touch with loving your body, enjoying all foods without guilt, and accepting and even appreciating your emotions!
Anne is a mental health counselor who specializes in helping women end the diet cycle to turn every meal into an act of self love and acceptance. Anne has been helping women heal their relationship with food and their body for over 12 years. For more support with healing your relationship with food and your body, visit Anne's website Food Is Not the Enemy, to get Anne’s free report "5 Steps Toward a Diet Free Life."