Self-Deprivation Mindset: No Pleasure in Eating

Emotional eaters often feel enormous guilt about eating – and especially enjoyment of eating. This may seem like a small matter, but in fact guilt-free enjoyment of food is a key factor in recovery. From my book, Normal Eating® for Normal Weight:

Our modern society views enjoyment of eating in much the same way as Victorians viewed enjoyment of sex – dangerous and sinful, something to feel guilty about. It’s considered almost obscene not to be on a diet that restricts what you eat.

A few weeks ago, someone posted a message in the forum with the subject "Mindful eating feels like a punishment". Here’s an excerpt from it:

I found myself really irritated that I was hungry again this afternoon. It wasn’t because I didn’t want food or didn’t know what I wanted it was because I was busy and didn’t want to take the time to sit down and eat mindfully. I kept thinking about the things I needed to get done and the things I wanted to do knowing that by stopping to eat mindfully every time I’m hungry I won’t have time to do it all. … I rushed through and stopped eating when I was still slightly hungry because I wanted to be done and get on with my day.

Her post reminded me of a blog entry I wrote, “5 Reasons Emotional Eaters Shun Mindfulness“, and made me realize there was a 6th reason. It almost sounded like she didn’t want to allow herself to enjoy eating, that she wanted to approach it as a perfunctory thing to get out of the way. She’s not alone in this. I’ve seen this same sentiment expressed many times by people in early recovery from emotional eating.

Eating is one of the great pleasures of life. Getting hungry is a wonderful opportunity for a sensual, enjoyable experience. But emotional eaters often feel guilty about eating or (worse) getting pleasure from eating. They don’t allow themselves to enjoy their meals. When I posted this in the forum thread, another member posted this response:

Sheryl, I LOVE this. It really resonates for me and explains much of why I have puzzled with Mindful eating. It is not so much the drug inducing factor of it, but much more this thing about pleasure, allowing it, seeing as a good thing. I have quite a strong "depriving" streak in me, that has kept me tough and functioning for a long time, and I think that part struggles with the simple, sensuous pleasure that is eating. I will really take this away as treasure to think about.

What about you? Does this resonate? Do you allow yourself to enjoy your meals? Do you allow yourself pleasusre in general? Or do you tend to deprive yourself while taking care of everyone else?

Something to Try…

The bedrock of Normal Eating – the key learning that makes it possible – is the deep knowledge that you have the right to pleasure and happiness. When you become convinced of this, you start to act on your own behalf in all areas of life. And then you no longer need food band-aids.

Often emotional eaters are people pleasers. They want every around them to be comfortable and happy, and pay more attention to that than their own needs. Then, because their needs go unfilled, they use food to fill the Big Empty and give themselves generic comfort and pleasure. Or sometimes people just feel so badly about themselves that they won’t raise a finger to help themselves.

One of the issues that comes up frequently with my coaching clients is that every minute of the day is either spent working, or taking care of other people – no time for themselves. So by the end of the day they are tired and spent, and they eat. Often this is the first time they’ve had to themselves all day, the first opportunity to relax, the first time since they got up that they’ve done something just for themselves.

Does this sound like you? Are you all work and no play, and then at the end of the day you eat to unwind? If so, find an hour a day – well before bedtime – that is totally yours. Do you think you can’t, that you don’t have time? That means you really need to do this. Take a real lunch break. Go sit outside or take a walk. If you are caring for kids, think about who might watch them for an hour while you take time to be a human being.

The more you think there is no time and you can’t do this, the more you need to find a way to do this. You’re not a super-hero. If you deny your basic needs, you’ll end up eating to feel better.

Please post your thoughts and experiences! I’d love to hear from you.

9 thoughts on “Self-Deprivation Mindset: No Pleasure in Eating

  1. Thank you Sheryl, this blog post really resonates with me. This part really jumped out:

    “Eating is one of the great pleasures of life. Getting hungry is a wonderful opportunity for a sensual, enjoyable experience.”

    I realise that by not allowing myself to be fully hungry when I come to a meal then I cannot fully experience the pleasure of eating. I have known this to be true, and this is one way of denying myself full enjoyment of the eating experience.

