How Anger and Compulsive Eating Are Related

by Courtney on November 1, 2013

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“This is a universal truth: We invariably experience more of any thought or feeling we try to avoid.” -Martha Beck

This quote rings true. Suppressed emotions cause problems. One problem they can cause is compulsive eating. We overeat, compulsively eat, or eat too much junk food because we are trying to avoid, suppress or minimize an emotion in that moment. And so, in the process of healing compulsive eating, we all have to face these emotions we have been avoiding, and often haven’t been aware we even have. If these emotions are ones we have wanted to avoid so much that we use food to suppress them, we can imagine they’re not going to be easy ones for us to feel. These emotions can include sadness, grief, fear, pain, loneliness, insecurity, unworthiness, sorrow–anything really. And they can be about “big” things or “little” things. And they can be about the past, the present, or the future.

In my own journey and with most of my clients, I find that one of the major roadblocks substantially changing our behavior and choices with food is the suppression of anger. Without exception, I’ve found it is only a matter of time until we realize we have some anger (or a whole lot, if you’re like I was), and that feeling through anger and finding what’s underneath is an unavoidable step. It is so automatic for us to feel a tinge of anger-spectrum emotions–annoyance, frustration, irritation, anger, rage–and then reach for the food, but we have to interrupt that process and look deeper.

Years ago, I had gotten to a place in my healing food addiction and eating disorders where I had stagnated, and I didn’t know why. I felt like I had cried some stuff out, I felt like I’d come to terms with some truths about my life and past, and I had filled up stacks of journals with my inner reflections. I felt like I theoretically, intellectually understood what I needed to do to change my eating. And my behavior around food did shift a bit. I lost some weight. But then nothing further was changing. I kept reflecting, I kept journaling, I cried more, but it didn’t seem to change much. After a while in that stagnation, I realized what was happening: there was a whole group of emotions I had been completely avoiding: anger, frustration, annoyance, and when I really tuned into it… even rage.

My heap of emotions of this nature were about many things, as they are for every person who accepts they currently have anger within them. They can really be about anything. I couldn’t name all of mine here, but for example, I realized that underneath my food compulsions was anger I had from my childhood and how I was treated, anger at how people throughout my life had hurt me, anger at how I felt like life was overall just too hard in so many ways and I couldn’t do handle it. I had rage at how fed up I was of having a food addiction and extra weight, how much it had all limited my life, how hard I was trying and how impossible it seemed to change. I was angry that I had to heal my food addiction at all. I was even angry that I was angry! Sometimes, the anger I felt was even more like hysterical rage. But I didn’t want to think of myself as someone who had “anger issues” or any rage. It conflicted with my self-image.

I really struggled to realize or accept that I had anger for a long time. And the reasons why I didn’t are quite universal; and I hear them from others all the time. I always saw myself (and others reinforced) that I was grounded; I had the big picture. Was mature, chilled out, stable. Was a nice, agreeable girl.

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The truth is, anger does not have to be a part of our lives — suppressed or expressed anger. Anger is not an inherent human emotion that we can’t do anything about. We can have anger, and most of us do and will until we admit it. That’s the irony–once you admit you’re angry, you’re much closer to healing the reasons why. And you can heal those core reasons permanently, which will mean you also will no longer be angry. And releasing our anger by way of feeling it allows space for other things to grow — like creativity, love, connection and gentleness…  things that can only exist in their fullest form when we’ve moved through and released anger. And of course, we will eat in much more self-loving, balanced and healthy way, and we won’t have to try to do it.

