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Eating Out of Loneliness (or Is It?)

The Normal Eating® approach is to figure out the reasons behind emotional eating, and then take steps towards fixing the real problem. So if you’re eating out of loneliness, you’d take steps towards enriching your social life.

The tricky part is figuring out the real problem. It’s not always obvious. For example, consider this question from a Normal Eating Support Group member:

What’s the solution for feeling a drab kind of emptiness at nighttime? Or feeling lonely? I do have lots of friends, and I see them regularly. But still I feel lonely when I come home at night.

I don’t think loneliness is the real problem here.

The clue is that no amount of social interaction removes her feelings of loneliness. If the problem you’re trying to fix with people is loneliness, then after satisfying social interaction you will no longer feel lonely. If the problem you’re trying to fix with people is something different, then you will still feel “lonely” after being with people.

This kind of “pseudo-loneliness” is very common, and strongly parallels the pseudo-hunger of emotional craving. If the problem you’re trying to fix with food is hunger, then eating solves it. If the problem you’re trying to fix with food is emotional discomfort, then no amount of food satisfies you. You eat and eat and still want more.

Other people can be a powerful distraction from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, a way to avoid being with yourself. In that sense other people can be used as a drug, just like food.

The solution, as always, is to figure out what’s really bothering you. That’s no small task for people who have been ignoring their true needs and feelings for years. But if you keep asking yourself the question using the Normal Eating® tools, you will eventually find the answer.

As I said in my book, Normal Eating® for Normal Weight:

The problem – the root cause of this insatiability – is trying to fill a need with something that can’t satisfy the need. So no matter how much you have it’s not enough; the need remains. If your foot itches and you scratch your nose, it will never satisfy.

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

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18 comments to Eating Out of Loneliness (or Is It?)

  • Annie~ Annie~

    Well I very clearly relate to eating triggered by that vague sense of loneliness, and for me too this is often worse at night.

    But it is more than loneliness, it is a lack of connection with others that drives this for me. I too can associate with a lot of people and feel lonely, but what I am coming to see is that I often struggle to really connect with others.

    I will often focus on others needs as a way of not really articulating what is happening for me, so I leave the interaction feeling disatisfied, but the missing component is actually me!

    So it is not necessarily more social interaction that is my need, it is more honest & authentic interactions on my behalf, especially when I am having a hard time in my life or even just presenting myself as I really am, not necessarily better or worse than others merely human.

    Therefore my actual need is participation in social interactions in a real way.

    Thanks Sheryl, great post.

    Annie~

  • Great point – sometimes it’s the quality of interaction.

    I’ve noticed, though, that for some people, what’s described as “loneliness” is more an inability to be alone than a desire for a particular type of connection – especially for people in their teens and 20s. I think this has to do with low self-acceptance, not liking your own company. As people get older, they become more comfortable with themselves, more accepting of themselves with all their flaws. And then, perhaps, quality of interaction is a more common issue than discomfort with alone time.

    That’s been my own experience, anyway. I’m interested to hear others’ experiences.

  • Okay, oldest equation in the book: food = love. So I started drinking hot green tea or warm skim milk instead of pigging out. A belly full of warm liquid is soooo much more “lovey” feeling than over-eating induced coma. Guess I really just want my mom and a warm baby bottle — how do I get that? Hmmmm. On second thought, I’ll stick with the warm milk.

  • Suzanne – maybe what you really need is a hug? :)

  • Annie~ Annie~

    Yes I know what you mean about that inability to be alone, in my late teens and early 20’s there was more social pressure (or I felt there was)to socialise. Now I am quite happy with some alone time, in fact I seem to really need it to stay in emotional balance. Sometimes I have too much alone time and this crosses that line into isolation and this is not good for me.

    Annie~

  • Katie Katie

    It was very good for me to read this. I have been struggling so much lately, and what a good reminder to find out what I truly need. Right now I need to be on NE, and that’s exactly where I’m at!

