The path to freedom from weight obsession and food cravings.
A Lightbulb Moment to Stop Emotional Eating?

A Lightbulb Moment to Stop Emotional Eating?

Are you waiting for a “lightbulb moment” to catapult you out of emotional eating once and for all? This came up recently in the Normal Eating Support Group. It’s a very common attitude, but not one that gets you where you want to go. This is the same thinking that brings you, “I’ll start my diet on Monday” (or the first of the month or whenever) “and then everything will be different.”

It would be great if life problems could evaporate in one shining moment of insight and resolution. People long to suddenly “get it” and float on a cloud above all the mess. But this is not how people change, and waiting for it is a trap that can keep you stuck.

Emotional eaters tend to be black-and-white thinkers – either they’re being good or they’re being bad. Either their eating is perfect, or they may as well eat everything in sight and then try for perfection again on Monday.

Perfection may sound like a high and noble ideal, but what’s really going on here is that people want change to be painless. They want a lightning bolt of insight so they can stop emotional eating without the discomfort that inevitably accompanies personal growth.

As I say in the chapter on Stage 3 in Normal Eating for Normal Weight, “There is no way to stop emotional eating without discomfort. Expect it – brace yourself for it.” The discomfort doesn’t last forever, but it’s unavoidable. If you are waiting for the day when a lightbulb moment will make it easy to stop emotional eating, then you will wait forever.

Personal growth isn’t neat and clean – a moment of insight and then poof, you’re fixed. It’s a messy process that happens a moment at a time. Every time you pause before acting on an urge to eat when not hungry, you are experiencing a moment of recovery. Keep practicing and working at it, and the moments will become longer and more frequent until the moments of recovery outnumber the moments of being “in the food”. That’s how real change happens.

If this were an easy problem to solve, no one would have it! It is solvable, though. You just have to be willing to do the work. Be realistic about your goals and expectations. Make them small and do-able, and you will progress.

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


  1. I loved this! What a great reminder to recognize black and white thinking when it happens, and learn to think in shades of grey instead. I am so inspired by your statement that personal growth is a messy process that happens a moment at a time. I’m putting that one on a 3X5 card. (I collect affirmations and read through my growing stack of cards regularly).

    I plan to enjoy this messy process and focus on my progress.


    avatar Joy
  2. Sheryl, this is brilliant. I have never heard a clear explanation of how the desire of change to come in a flash of insight is really a desire to avoid unavoidable pain and struggle. It makes total sense to me explained like this. So much for catharsis!

    avatar S0journer
  3. Love it. Glad I finally got that background thinking into the open! I’ve been imagining these lightbulb moments for years, even reflecting how I would, with a smile, recount that moment for all my admirers when asked about my success to date (which never actually manifested).

    Good grief, how ridiculous! Black-and-white thinking is definitely a problem for perfectionist me, and I’m just now, slowly, starting to stop it.

    avatar Sunnyroad
  4. Now don’t go calling yourself names. It’s not ridiculous to think like this. It’s the most common dream in the world to want problems to vanish in a flash of grace. Why wouldn’t you want this? I want it. I’m sure everyone wants it. Sadly, it’s just not the way it works.

  5. You mentioned: Every time you pause from eating when you’re not hungry, you are on the road to recovery.

    That resonated.

    You also mentioned that it will not be comfortable. Define not comfortable? Want to know what to expect. …..

    I remember when I smoked and was in the process of quitting (constantly), they advised me to keep a journal.

    Write down why you want a cigarette.

    Around the third comment, I wielded the pen like a knife and cut deep grooves in the notebook with spiderly super large letters ‘I WAAAAANNNNNT IT’ That was the end of that.

    Similar thing when I don’t eat.

    Panic. Panic.

    By the way, you are very good at self-promoting. Good for you.

  6. Pausing is the KEY to stop emotional eating. I wrote more about that here (and also in my book, of course):

    > You also mentioned that it will not be comfortable. Define not comfortable? Want to know what to expect….

    It’s not quite the same as with cigarettes, which are powerfully addictive on a physical level (I quit 12 years ago). It’s more like “jump out of your skin, don’t make me do this, I don’t want to think or feel my feelings” uncomfortable. It passes though, it really does. If you don’t give yourself an out, the real issue surfaces and you can take real action that removes the craving to eat.