Here are some examples of beliefs that cause us to suppress anger:

  • Anger is petty and immature
  • If I feel angry, it means I am not grateful for all the blessings in my life
  • Anger is selfish
  • Anger is not spiritually evolved and if I have it, it means I don’t “get it” in some way
  • “Good” people don’t feel anger
  • There is no point in “feeding” the anger or “focusing on the negative” (the false belief that acknowledging and feeling anger makes it grow)
  • My life/family/parents weren’t that bad; I shouldn’t have much anger or rage

Many of us have subconscious fears about anger, too, such as:

  • If I tap into my anger, it will never end
  • Other people (my parents, partner, friends, etc.) will be dismayed if they know I have anger (suppressing anger like this is a form of people-pleasing)
  • If I feel my anger, I will take it out on someone and hurt them
  • I will go crazy if I feel my anger
  • My rage will consume me
  • I will feel out of control if I feel it
  • I will not be loved/accepted if I am angry
  • I will die if I feel my anger

Anger can end up driving much of our lives, our eating, and our weight. And the way we heal it is to feel it. You must go through it.  Not by throwing your anger at other people of course–it is not justified to direct it towards another person, even if you see it as their “fault”. The way we can get rid of our anger is by feeling it alone, without projecting it at others. Anger has an end point; the emotional experience of it is finite. Underneath anger, we will find some of those other emotions I listed, such as fears, grief, sadness, loneliness, etc. That may be the next frontier for you after anger, but it is often hard to get to those when you have anger layering over them. Believe me, I tried skipping over the anger to all of those other emotions, and sometimes it worked as far as emotional healing, but often it didn’t.

As you drain the anger, frustration, and rage from your soul by way of feeling it fully (and subsequently feeling through the emotions underneath anger), you will find that you feel lighter, more at peace, and you feel more love. You’ll find you won’t reach for food compulsively when you’re in those situations that used to trigger frustration and anger. Anger can be such a pressure cooker that is so wearing, and when you take the lid off, the relief and release can be immense. So yes, I’m saying part of the resolution for the problem of eating too many donuts may be to go and have a good proper tantrum. ;)  Take Spock’s example:

Here is your journal exercise to do on this topic. These questions will help identify beliefs and fears about anger as well as identify what you have anger about.

1. List at least 5 things you feel annoyed about.

2. List at least 5 things you feel frustrated about.

3. List at least 5 things you feel angry about.

4. List at least 5 things you feel rage about.

6. Finish these sentences:

A. I believe angry people are ______________________.

B. When someone is angry I feel ________________________.

C. Anger is _________________________________.

D. I believe my own anger is _________________________.

E. If I feel my anger, ____________________________.

F. Underneath my anger, I think there will be the emotion of _____________________________.

This is a big topic and I have much more to write about it, but for this first post on it, I want to begin the process of acknowledging the beliefs and fears we have about anger, and coming to accept the truth about what we’re angry about.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic of anger and compulsive eating!

-Courtney

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin November 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

Thanks for this, Courtney. Very insightful. I feel that every home should come equipped with a rubber room.

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Courtney November 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Haha, I agree, Robin!

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Alex November 6, 2013 at 2:29 pm

I’ll have to meditate on this one, thanks for the sheet. I will weed out that anger.

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Courtney November 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm

You are welcome! Weed it out and throw a fit!

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Liz K November 6, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Such a sense of hope from reading this. Thanks Courtney. Knowing that someone else feels angry at the same things I do – the things I thought no one else would feel – that makes everything so much easier. !!

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Courtney November 8, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I am glad it gives you hope because there IS hope!

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Steve Douglas November 7, 2013 at 8:59 am

Thanks Courtney! What a gift your deep understanding and experience of anger is. I love your list of questions. Anger has become an undeniable guide in my growth spiritually and in love.

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Courtney November 8, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Thanks for reading, Steve. You’re so right, it can be such a guide for growth in Love!

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Carrie September 26, 2014 at 10:27 pm

Hi Courtney, I have just in the past couple of days found your blog. Although this is an older post of yours, I did want to comment. For the past year, I have been going through much change emotionally and physically. I have uncovered things that were so far buried and were forgotten in my past, and this helped me gain understanding to some of the behaviors I have always had, but never could completely release. The stumbling block that I had was in wondering, “what do I do with this new information?” How does one heal and move on from it? How do I get past, and be released?
Your amazing posts have provided the answer-sit and deal with them, let the emotional tides come and go, and allow the process. I have been afraid to show even to myself that vulnerability. To allow anger or sadness to arise. I now know that it is okay, and I will heal from allowing myself the anger and the sadness, and I do not have to hide anymore. Thank you so much for the insight.