    Thanks Sheryl. :)

    On a “normal” day, most of my overeating happens at night, probably because everything slows down and I have to be with myself and my thoughts. I also often experience a feeling of regret or guilt in the evenings for not accomplishing everything I would have liked to during the day.

  • Angel Angel

    I do eat out of loneliness, but it is not short-term loneliness that bothers me. I am an introvert and I like spending time alone. I spend much of my life alone quite happily–in fact I am most content when I am alone– so I know it is not a fear of being with myself that discomforts me. But there are times when I cannot bear the life of solitude yawning before me. I’ve never had a real romantic relationship and honestly I doubt I ever will. Sometimes when I am alone at night, all I want is a hug, but the only thing I can give myself is food. That is the closest thing I have to the sensual pleasures that other people take for granted. I could handle being alone for years if I only knew that one day there would be someone to love me and hold me. The loneliness one faces from never having a partner is a loneliness that derives from lacking a specific type of social interaction, not from lacking a quantity of social interaction. It is not the loneliness you describe, but it is real loneliness nonetheless.

  • Angel,

    I can feel the sadness in your message and I’m sorry. One sentence of your message jumped out at me:

    > I’ve never had a real romantic relationship and honestly I doubt I ever will.

    If you’re near the end of your life, that might be a statement of fact (that it’s doubtful you ever will). If you’re young, that’s expressing something else. There’s despair in that statement, for sure. But I also wonder if there’s another layer beneath it of feeling that being alone is a judgement against your lovableness as a human being. Sometimes that is the problem that leads to eating. It feels like loneliness, but the deeper trigger is self-condemnation, not liking yourself.

    I don’t know if you’re fat or thin, but I do know two things:

    1. People of all weights find partners, even very fat people. There are many happily married people who are quite fat.
    2. People tend to find what they truly want, as long as they feel they deserve it (and so don’t sabotage themselves).

    I don’t know if you’re a man or a woman, but women in particular can feel a pressure for the validation of a relationship, even when they are actually happier in a single lifestyle. A partnered lifestyle isn’t for everybody, though society would have you believe it is. You say you’re an introvert and enjoy alone-time. You may be living the life best suited to your personality, but experience lack of a relationship as failure.

    The feeling you don’t deserve good things, if it’s an issue for you, can be a significant obstacle to success in love, and many other things, as well. I write about this in my book. It’s in the chapter, “Fat Can Serve a Function”:

    Weight as Self-Expression

    One of the reasons for staying fat that I listed at the beginning of this chapter was “low self-esteem”. This is because how we look is an integral part of our identity. It’s not that how we look affects how we feel about ourselves, it’s the reverse. How we look matches our self-assessment. If our deepest private assessment of ourselves is “fat slob”, then that is how we will look. You can’t think about yourself in that way, and still choose to give yourself the gift of an attractive body.

    I have another chapter in my book called “How to Love Yourself”. Self-esteem problems don’t have to be a permanent state of affairs.

  • Katy Katy

    I’m also an introvert and enjoy a lot of solitude, but I also long to belong and feel very lonesome when not with the people I’ve bonded with over time. I’m beginning to connect to early family losses and disintrest from family and a deep core of lonliness for enthusiastic welcome and camaraderie.

    I recently saw the film Brideshead Revisisted and the main character (an only child, with a deceased mother and indifferent father) was said to be desperate to be liked and to belong and he ended up being cast out (of a very dysfunctinoal environemnt). He should have been glad to be out of it but the yearning is always there. I realize I feel like that now and did much of my early years.

    It’s almost like being a “universal donor” blood type who makes others feel understood but who rarely finds a type who can understand me…would have to be the same type (I’m a 1% Myers-Briggs type as well). Those who are have to accept only one in a hundred will really get them. It’s just part of life.