    Also I have noticed just how often I finish a days work, get home & head straight for the pantry, regardless of being hungry or not. Eating is such a default setting for relaxation. I have started coming in the door & sitting down with a nice hot drink instead & allowing myself time to reconnect with myself.

    I often have half done projects in my life that I “use” as an excuse for not allowing myself time out, and I can see in doing this I am more likely to turn to food when attempting to unwind…at least in my mind if I am eating, I am doing something! Actually guilt underlies this process. I need to take action, finish the projects and rid myself of my little stashes of self abuse, I want a balanced life!

    I appreciate the clarity you provide Sheryl.

    Annie~

  2. Sheryl,
    This reminds me of something I heard once.
    ” No one on there death bed ever said ” I should have worked more”.

    Sue

  3. Hi!

    I came across your website for your book, “Normal Eating” and was confused by the excerpt you published regarding Overeaters Anonymous. In my experience as an OA member, however, Overeaters Anonymous is somewhat different than you described in the section “Gap in Theory versus Practice”.

    As an abstinent food addict and member of Overeaters Anonymous, my own experience has been closer to your first paragraph. Some members do thrive on Graysheet (the strict, guided OA diet); most OA members I have met at meeting do not. I am one of those people who does not thrive on Graysheet. My personal food plan is a combination of a balanced diet based off of the 2,000 calorie USDA food pyramid and of respecting my hunger (which was something I did not do before Overeaters Anonymous). Others I’ve met in program eat three meals-plus-snack food plans; some do not. Many people don’t eat refined flours or sugars because those things make them ill and have allergic reactions (like acne outbreaks); some, like me, do not. Some eat six meals per day; I do not. The food plans of the members I regularly interact with have food plans are closer to what you considered a reasonable simulation of “normal” (or “intuitive”) eating.

    The nature of turning to a Higher Power isn’t entirely external. A lot of newcomers talk about the void inside them. In me, the “void” was my lack of purpose. I tried to fill it with food, learning over time that only spiritual nourishment could fix the spiritual hunger. When I “surrendered” to my Higher Power (The Universe, as I’m an agnostic), I found myself able to make decisions, control my eating, and function in society pretty normally. In essence, giving control of my life to a Higher Power restored control of my life to me.

    I wholeheartedly agree it is illogical that giving up control could cause one to gain control. After all, I should personally possess the willpower to put down a family-sized bag of chips or pound-size of candy before I reach the bottom of the bags, right? I was in tears as I ate sometimes, wanting to stop but exhausted by my food obsession. That exhaustion led me to comfort myself with food. Through OA, I worked daily to develop sound eating habits and to learn established portion control. I have known for decades what normal eating is supposed to look like. I talked with nutritionists and have been in a nationally recognized diet plan. I tried but gave up, for I ate to sate emotional turmoil instead of fuel my body.

    So, when I surrendered (not submitted) to a Higher Power and started my personal food plan, I began a nutritional diet plan and “gave” the cravings for comfort food and comfort eating to my Higher Power. Within the first few weeks, I started thinking clearly. Once I started thinking clearly, I discovered that I ate to comfort myself emotionally, not to fuel a healthy body. I may have known it, but I refused to acknowledge it. Before I joined OA, I regularly ate more than 10,000 calories in a sedentary-lifestyle day and called it “normal” eating. When I acknowledged that I turned to food because I was sad I had no purpose and meaning in my life (by my own choice, I later acknowledged), I actively sought purpose outside of food and began to volunteer in my community.

    When I first started OA, I feared admitting I was an addict was an invitation to stay a food addict. Over time, I’ve learned calling myself a food addict is comforting and strengthening. That admission reminds me that I don’t want to return to the chaotic life where I couldn’t handle day-to-day tasks. That admission also reminds me that I will die if I choose to eat like I used to. I used food to trade the discomfort of life’s challenges (which I now consider personal growth opportunities) for the discomfort of being obese, feeling constantly overfull, and facing off with the grim reality of obesity-related ailments like adult-onset diabetes and heart disease.

    And it wasn’t easy those first few weeks and months. I wish to add that this is my personal experience with Overeaters Anonymous; I am not a spokesperson (we have no spokespeople), and I do not submit to individuals to guide my recovery. In fact, we are discouraged to, because we’re all recovering and are all only human. People make mistakes, which is why we’re asked to seek a Higher Power. Every OA member’s recovery is different, which is why meetings are so helpful because we can share our own experiences as equals–people who are working the same 24 hours of recovery and abstinence, no matter if it’s one’s first 24 hours or one’s ten-thousandth day of abstinence. While ego comes into play sometimes (as we are all human), we all share one common goal: to find relief today from our individual food obsessions.

