I have Google Alerts for the terms “compulsive eating”, “overeating” and other similar keywords set up on my email. If you’re not familiar with Google Alerts, you set them up for any phrase or word to be emailed the top news stories and articles on those topics every day. It’s interesting for me as a compulsive eating coach and someone who has healed my own binge eating and overeating, to see what the world is saying about the topic. Mainly, I’m usually amazed by how most articles on compulsive eating are essentially written as such:
Title: How to Heal Compulsive Eating
Content: Don’t compulsively eat. (Tip 1: resist temptation, Tip 2: wait till you’re hungry, etc.)
There is very little info out there on the web from anywhere other than compulsive eating authors that I see which really and truly speaks to the actual cause of compulsive eating and how to stop doing it (and most authors even get it wrong).
Knowing the truth about compulsive eating is imperative, because when we know why we do it, we can start moving in the direction of healing it. And as I write in most of my blogs, no matter how long we’ve suffered with this behavior, no matter what toll it’s taken on our bodies and our health, none of us are broken: every one of us can heal our eating, achieve the freedom and peace with food that we’ve always wanted, and of course have the subsequent result of health and a healthy weight.
Why we compulsively eat and how to heal that behavior is obviously a big subject that can’t be covered in a blog post, and often isn’t entirely covered in a single book. However, I’d like this blog to be a birds-eye summary of why we compulsively eat. Other posts I’ve written go into different facets of it, and I’ll continue to write blogs on those facets.
We compulsively eat, overeat, or binge eat because we don’t want to feel something emotionally, and food is our chosen method of avoiding those feelings. The feelings we are not wanting to feel could be any number of emotions on an infinite number of subjects, but the main thing to remember is that when we have behavior with food that is not a logical way to behave with food in that moment, it is emotion-driven.
We eat in an imbalanced way because we don’t want to feel certain emotions. It’s not necessarily that we’re shut down to every emotion (though for some people that is true), but we are at least wanting to avoid feeling some of our emotions, and food becomes the addiction that helps us do that. The absolutely critical thing to understand is that it is not having painful or “negative” emotions that causes us to compulsively eat, it is the desire to suppress those emotions. A person who has healed their compulsive eating is not necessarily happy all the time or without painful emotions, but rather they are a person who has decided to feel everything rather than suppress it.
In my coaching practice, I often introduce this idea and hear the common response—which I also used to have—of “but a lot of the time I don’t feel emotional when I eat; I just do it. I can’t control myself but it’s not like I feel super emotional or upset when I do it.” The reason this can be the case is actually that we are so successfully numbed out from our feelings all the time that we go for the food before our true feelings even bubble up in any noticeable way. But whether we can see the clear correlation between feeling something and wanting to push it down with food, or we don’t feel emotional at all when we compulsively eat or overeat, it is still possible to change that behavior.
What we can start doing is noticing when we are wanting to use food in a compulsive, addictive way–eating lots of junk food, eating when we’re not hungry, overeating. Many spiritual teachings or new-age ideas about emotions stop at “noticing” or “being aware” of the urge to eat, but we need to go further than that. You won’t heal it if you stop there. Noticing and awareness is certainly an improvement over denial, but it does nothing to change the root causes. Many new-age teachings I used to follow also taught that if you felt “negative” emotions, you would attract negative things in your life, and so followers of those theories tried to “think positively” and “focus on the good things”. I tried that for years, and my eating never got better by “noticing” my emotions and “not giving energy to the negative”. I read all those famous new-age books about improving your life and my eating didn’t really change from doing what they said.
The truth is, suppressed and ignored emotions are what cause negative things to happen, not feeling the “negative” emotions. And certainly, living in painful emotions for years or decades without ever healing them is going to create negative things. But the latter isn’t even feeling emotions, it’s just an example of a lifetime of keeping emotions at bay and yet never going into them far enough to heal them. But feeling emotions to their core, all the way through, with the genuine goal of healing, is how we actually get rid of those emotions. The painful or “negative” emotions leave us by draining from us, and they drain from us by our feeling them, and only by feeling them. There is no other way they will heal.
“There are no negative emotions, just unskillful ways of coping with emotions.”
— Miriam Greenspan
So I’m not saying noticing is bad. It’s great! It’s an essential first step in healing, because as I said before, if we’re not noticing, then we’re not aware, and if we’re not aware, we’re in denial. And denial is the ultimate stuck. We do need to be aware and notice our urges to eat in a compulsive way. It’s just that we can’t stop there, because noticing is just the very beginning of the healing process.
Notice yourself thinking of ordering take-out, or driving to the grocery story, walking towards the fridge, or in the middle of a meal and notice if you’re not hungry or not hungry anymore, but you want to keep eating anyway. Then, ask yourself a series of questions:
1. “What emotions am I feeling right now?”
Keep in mind they could be intense or very mild emotions, and they could be absolutely any feeling. It could be frustration, overwhelm, anger, worry, sadness, boredom—literally anything. Your emotions could be intense like, “That woman was such a b**** to me today”, or they could be more mild such as “I feel a bit nervous about giving my presentation tomorrow”. Even if they’re mild, when we don’t want to feel how we feel, we’ll go for food to avoid it.
Also keep in mind when we compulsively eat, it is rarely just one emotion that we have which we are denying. It could be, “That woman was a b**** to me today” AND “I feel nervous about my presentation” AND “I’m so overwhelmed with everything I have to do” AND “I’m afraid I’ll never lose this weight”. Remember, we’re not eating because we have these emotions, we’re eating because we have them and we don’t want to sit with them.
2. If the first question doesn’t give you many answers, ask yourself, “What would I feel emotionally if I didn’t eat right now?”
Would you feel angry? Deprived? Controlled? Lonely? Rebellious? Panicked? Bored? Hopeless? Sad? Feel in your body and your heart what you would feel if you didn’t have the food. Still aren’t sure? Wait another 30 minutes before another bite or drink other than water. Or wait a few hours. Eventually, if you wait long enough, you’ll either get hungry (at which point eating may not be addictive, unless you go for a bunch of junk food), or you will start having some of the feelings arise. Ever wonder why “hangry” (a modern word for getting hungry to the point of anger) is a thing people talk about? Well, I’m here to tell you it’s not a thing all humans experience, but it does illustrate how many of us have suppressed emotions related to our eating.
Remember, this is a very condensed discussion on compulsive eating, but what we eventually want to do is to start to delay the eating and feel our emotions instead. Any of us with compulsive eating will find feeling emotions hard at first, and probably foreign, because, well, we’ve spent years–maybe our whole lives–avoiding feeling by using food.
“There are many ways we have of standing outside ourselves in ignorance. Those who have learned as children to become strangers to themselves do not find this a difficult task. Habit has made it natural not to feel. To ignore the consequences of what one does in the world becomes ordinary.”
— Susan Griffin
With many of my clients, I get to this point in the discussion, and sometimes they say things like, “But this is all the stuff I have been trying to avoid having to feel and revisit all my life!” Exactly. They say, “But that’s all the pain from the past and I don’t want to go there.” A very understandable feeling. But we have to go there in order to heal.
Not having fully felt our feelings about the past and the present is the problem. We have to recognize we use food to numb certain feelings, and the only way to change our behavior permanently with food is to be willing to be with our emotions and feel them, no matter how icky, messy, scary, or painful they are. It’s when we let the castle crumble inside and we break down and get very real, and very raw, and very honest that we can finally start to heal. That is when our eating will start to change positively for the first time in our lives, and it won’t be a temporary effect: we will be healing it at the roots and it can change forever.