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Eating Out of Loneliness and Low Self-Esteem

From the moment you are born, being fed is strongly associated with comfort and love. For infants, food and hugs go together, and that emotional imprinting stays with you for life. Cooking for someone is a way to show love. A box of chocolates is a traditional gift of love on Valentine’s Day. So it’s no surprise that loneliness is one of the most common triggers for emotional eating. Food is an emotional surrogate for love.

Everybody feels passing loneliness now and then, but that’s not the kind of loneliness that people eat over. The kind of loneliness that you eat over is the aching kind that feels never-ending, and grows out of another problem that needs solving. Sometimes loneliness is situational – for example, moving to a new place. But if you’ve had plenty of time to develop social contacts and you’re still lonely, you’re "chronically lonely". That’s the hardest type of all, and the subject of this article.

Why do chronically lonely people often feel lonely even when they’re with other people? Why do they often resist spending time with others? Why do they often find it so unbearable to be home alone in the evening? And what is the solution?

The Problem of Not Liking Yourself

When you’re chronically lonely, just being around other people doesn’t fix it. You can be married and lonely; you can be lonely in a crowd. If you’re chronically lonely, what you lack is authentic connections with other human beings, and generally that’s because you block these connections by not sharing your authentic self. Why?

People who are chronically lonely almost always have as a core problem that they don’t like themselves very much. The give-away is that they generally find it almost unbearable to be alone – especially at night when the distractions of the day are over and it’s quiet. They may even dread turning off the light to go to sleep at night, and procrastinate on that.

Chronically lonely people often have an almost phobic reaction to being by themselves. It feels like falling down a black hole – an awful "dust in the wind" feeling of utter emptiness and alienation from everything and everyone, as though you’re the only person on the planet. If you live alone, you probably avoid going home at night because you can’t bear to be home alone with that feeling. You call it loneliness, but it’s really something else. It’s the horrors; it’s existential alienation. The Big Empty.

Quiet evenings alone are often when emotional eaters binge, perhaps numbing out in front of the TV. They may stay awake until so late that they practically drop from exhaustion, or they may use alcohol to go to sleep so they don’t have to experience their own thoughts lying in bed in the dark.

What is this about? If you can’t bear to be by yourself, it essentially means you can’t bear yourself – you can’t bear your own company, you can’t bear the experience of being "you". That is a huge problem, and it’s also a big block to developing healthy relationships. That’s why it goes along with loneliness and people call it loneliness, but it’s not exactly the same as loneliness.

You can’t stand your own company without distractions because you don’t like yourself. And because you don’t like yourself, you assume no one else will like you either, causing you to shun social contact, making you lonely.

Here’s the good part. I can tell you this for sure. That awful feeling you have about yourself? That horrible feeling that you are flawed and not the same as everyone else? It’s just a feeling. It’s not reality. You are fine! There is nothing wrong with you.

I have worked with many clients, both in the Normal Eating Support Forum and private one-on-one sessions. I’ve known many people who feel worthless, but not one of them ever was worthless – never. They were all beautiful people who were sadly mistaken in their assessment of themselves. The three reasons I see over and over again for serious self-esteem problems are:

  • parental neglect or abuse (sometimes not recognized for what it is)
  • childhood bullying (most commonly during middle school, ages 12-14)
  • growing up gay (because of cultural prejudice)

What these situations (and others like them) have in common is that an innocent child is being told repeatedly that they are wrong or worthless at a time when they do not have the emotional resources to argue with the verdict. That damages self-esteem, but it does not make it true! As an adult you need to recognize this and argue with these old tapes.

You Need Authentic Human Connection

Just being in the proximity of other humans does not cure loneliness. Married people can be lonely. Going to bars and engaging in superficial chit-chat doesn’t cure loneliness. Picking up strangers for sex doesn’t cure loneliness.

The only thing that cures loneliness is authentic human connection. That means allowing another to see you for who you really are and experiencing their acceptance, and seeing another for who they really are and accepting them.

If you don’t like yourself much, it can be scary to let others see the real you. Your impulse will be to hide your real thoughts and feelings under the mistaken notion that the real you is unacceptable and will be rejected. But you’ve got to get past this and take the risk because if you never let anyone see you, you will stay lonely.

That’s not to say you should wear your heart on your sleeve and open up to everyone you meet. Part of good self-care is exercising good judgment and keeping yourself safe. Test the waters with people – make sure they can be trusted with your vulnerable inner self before you reveal too much. Share a little and see what they do with it before sharing more.

