People like to think – or hope – that they can stop emotional eating once and for all, and never have to deal with it again. But you don’t ever forget the old behaviors, and it’s dangerous to think that one day you’ll be immune. If you have this unrealistic expectation, then even the urge to eat emotionally can make you feel like a failure.
The truth is – based on both my own experience and years of working with others – that once you have used food to soothe emotional pain, the impulse never goes away completely. People have a natural tendency to revert to old comfort behaviors, especially when under stress.
What stands between the urge and the action are the tools you learn in the Normal Eating® recovery program.
If you feel an urge to eat emotionally, sit with the feeling and discover what it’s about. Maybe you’ll sit for 15 minutes, and then end up eating anyway. But that 15 minutes is still an important success.
Every minute you pause is a victory because you have to be able to pause before you can stop. Change is incremental. The trigger to eat is in the moment, overeating is in the moment, and recovery is in the moment.
In the beginning, your moments of recovery are spaced out – rare. Then they become more and more frequent until eventually it takes a major trigger to prompt emotional eating. It’s not like you flip a switch and then you’re fixed. Recovery is a continuum – you get more and more solid. Over time it will take more and more to trigger you into eating emotionally, and you’ll get back on track quicker and quicker.
Something to Try…
What if, despite your best efforts, you fall back into emotional eating?
For starters, have some compassion for yourself. You weren’t "good" before and "bad" now. You’re a person who uses food to deal with difficult emotions, and you’re in the process of learning new methods of coping. You ate because something was bothering you that you didn’t know how else to deal with. Recognize that it was an expression of distress. Don’t make your distress worse by beating yourself up for it.
Second, be on guard against the black-and-white thinking of perfectionism. Recovery isn’t on or off, and people aren’t good or bad. Human progress is always "sloppy" – two steps forward, one step back – not neat and linear. We will always be works in progress, and that’s okay.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.
This article was first published in the February 2009 newsletter.