Today’s post addresses an important question that comes up regularly in the Normal Eating Support Group: Is eating to numb out and escape feelings ever okay? Can you do this, and still be a normal eater?
The short answer is no. Here’s why.
The Addictive Use of Food
The essence of emotional eating (also called "compulsive eating") is eating to avoid feeling your feelings. It is the addictive use of food, and people describe it in many ways – for example, "numbing out" or "plunging into oblivion". Overeaters Anonymous describes it as "stuffing your feelings" or "swallowing your feelings with food".
The addictive use of food – like the addictive use of drugs or alcohol – is about escaping the present moment, getting out of your skin, being somewhere else, artificially altering your feelings by use of a substance. Recovery from compulsive eating – like recovery from any addictive behavior – is just the opposite. It’s about being present for your life, not running in fear from temporary discomfort, and learning to feel better through positive action rather than addictive escapism.
Normal eaters sometimes eat for pleasure rather than hunger, but eating to escape feelings is very different from eating for pleasure. When you eat for pleasure you are mindful and fully experiencing the present moment. Addictive eating is the opposite – a way to obliterate mindfulness and escape the present moment, a way to avoid experiencing your life.
Using food to numb out is never a good thing, and is not something that a normal eater ever does. If you think about it in terms of alcoholism it’s easier to see. A normal drinker – someone who is not alcoholic – doesn’t ask whether it’s okay to get blind drunk now and then. Only someone who uses alcohol addictively would think to ask this question.
Set Your Bottom Line
Alcoholics Anonymous was the first-ever broadly successful treatment for addiction. Countless other addiction recovery groups are modeled after it because its insights are generally applicable. Overeaters Anonymous, a fellowship for compulsive overeaters, parallels AA by framing recovery in terms of abstinence. Unfortunately, this often takes the form of abstinence from white flour or white sugar, which misses the point. You can abstain from a particular food and still eat compulsively.
What you’re really abstaining from in recovery from compulsive eating is using food addictively. This may seem like a mushy definition compared to "no white flour", but really it’s not. In your heart, if you’re honest, you know when you’re using food addictively. That is the behavior you learn to abstain from through the four stages of Normal Eating.
Just as it’s never okay for an alcoholic to have a drink, it’s never okay for a compulsive eater to use food addictively. It’s what 12-step programs call a "bottom line" – the thing you never do. Emotional eating is a slippery slope. You might say to yourself, "I’ll only do it this once", but therein lies the catch:it’s never just once.
That isn’t to say that you’re a horrible person or a failure if you use food to numb out – you’re just doing what comes naturally to you as an emotional eater. You are still good, valuable, and lovable; it’s just the behavior that isn’t good because it doesn’t serve you. From the chapter on Stage 3 in Normal Eating for Normal Weight:
What you don’t ever want to do is say this to yourself:
"X terrible thing happened to me today, so I binged. Oh well. When my life isn’t difficult anymore, then I’ll be able to eat normally."
Instead, say this:
"X terrible thing happened to me today. I sat with the feelings for as long as I could, but I couldn’t find another way to cope and I ended up eating. Still, I credit myself for pausing as long as I did, and next time I’ll try again."
Emotional eating is never a viable alternative or a good way to deal with stress. You may not be able to stop doing it yet, but you should never rationalize the behavior as okay. You are okay, but the behavior is not okay because it’s harmful to you. It’s not good self-care.
It’s important that you be able to condemn the behavior without condemning yourself. That allows you to eventually stop being self-destructive. If you condemn yourself, you’ll just be more self-destructive. If you fail to label self-destructive behavior as undesirable, you’ll stay stuck – that’s self-indulgence, not self-acceptance. Forgive yourself if you give in to emotional eating, but don’t ever tell yourself that it’s an okay thing to do.
Something to Try…
Recovery from emotional eating – like recovery from any addictive behavior – requires both hard lines and compassion. There is a saying in AA that you don’t drink "even if your ass is on fire." And at the same time, if the person does drink, there is no judgment. They are lovingly welcomed back to AA and encouraged to try again.
Both hard lines and compassion can exist without contradiction because of the absolute separation between the person and the behavior. Addictive behavior is always bad. There is never a good reason to do it. And yet if you do it, you are every bit as precious and valuable as you were before. You just did what comes naturally, and now you’ll try again.
Can you take this attitude towards your own eating? Can you know that emotional eating is never a good thing, and yet still love and accept yourself if you do it? It’s something to try, because this ability to separate "you" from your behavior is what enables you to change your behavior.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.
This article was first published in the April 2009 newsletter.