One very safe place you can start is the Normal Eating Support Forum. The forum is unique – truly the best support forum on the internet. There is no flaming of any kind, and not a lot of shallow chit-chat or off-topic posts, as in most forums. People talk from the heart about deep personal issues. You can be authentic here, and you can connect. Plus I moderate the forum so you’ll find some good recovery from emotional eating. It’s not just a lot of whining; people make progress. Unlike the blog, the forum is private. Only members have access, and the forum is blocked from all search engines; nothing you type will ever appear in an internet search.

12-step groups are another safe source of support. People are most familiar with AA and NA for alcohol and drug addiction, but there is also a 12-step group for dysfunctional interpersonal relationships such as CoDA, Al-Anon, and SLAA, to name just three. 12-step groups have rules against cross-talk (commenting on what someone else says) and personal attack.

Other types of organizations and groups may offer safe forms of authentic human contact as well. Explore what’s available in your area. The important point is this: Just signing up for activities will not do it. To break through loneliness you need to find places where you can have real heart-to-heart conversations with people who can hear you, understand you, and support you. They do exist!

Have you experienced the kind of chronic loneliness I describe here? Please share your experiences. I’d love to hear from you.

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25 comments to Eating Out of Loneliness and Low Self-Esteem

  • Rachel Rachel

    This article really surprised me. I hadn’t thought of myself as lonely; I’m single and live on my own but I am super busy and have plans almost every day. I’d also been under the impression that I’m fine with my own company – but your descriptions of quiet nights alone, and not being able to open up, were so accurate. I only ever binge eat really when I’m on my own, on a quiet night. I thought this was because of opportunity but you’ve made me think about it in a different way.

  • Kate Kate

    Wow. That is really all I can say. I didn’t expect to read about myself in this paragraph. I don’t think of myself as lonely most days as I am often with people or out on social gatherings, but I am, I am. I do not make those human connections easily and find it very difficult to open up. Nighttime is the worst part of the day – I hate being alone for an evening – and I hate turning off the light, as well. It is a sad part of the day for me. Thank you so much for posting this and again, wow, I learned something about myself today.

  •  annieflorance

    Hi Sheryl,
    This is essentially me & it is both shocking & thrilling to read something that describes my human experience since I was quite young.
    I have the first two causes, childhood neglect/abuse & middle school bullying. It felt never okay to be me.
    I turned to food & to alcohol to avoid myself.
    Even in 12 step groups I have struggled to be me, except in the past year where I have moved to a new place.
    The NE Forum is a safe place to be myself, & I am pleased to report that bingeing is no longer a problem but I still have a way to go in feeling okay about who I am.
    I am going to start practicing revealing my authentic self without second guess what I imagine the other person to be thinking of me, it probably isn’t true.
    Thanks for writing this blog it is very insightful.
    Annie~

  • Robyn Robyn

    This is such a great article. I had never realised that I was chronically lonely, but this article made me understand that even though I’m surrounded by people a lot of the time, I am deep in myself lonely.

    As a teenager and in my early 20’s I’d like nothing more than to have the house to myself on a Saturday afternoon and stay at home with my friend “food”. Don’t get me wrong I had friends and still do have friends, but I have always, when I think about it, felt disconnected and have wanted to retreat into my own shell. And to stay at home and eat allowed me to do that. And I am now in middle age and nothing much has changed, which is quite sad when I think about it.

    I have lots of acquaintances but only a couple of close friends that I can be really open with. And then I’m not sure that I’m that open with them all that often. I have a great family, but food is still my friend.

    I would like to think that I can change this pattern. I really, really hope I can.
    Robyn

  • TL TL

    Thank you for this article. It is shockingly relevant to me and has prompted me to take a risk and post this message. This is very hard for me as I am nervous about someone knowing who I am or something. I will say though that since I started working on my eating about a month ago I noticed that as my dependence or obsession with food reduces and my awareness of my emotions increases I find myself “craving” human connection. And, sometimes being around people in a superficial exchange makes me crave food because I feel even more isolated. I have been telling my husband and mother that I feel so far away and removed from people and just want real validating connections. I have NEVER been good at establishing good intimate friendships and evenings ARE the worst for me. I guess I am chronically lonely. This article has been extremely validating – thank you!

  • Andy Andy

    I enjoyed reading this blog entry as a new member. I am a guy approaching 50 years of age who still struggles with self-esteem issues that were born out of sexual preference, society, religion, and disease.