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Courtney September 29, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Thanks very much for commenting, Carrie. :) I can relate with the feeling of finding stuff that is really deeply buried, and also was stumped for a while at what to do with what I was discovering. It can be hard to sit with the emotional tides (it is even now for me with certain subjects), but it is truly how healing happens. I commend you for your courage. It is all ok!

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Ashley September 7, 2015 at 4:26 pm

This post was so helpful.. thank you so much!!

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Courtney March 20, 2016 at 11:34 am

I am so glad!

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Rebecca Coxson January 17, 2017 at 4:01 pm

Thank you so much Courtney, I now know why I eat so much each time I’m angry. No more cover up. I will let it out and get healed. Very insightful.

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Courtney February 16, 2017 at 9:30 am

Glad it’s helpful Rebecca!

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KFW January 24, 2017 at 10:49 am

I’m angry and I want to eat. It’s counter productive and I know it but I’m angry and I can’t express that anger towards the person with whom I’m angry (my boss) and so, I take it out on me because, what the hell do I matter? Neither my feelings nor my hard work are of any consideration to anyone so, I’m angry and I want to eat. Where does that stop? I don’t know. But for now I’m trying desperately not to go out into the hall and grab a handful of the chocolate that my anger is demanding. I’m angry and I want to eat.

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Courtney February 16, 2017 at 9:34 am

Hi KFW, it’s never loving or constructive to take out anger at a person you’re angry with. If it were me, I would challenge myself to feel and express the anger and rage at home, by myself, and get out as much as possible. Keep in mind it is not anger that causes us to compulsively eat, it is our refusal to feel our anger that causes us to compulsively eat. And again, feeling our anger is not something to do with others, but rather by ourselves.

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Susan February 16, 2017 at 6:17 am

A few years ago, I finally ended it with my husband who had been having an affair and giving all our (really my) money to his girlfriend. He hadn’t touched me in four years and truly, I had no desire for him either. I had been carrying around an extra 40 pounds that I could not shed. Shortly after I gave him the boot, I lost most of the weight, and felt wonderful. The curious thing was that my weight loss was completely effortless. I didn’t set out to do it nor did I intentionally change my eating or exercise habits. It just fell off. I hadn’t looked or felt better in years. Fast forward a few years, and I am in another relationship with someone who I thought was great. A few weeks ago, he spent a night terrorizing me and pushed me to the ground. The weight has come back on…I find that I can’t stop myself from eating junk food. As I have thought back on my life and struggles with my weight, for the first time I can see very clearly the connection between being angry at some man who disappointed or mistreated me, and my trying to sooth my angry self with food. Wow…..like a light bulb going on for me. So, the next step is to find a way to be in a relationship, and find a way to deal with the ups and downs of it without stuffing my face. I’m not at all sure how to do this….I’m in my late 50’s and still haven’t figured it out.

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Courtney February 16, 2017 at 9:36 am

Hi Susan, a lot of people suppress how they feel in relationships with food. It’s important, as I’ve shared in the comments above, to feel your anger but not throw it at another person, regardless of what they do to you. So I would be looking at why don’t I want to feel this anger privately? Why don’t I want to see what’s underneath the anger? What’s underneath is usually various fears and sadnesses we are also avoiding. I’m by no means an expert in relationships, but my personal feeling would be rather than focusing on how to be in a relationship and not overeat, I’d be looking at why I keep desiring to go back to toxic relationships.

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Diane March 3, 2017 at 7:53 am

Courtney, I can resonate with your writings & love reading them.
One day, when I’m feeling brave, I will commit to a juice cleanse & get to work with you one on one.

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Courtney March 3, 2017 at 9:06 am

Thanks Diane–and always feel free to email me about whatever it is that scares you about doing a juice cleanse and perhaps we can chat about it!

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