    I also admit wholeheartedly that OA isn’t for everyone. It is just another option that works for some people and does not work for others. It works for me–an agnostic who has been overweight, obese, and even morbidly obese nearly all of her adulthood. Because of the clarity I gained using a 12-Step program, I started volunteering in my community. I crocheted winter hats for the homeless for last year, and I am working on more for this year. I am more social and pleasant to interact with because I can be reasonable instead of overreacting to small conflicts. Last month, I reached a normal BMI and reduced my risk of heart disease and diabetes due to dietary factors.

    Despite not agreeing with your initial assessment of Overeaters Anonymous, I understand it. I felt the same way when I started in OA. A lot of people are wary of it. Unfortunately, eating intuitively (“normal” eating) isn’t an option for some people. Just like non-addicted people don’t understand why OA works, we just do not understand how a person can eat normally. I will always “act as if” I am a normal eater, and I am thankful I have the ability to do that. Through practice, it gets easier to do. However, that natural way of eating was abandoned for an unnatural way of eating which has supplanted it completely. I have no idea how or why. It just is.

    Thank you, and I will look for your book. Insights into normal eating are very helpful as I work toward my goal of moving from my current food plan to an intuitive eating plan.

  4. Hi can relate to this so much. I’m a SAHM to two small girls (5&7) who are both in school full-time. I feel some guilt about having the whole day (really 6 hrs) of free time so in the past I would make sure I stayed constantly busy during those 6 hrs–cleaning, errands, doing laundry, taking care of things for DH.

    The problem is by the time I went to pick up my kids from school I was exhausted. To top it off my husband works long stressful hours as a surgeon so I was doing everything for everyone else. There was literally no time for myself. After reading Normal Eating I realized that I really need to work on my self-care. I realized the only time I allowed myself to stop doing for others was when I was eating. No wonder I wanted to eat as much as possible!

    So lately I’ve been forcing myself to do as much as I can by noon and then give myself a 2 1/2 hr break to do whatever I want. To read, be creative, even take a nap if I needed it. It’s been so great, it’s building my confidence, helping me to be a better mom & wife and giving me the space I need to remember who I am other than a mom & wife.

    Thank you for this great insight Sheryl.

  5. Hi innerpilgrimage,

    Sorry it took me so long to respond. Your message was long and I wanted to read it carefully, but then I got sick (as I wrote about in a recent blog post).

    > The food plans of the members I regularly interact with have food plans are closer to what you considered a reasonable simulation of “normal” (or “intuitive”) eating.

    It sounds like the OA meetings in your area are are different from those in the area I lived in when I tried it. Where I was living at the time, you could have whatever food plan you wanted – 3 meals a day, 6 meals, whatever. But whatever it was, you decided what you would eat in advance, and cleared your food with your sponsor in advance, and then if you didn’t eat exactly what you’d cleared with your sponsor, it was considered a slip. This was not how I wanted to live!!

    I know meetings are different in different places, but many places they are like where I lived. I’ve talked to many others about it. There’s even a LONG thread in the forum from former OA members discussing this. But it doesn’t have to be like this. In theory, OA is completely compatible with a Normal Eating approach, so it would not surprise me if some meetings somewhere were NE-friendly. The ones I went to sure weren’t, however.

    The one thing you said that I really disagreed with was this, from the second to last paragraph:

    > Unfortunately, eating intuitively (“normal” eating) isn’t an option for some people. Just like non-addicted people don’t understand why OA works, we just do not understand how a person can eat normally.

    I do not believe that some people simply cannot eat normally (and this is a terribly undermining message from OA). I think the AA analogy breaks down when applied to food – that was part of why I had problems with OA. I do think it is correct that someone addicted to alcohol or any other mood-changing drug can never use it safely – there is no possibility of “normal drinking” for an alcoholic. But I don’t think this can be extended to apply to compulsive eating. There are similaries between alcoholism and compulsive eating, but they are not the same. You can abstain from drinking forever; you need food to live. That is a huge difference. Food is not an addictive substance. It is necessary to sustain life. That makes it chemically different and emotionally different.