    As a kid I hid my being gay as a defect and being raised in a religion that regards homosexuality as a sin and immoral, I learned to ’shame myself’ as my emotions started to grow in puberty. And so did my eating. I was a very skinny kid until about 12, then food stepped in to my life as my brain struggled with my desires and social responses.

    Then things got scarey for me. At 20 I met my first ‘other gay man’ at a party. it was 1982, and he was a 25 year old man who at 6 feet weighed about 110 lbs and was covered with lesions from advanced AIDS. I was afraid to sit next to him on the couch, and that pretty much sealed the deal on my not wanting to express myself as a gay person and I immersed myself in the other pleasures of life — work, family and food. Mostly food. I ate it going to work, I ate it on the way home before dinner. I bought food for people in the office. I scheduled meetings around lunches, dinners — you get the picture.

    But you get older, and your negative beliefs and the food cycle doesn’t work anymore. And worse, times have changed, and the things I feared aren’t death sentences anymore, gays are becoming accepted, and so there’s no safe comfort from hiding behind a low self-esteem or a food obsession. It’s just me and the mirror.

    My act doesn’t work anymore.

    So I joined OverEaters’ Anonymous, and I realized that I had support. I lost 4 inches around my waist, and became afraid. Afraid that the person beneath all of this was being exposed, and I felt very uncomfortable and very ‘exposed’.

    Then I remembered I bought this book from your website, and I decided to read it, because I needed something different than I was getting in OA — I needed to believe in myself and a spiritual relationship as I defined it.

    So here I am, reading your blog, and book, and agreeing that it really is a matter of letting go and letting my body do what it was designed to do.

    There is some good news, though — I haven’t gained the weight back, and I’m at the gym because I like it, and the benefits are showing. And life isn’t all bad — I am dating a very sexy guy about 20 years younger than me who likes me the way I am, so that’s really nice.

    Andy

  • Barbara Barbara

    Something to really wrap my head around. When I think of how hard I try to not ever be alone…. family or friends. Maybe it is lonliness that I am trying to avoid. I have a young teenage daughter who is battling and winning her fight with anexeia neurosa and me who has battled with my weight for years. I feel panic at the thought of losing weight, and it is the same panic I feel at being alone for a weekend without my husband and children.

    I want to find a way to heal myself without harming my children. I see how hard my daughter has worked this year to get healthy with the help of my family…. me too. NOw it is my turn to work on myself.

  • Hiya my name is Rebecca Nichols I am 27 years old
    Disabled and housebound due to a broken left hip
    My eating problems stated when I was 16 years old and I left my school
    I feel loney all time suddieo as my life has caned more know that I can’t walk
    With out a zimmer frama as so just eat junk food maliy as no one cares
    What I do or don’t do know wish there was a support group in Poole so that people like my self could get the help and support we need so that might be light at the end of the tunnel
    From rebecca

  • alicia alicia

    i definitely suffer from chronic loneliness. even though i’m married, it’s not enough. in september i moved 8 hours away from all of my friends and family and am struggling hard with the “nobody cares” attitude.

    i didn’t think i wasn’t happy with myself until i read this. now i’m re-thinking and it seems that everything i do is a distraction, including mindless eating. definitely considering joining the forum.

  • Jacqui Jacqui

    Oh Yes – i do identify with this. i am married and engage in social activities to the extend that i feel I have taken on too much. perhaps I always say yes to make people like me? I find some evenings i sit in the same room as my husband and still feel so alone, I see other people laughing and joking together and think ‘why can’t I have friends like that’. Crazy …

  • Olivia Olivia

    wow, thanks for this. it’s so interesting that a marriage and a family don’t help with a food addiction…i also just watched a clip from a new show called Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition (Monday nights on ABC at 10pm/9c) and the trailer showed a guy with a wife & kids and a food addiction…

    it’s great that a TV show is addressing food addiction….
    http://www.facebook.com/ExtremeMakeoverWeightLossEditionABC

    i guess a loving family doesn’t shield one from having a food addiction. thanks so much for your posts. really thought-provoking!

  • jenkanata jenkanata

    Chronically lonely…yes; not liking myself…absolutely. Believing that this can change…extremely sceptical. How do you change over 40 years of the same types of thoughts? Loneliness comes from a desire to stay as far away from my belittling thoughts as I can. Eating suspends loneliness. I cannot bear to be alone with my thoughts. They destroy me.

  • Jen – it can change. It probably will require counseling. I work with clients one-on-one on these issues.