  • Susan Susan

    Recently back to NE and working on my weight history — with each entry the feelings were almost always feeling alone and afraid. I am aware that I don’t like being alone with myself and also find the nighttime eating the most difficult. I felt alone as a child in a family with 6 children and 2 dysfunctional alcoholic parents, alone until I was married at 30 and 20 years later, still alone! I know the problem is deeper then “feeling alone” it is connected with fear of being vulnerable and real in my relationships as well as just living in the moment and being okay with exactly who I am and where I am. I think I need to always appear “together” to be acccepted. I’m so glad to be back with all of you.

    Susan

  • Hi Susan,

    Did you read the section in the book about the “Big Empty”? It’s in the chapter on Compulsive Eating, p. 65. What you describe sounds like that.

    In the book I talked about it in terms of food – never enough food – but it also can be experienced as a kind of loneliness. No amount of connection makes you feel connected because it’s a different kind of connection that you need. Sometimes the only thing that can fill this emptiness is a spiritual connection. Quoting from the book:

    This doesn’t have to mean religious faith or even a belief in God. In the most generic terms, a spiritual connection means a sense that you have a place in the world, that you are an integral part of all that is. A sense of spiritual connection removes the feeling of being … different from everyone else, separate and apart … This feeling of separateness and alienation is what causes the Big Empty.

    The Big Empty is often experienced as a kind of existential loneliness. I experienced it that way when I was younger. I don’t know if that’s what you mean, but the way you describe it reminds me of that.

  • Susan Susan

    yes, – existential loneliness is definitely what I experienced and still do to some degree. I just ordered the book and can’t wait to devour it — am also working on the spiritural connection as well..

    Susan

  • Angel Angel

    Thank you for your kind response Cheryl. Yes, I am fairly young, but no, I do not dislike myself. It is precisely because I like myself that I don’t think it is likely I will ever find a satisfying relationship. I’ve always been sort of out of place among my peers. Like Katy, I am also one of the one percent Meyers-Briggs type. I bring this up only because what she wrote seems applicable here. People don’t seem able to relate to me as well because I can be shy, quiet, and inhibited and I don’t think there is anything wrong with being that. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to find me desirable the way I am, and I’ve always felt that if I changed I would have more success. I think if I were to change significant aspects of myself to conform more to what others expect, my peers would find it easier to relate to me and my chances of getting a relationship would greatly increase. But if I changed myself, I would hate myself and my life. I am stuck with this dilemma– other people don’t find me desirable the way I am and I could change to make them happy but then I would not be happy with myself. I like myself just the way I am. It is not that I feel I don’t deserve a relationship, but that other people don’t seem to see me as worthy of one the way I am. I refuse to change, though, and that is why I doubt I will ever have romantic relationship.

    And you may be right that I would be happier single. Sometimes I am inclined to agree, but I’ve never had a relationship so I don’t know for sure. I do know, though, that the pain I experience from lack of affection in my life is very real. I want so much for someone to hold me and tell me they love me.

  • I bought the book for my brother, because he is horibly obese and he eats and eats and eats. My brother told me once that most people “eat to live” but he “lives to eat”, like is said I bought it for him and now that I have been reading it I think I will have to buy him his own copy. I’m keeping this one.
    the problem was that when we were growing up their was never enough food, not that my parents couldn’t afford to buy it it just wasn’t important to them.Now he and I live in this not being enough food.”Big Empty”

  • Thank you for this great explanation, I realized tonight that my constant yearning for food and for company are BOTH my mind trying to distract me from the pain I feel when I truly see myself and where I am in my life. I am seeing a connection with when the compulsive eating started and when I began to abandon my real dreams and lose confidence. I think I need to revisit this.

  • Hi Natasha,

    That’s a profound insight, and painful. It takes courage to be able to look at that. You’re on a good path.

    - Sheryl

  • hi, i really need some help.. i even had a lap band 3 years ago, lost 85 ponds in 18 months and am now self sabotoging and have put 40 ponds back on. i feel miserable , ugly, alone, and very ashamed. sometimes i wonder if i am trying to kill myself with food.

  • august, joining the forum would be a good place to start. That will give you connection and support.

    - Sheryl

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