When you’re in the moment of craving – wanting to eat, though you’re not hungry – it doesn’t help to have abstract knowledge of why you eat. If you know that you eat when you’re angry, for example, that doesn’t help much in the moment that you’re angry. You’re still angry and you still want to eat.
The only way to dissolve the craving is to figure out the true need underneath the emotion, and take action to address the true need. Simply recognizing that you’re angry doesn’t help. You need to uncover the reasons below the anger – the unfilled needs or boundary violations that triggered the anger.
Connecting with yourself on this deeper level is hard when you’ve spent years ignoring your own needs, but it’s necessary. If all you know is that you’re unhappy, the only way out is a comfort behavior like eating. If you know the underlying need, then you can work on meeting it.
Over the years of working with emotional eaters, I’ve noticed five main themes:
Feeling trapped in a bad situation is the #1 trigger for emotional eating. When you are feeling trapped, emotional eating is a form of rebellion. You may not be able to get what you want in x area, but you can eat whatever you want. If you’re eating when you “shouldn’t” or what you “shouldn’t”, it’s even more satisfying as rebellion.
The solution is to figure out what is making you feel powerless, and then figure out an action you can take in the direction of fixing the problem. There is always something you can do to improve the situation. Even if you can’t completely fix it (and often you cannot), just taking an action will shift you out of that feeling of powerlessness.
Anger is the natural response to a boundary violation. This can mean someone stepping on your toes at work, commenting inappropriately on what you eat, touching you inappropriately, or disrespecting your feelings or needs, to give just a few examples. From Normal Eating® for Normal Weight:
Just by virtue of being a human being, you have certain rights and ownerships that are yours absolutely – things that are in your realm, and over which you have exclusive authority to exercise control. If someone tries to control something that is in your realm, or take something that is yours to give and not theirs to take, that’s a boundary violation.
If you are feeling angry, ask yourself in what way your boundaries have been violated. And then, when you know, assert yourself – reset the boundary.
There are many reasons that people turn to food when they’re feeling lonely. Food has a deep assocation with love from infancy when our mothers fed us. Also, loneliness makes you feel “empty” and food “fills you up”. The heart thinks in metaphors.
Of course, the solution to loneliness is other people – call a friend, or figure out ways you can be around people more if you’re too isolated. Also note that what feels like loneliness is not always loneliness (see this previous post for more).
4. Pressure of Heavy Demands
When you’re feeling pressured by heavy demands, emotional eating often takes the form of grazing. This is part procrastination, part relief from discomfort, and part a way of symbolically “fueling” yourself to meet the demands on you. As I said, the heart thinks in metaphors.
The action you take to address this problem depends on exactly what need you’re trying to fill – avoidance, relief, or emotional fuel. If you need a break, there are other ways you can give yourself one. If you’re anxious about meeting all the demands on you, simply reassuring yourself that you can is often helpful – or at least stop the voice in your head that is telling you that you cannot.
5. Fear & Uncertainty
Many emotional eaters think of food as a friend – something that is always there for them while the rest of the world is unreliable.
Worry in the face of uncertainty is a discomfort over lack of control. There’s a superstition that goes with worry – a sense that if you stop worrying, then what you’re worrying about will happen. There’s an unconscious belief that staying focussed on the problem somehow keeps it in control, that you can think it into compliance.
What underlies discomfort in the face of uncertainty is a lack of faith in your ability to handle whatever comes. Probably there is a voice in your head telling you all the awful things that will happen because you can’t handle what will come. Stop that negative voice and start telling yourself the truth: you’re a competent adult, and you can cope.
The Solution is to Take an Action
The way you stop emotional eating is to take an action to meet the true need. But first you need to discover the true need, and this can be hard. You may not be able to do it at first, but if you keep asking yourself the question, the answer will eventually come, and it will get easier over time.
Do you recognize these five triggers for emotional eating? Are there any I left out?