    - Sheryl

  • susan susan

    what a relief! what a wonderful message this site contains. i have been in recovery from drugs and alcohol for 7 years but lonely. just started slaa. since a young child had problem with low self worth. just ordered your book and read the messages tonight. thank you all for your vulnerability and your honesty, with love susan london england xxxxx

  • Jane Jane

    Thanks for this article. I have been involved in a 12 step program and came to realize that I need to forgive myself. I too, do not like being alone and I’m afraid of the dark.

  • Karen Ligocki Karen Ligocki

    walls..i have a lot of walls

  • tina tina

    thank you, reading this made me feel better.

  • Bob Bob

    Excellent. Thanks for bringing me here.

    Sheryl, you must be aware of “Lonely” by Emily White. If not, you must read it.

  • Ranec Ranec

    Thanks for posting this. I hate being alone and I know I need to learn to be lonely without eating an entire box of thin mints (I just did). Does anyone have a success story they could share? I need hope.

  • You’re not alone. Many people have learned to deal with emotional issues without food. The Normal Eating forum is a great source of support, or you can email me for one-on-one counseling if you need more. Here are some links with more info:

    http://normaleating.com/support_group_info.php
    http://normaleating.com/coaching.php

    - Sheryl

  • Diana Diana

    This article really struck a chord with me. I recognize that I’ve always been lonely but didn’t realize it was because I was alienating myself. I want to open up and trust people but I struggle finding the right people to trust. It seems that anytime I open up, I end up getting hurt and I close myself up tighter than before.

    The part about food being a surrogate for love literally made me break out into tears. I’m trying to really feel my emotions instead of stuffing them down with food. Even though I have very loving parents, it is only recently that I feel I have their acceptance regardless of my weight. I hope this allows me to heal my self esteem little by little while also providing me with some much needed self acceptance.

    I really would love to find a group of people, that I can know in my real life, not just for discussing our struggles, but more for living and enjoying life. Any suggestions?

  • Leona Leona

    I’ve felt that I’d die from loneliness. It’s all I’ve ever known. People come and go out of my life like crazy. I’ve yet to experience any consistency in relationships. I cry myself to sleep because the pain of it is unbearable. I know that I struggle with feeling comfortable in my own skin. And I know that I don’t really like myself. Partly because I am ashamed of my aching needy heart, which feels like a screaming infant most of the time. I wonder will I ever get past place, and learn to be content with my own company. But how can I learn to be when it seems to always only be me.

  • Hi Leona,

    My heart goes out to you. (((hugs)))

    Usually people need the help of a therapist to get past this much pain. If you would like to try talking to me, I offer one-on-one support through Skype. There is more information here:

    http://normaleating.com/coaching.php

    - Sheryl

  • Marzena Reich Marzena Reich

    Dear Sheryl,
    A voice from the past:

    I would like to confirm your wordes. Everything you said in this article is true, and NE forum can provide a cure. Today I wrote on the Success Stories board for the fist time now in a couple of years, and that because i feel li9ke just recently I have overcome the last hurdle in the whole chained which I identified while being a regular poster here.
    My own feeling of dislike came from two sources: parental and peer abuse, both caused to a large extent by my clutziness. You helped me recognise it as my problem and you helped me make the decision to change my self perception by actually overcoming my hangups and learning the things I had found impossible to learn as a child and teen. I definitely owe this idea to you – that I must face my boogies and either make piece with them or overcome them by actually learning those impossible skills.

    I could not reconcile myself to being the klutz. I therefore had to the hard, hard thing: face my hangups prevail. And then everything changed. As I learned to ice skate, to roller blade, to dance, to ski – I also improved very much my connection with others. I do not feel lonely any longer. I do have close friends and confidents. I try to help others in a similar trap.

    But even on a superficial level of places to go and people to see I sometimes have more than I can handle.

    What you wrote here in this article is so so so true. I hope you do appreciate yourself for the value you are giving people here, and most of it as a gift too. My blessings with you (whatever they might mean in your vocabulary :) )

  • Caleb Caleb

    I have always been ashamed of me feeling so needy of people (especially being a young man). I feel like I have so much love and care for others, and I give it out a lot, with no real fear to be open, but I always feel like I get shallow responses from the people I am surrounded by. That really has taken a toll on me. Since I really stopped making an effort to be so open with those I thought I could trust as friends, I have felt everything above. I did not realize it would lead back to me, but you are right. I needed to read this. Thank you for posting. Now that I can understand my feelings more, I’m not sure what to do next.

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