Is Eating to Numb Out Ever Okay?

Today’s post addresses an important question that comes up regularly in the Normal Eating Support Group: Is eating to numb out and escape feelings ever okay? Can you do this, and still be a normal eater?

The short answer is no. Here’s why.

The Addictive Use of Food

The essence of emotional eating (also called "compulsive eating") is eating to avoid feeling your feelings. It is the addictive use of food, and people describe it in many ways – for example, "numbing out" or "plunging into oblivion". Overeaters Anonymous describes it as "stuffing your feelings" or "swallowing your feelings with food".

The addictive use of food – like the addictive use of drugs or alcohol – is about escaping the present moment, getting out of your skin, being somewhere else, artificially altering your feelings by use of a substance. Recovery from compulsive eating – like recovery from any addictive behavior – is just the opposite. It’s about being present for your life, not running in fear from temporary discomfort, and learning to feel better through positive action rather than addictive escapism.

Normal eaters sometimes eat for pleasure rather than hunger, but eating to escape feelings is very different from eating for pleasure. When you eat for pleasure you are mindful and fully experiencing the present moment. Addictive eating is the opposite – a way to obliterate mindfulness and escape the present moment, a way to avoid experiencing your life.

Using food to numb out is never a good thing, and is not something that a normal eater ever does. If you think about it in terms of alcoholism it’s easier to see. A normal drinker – someone who is not alcoholic – doesn’t ask whether it’s okay to get blind drunk now and then. Only someone who uses alcohol addictively would think to ask this question.

Set Your Bottom Line

Alcoholics Anonymous was the first-ever broadly successful treatment for addiction. Countless other addiction recovery groups are modeled after it because its insights are generally applicable. Overeaters Anonymous, a fellowship for compulsive overeaters, parallels AA by framing recovery in terms of abstinence. Unfortunately, this often takes the form of abstinence from white flour or white sugar, which misses the point. You can abstain from a particular food and still eat compulsively.

What you’re really abstaining from in recovery from compulsive eating is using food addictively. This may seem like a mushy definition compared to "no white flour", but really it’s not. In your heart, if you’re honest, you know when you’re using food addictively. That is the behavior you learn to abstain from through the four stages of Normal Eating.

Just as it’s never okay for an alcoholic to have a drink, it’s never okay for a compulsive eater to use food addictively. It’s what 12-step programs call a "bottom line" – the thing you never do. Emotional eating is a slippery slope. You might say to yourself, "I’ll only do it this once", but therein lies the catch:it’s never just once.

That isn’t to say that you’re a horrible person or a failure if you use food to numb out – you’re just doing what comes naturally to you as an emotional eater. You are still good, valuable, and lovable; it’s just the behavior that isn’t good because it doesn’t serve you. From the chapter on Stage 3 in Normal Eating for Normal Weight:

What you don’t ever want to do is say this to yourself:

"X terrible thing happened to me today, so I binged. Oh well. When my life isn’t difficult anymore, then I’ll be able to eat normally."

Instead, say this:

"X terrible thing happened to me today. I sat with the feelings for as long as I could, but I couldn’t find another way to cope and I ended up eating. Still, I credit myself for pausing as long as I did, and next time I’ll try again."

Emotional eating is never a viable alternative or a good way to deal with stress. You may not be able to stop doing it yet, but you should never rationalize the behavior as okay. You are okay, but the behavior is not okay because it’s harmful to you. It’s not good self-care.

It’s important that you be able to condemn the behavior without condemning yourself. That allows you to eventually stop being self-destructive. If you condemn yourself, you’ll just be more self-destructive. If you fail to label self-destructive behavior as undesirable, you’ll stay stuck – that’s self-indulgence, not self-acceptance. Forgive yourself if you give in to emotional eating, but don’t ever tell yourself that it’s an okay thing to do.

Something to Try…

Recovery from emotional eating – like recovery from any addictive behavior – requires both hard lines and compassion. There is a saying in AA that you don’t drink "even if your ass is on fire." And at the same time, if the person does drink, there is no judgment. They are lovingly welcomed back to AA and encouraged to try again.

Both hard lines and compassion can exist without contradiction because of the absolute separation between the person and the behavior. Addictive behavior is always bad. There is never a good reason to do it. And yet if you do it, you are every bit as precious and valuable as you were before. You just did what comes naturally, and now you’ll try again.

Can you take this attitude towards your own eating? Can you know that emotional eating is never a good thing, and yet still love and accept yourself if you do it? It’s something to try, because this ability to separate "you" from your behavior is what enables you to change your behavior.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

This article was first published in the April 2009 newsletter.

6 thoughts on “Is Eating to Numb Out Ever Okay?

  1. I had an instance today where I numbed out and it wasn’t until I read this article that I understand what was going on in my head. I had been eating out with some friends and stopped at a comfortable level. Then while driving home (alone), I ate the rest of my food in the car, with my hands and it was Chinese food. I wrote in my journal that I was rebelling, but at first I couldn’t figure out what I was rebelling about. Then it dawned on me. I had been sitting at lunch with someone who was once a good friend and now I have a strained relationship with him. After an hour of sitting there and him barely talking to anyone at the table, I guess it got to me. I act like it doesn’t bother me, but it really does.

  2. I think it’s great that you were able to identify what was bothering you. That’s moving in the right direction!

    Next time you have an urge to eat when not hungry, see if you can pause before acting on it. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes, that will be 5 minutes of recovery. It may not seem like much, but it is. You have to be able to pause before you can stop!

  3. Wow! I read your article and honestly, I am embarrassed to admit that I have been numbing myself since 1999. How you ask?
    I am married, and in 1999, my husband decided that he was taking a job here in Chicago with some friends of his, no matter what. He felt like this was the ultimate career move and no one, including me was going to stand in his way.
    I felt very betrayed and “hogtied” in a sense, especially since we had 2 kids and I felt very strongly that no matter what, I needed to keep the family together – even though I absolutely didn’t want to be here! I hate Chicago, the horrid cold, no sun, and general hassles of living in such a large suburban/urban area.
    Needless to say, a couple of months after we moved here, he hated the job, and we essentially have been “stuck” here ever since as he is in the mortgage industry and we are truly victims of his bad decision as well as the banking industry as a whole. We are barely hanging on!
    My appetite seemed to be voracious and out of control almost immediately when we got here. I just thought it was stress. I have gained 40 pounds on top of the 30 I already needed to loose and feel like crap!
    I now realize, I have been using food to numb my anger, pain, and probably my desperate need for sunshine too! Numb. That is how I feel. Stuck, betrayed, NUMB!

  4. Hi Cappy,

    The #1 reason for emotional eating is feeling trapped in a bad situation. The solution is action – any kind of action you can take to move you towards a solution. You may not solve the problem right away, but you need to start working on it. For example, talk with your husband about other places you might live, and then start looking at job listings in the new place. You may not find a job right away (I know unemployment is very high), but make a start.

    – Sheryl

  5. I understand emotional eating to its fullest. I went to an OA meeting for the first time on Monday. Although they talked quite a bit about compulsive eating they never really mentioned the emotional component. It was hard to understand how I could tell myself I had a disease that I could not heal…but then at the same time be told to turn it over to my HP. I was to believe that my HP can do all things, including heal me from a “disease”. As the days have passed since then I have done a bit of thinking about my emotional eating and what sets it off. With the death of my 57 year old mother and the loss of my job and subsequent continued unemployment this past year it is no wonder I have tried to fill my holes with food. After months of trying to dig myself out of the pit…I chose to start filling it with food instead. Thanks for the article and I will have to pick up your book.

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