    It has been my experience in working with many people over the years that even the most die-hard compulsive eater can let go of this and learn to eat normally if they are willing to do the emotional work. It’s hard work and it takes commitment, but it is do-able, and the pay-off is big.

    > Insights into normal eating are very helpful as I work toward my goal of moving from my current food plan to an intuitive eating plan.

    You can do this, and I’m glad you are trying. You will probably find that there are emotional issues you still need to deal with for this to work. They can be suppressed with an external regimen like an OA eating plan, but when you turn to internal control, which is what Normal Eating is, you need to resolve these issues. That’s what the Normal Eating stages lead you through.

    – Sheryl

  6. I have come to your website after reading Geneen Roth’s book “Women, Food and God”. I am now reading “Normal Eating for Normal Weight.”

    I have never been overweight in the medically accepted definiton, or underweight yet I have probably been at the extremes of the normal ranges at varying times of my life. I’ve never had problems with binging or anorexia in the accepted sense but I know that I have an eating disorder, and that it is emotionally based. All my life food has been like a bartering tool- although I’ve always sat down for regular meals, it was never about being hungry and more about being “nice”- we ate instead of talking, and hiding in food avoided confrontation; you were “nice” if you didn’t complain about the food and ate everything on your plate even if you hated it, and received praise for it. It’s no wonder that food became for me the universal sedative. Even now if I go out to a party or function I find myself taking refuge in the food- most of which I can’t stand- to avoid being seen as rude, to avoid talking and to comfort myself because I feel so very much alone. Even when I make the effort to chat, be involved and not eat I can see myself following the platters around the room.

    Is it any surprise that I became renowned amongst my friends, flatmates, family for being a gourmet chef- after all food was a currency I was comfortable with.

    It’s taken having a family and the sheer drudgery of cooking an evening meal every night to make me realise that I would sometimes be happy to never eat again. “Get the kids to help you with dinner” says my husband but I’d rather get the whole thing over and done with without having to pretend I even enjoy it.

    Having read Geneen Roth’s book I have been working on the eating when I am hungry and what I want- and actually I realise I don’t have any great wish to eat chocolate bars, but that usually if I pause and think about it and then have what I want (which might well be fruit)and whoa- I haven’t put on weight, have actually enjoyed food.

    I am looking forward to reading the rest of Normal Eating to help me on that journey- I can see it will take time but if I can be less reliant on food for emotional support and as a bartering tool I may just get on with my life in a happier way.

  7. I understood perfectly what Innerpilgrimage meant when she said that about Intuitive Eaters and Emotional Eaters (if I have the terms right) not understanding one another. I have never tried OA, and I have never read this book, so this is only a comment about what I read in the 2 posts.

    I have been an EE for as long as I can remember. I have always had to force myself to stop eating, and I’ve always been amazed when I saw people who could eat, say, 1/2 a sandwich when a whole sandwich was placed before them. Over the years, I learned to eat a small, socially acceptable, portion of food when with friends or co-workers, and get a to-go box for the rest, which I would eat as soon as I got home from the dinner.

    I recently had Gastric Sleeve surgery (don’t do it!), and now, at almost the 2-month mark, I’ve only lost 27 pounds, 16 of which I lost during the first 2 weeks. I am seeing a psychologist who is helping with my emotional issues, and I have hope that I will continue to lose weight. This has been a real struggle for me, contrary to what the “coaches” led me to expect and also contrary to the testimony that 2 of my personal friends gave me.

    Take care, everyone, and be good to yourselves! MJ

  8. MJ, in my experience – and I have worked with many emotional eaters – what InnerPilgrimage wrote about some people being incapable of eating normally is incorrect. Even people I’ve worked with who have serious binge-eating disorders have been able to stop compulsive eating. Take a look at the testimonials from my former clients:

    http://normaleating.com/coaching.php#testimonials

    If you are working with a therapist who really understands emotional eating, and if you are willing to face the emotional issues behind your eating, you can become a normal eater. It takes work and it takes time (average 1-2 years), but it beats spending the rest of your life fighting cravings and trying to stick to a diet.

    – Sheryl

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