    > By the way, you are very good at self-promoting. Good for you.

    Me, good at self-promoting? You’re kidding, right? I’m a nerdy introvert who likes writing and programming, and so far Normal Eating is one of the best-kept secrets on the internet. People who find it love it, but not enough people have found it. I’m working on it, though. I bought some books. 😛

    Call to action to everyone who likes Post the link everywhere! Other blogs, other forums. Help get the word out!

  7. Sheryl –

    Were you reading my mind or something??? Seriously, I had no idea that so many people secretly thought the way I did… The quote below really resonates for me:

    “… but what’s really going on here is that people want change to be painless. They want a lightning bolt of insight so they can stop emotional eating without the discomfort that inevitably accompanies personal growth.”

    Each time I dieted, it was with the belief that THIS time some switch would be flipped in my brain and I would be able magically to stay on the program and maintain the loss. This belief is one of the main things that kept me in the diet cycle for almost 50 years. Because if things weren’t going to be different in the process of, or after losing, the weight then how would I maintain that “lifestyle” for the rest of my life. And sure enough, the weight always came back, accompanied by feelings of terrible failure, desperation and hopelessness. I am actaully going through something of a grief process, mourning the absence of the lightening bolt that you describe.

    However, there is much joy to be had in Normal Eating, as I’m learning, day by day. Thank you.

  8. I have been thinking so much about it in the past few weeks! It is funny how it is reflected here… I actually have been thinking about personal situations where I feel I am not the best I am the worst. I think it is the same with food, I either eat sooo healthy or I eat junk all the time. I started little by little to incorporate some healthy habits but having junk here and there is not killing me and I am actually starting to feel I have more energy and I am less depressed if I choose fruits and veggies but I dont feel guilty anymore if I dont. This time it is really baby steps, I am even enjoying cooking (guilt feelings wouldnt let me enjoy the process of preparing foods before… I am soo happy about that because I LOVE cooking…). Thank YOU.

    avatar Cecilia
  9. Sheryl–

    I hate to say it but your words here hit me like a bolt of lightning. Thank you for being out there with admitting that it will not be comfortable and at the same time acknowleding that each time there is a pause before nonhunger eating it is a steop on the road to recovery. I’m never a total failure at normal eating…or at anything. But what I have to do to solve the underlying problem…it’s more complex than it seemed at first. First there are pracitical self-care things to do, many very uncomfortable and some rather simple. Then grieving properly seems at the core of it. Identifying what needs to be grieved and getting down to it with real discomfort and tears. And light at the end of the tunnel? I am also copying your words as a reminder. Thank you again.

    avatar Katy
  10. I find it amazing (or scary?!) that so many of the things you write are as if you have written down my thoughts verbatim! Every time I dieted, I thought ‘this time, something will change inside’. Like Sunnyroad, I even thought about the story I would tell about what changed me! but when it didn’t, I felt like I had failed and it would never change, so what’s the point?

    Sometimes I find it’s good to remind myself about the quote by Booker T Washington – “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.”. Diets will never emphasise how it could be difficult to stick to their rules which is why they’re so tempting.

    By the way, in the link to the ‘importance of the pause’ article, you mention a newsletter. Do you still do this? I think a regular little nudge would really help, especially when I’m busy at work and it’s so easy to put all of this to the back of my mind.

    avatar Rachel
  11. Hi Rachel,

    Yes, I still send out the monthly newsletter. Just click the Newsletter button at the top of the page to sign up. Newsletter articles are also cross-posted in the blog. The main difference is that the news at the top of the newsletter isn’t in the blog.

    You can receive the blog articles in email, too. The signup box is in the right sidebar on this page. I usually post twice a week in the blog. The newsletter goes out once a month.

    I’m also on Twitter and Facebook. Signup for those also is in the right sidebar. I sent out tweets several times a day.

    – Sheryl

  12. Ohhhhh, you are SO right. I have been searching for the lightbulb moment, for the single key that will magically snap me out of my eating disorder. I am such a black-and-white thinker – something I need to work on for sure! Well, now that I’ve heard the truth, that personal growth isn’t neat and clean and there are going to be struggles and unpleasant moments, I need to get on with things otherwise I am going to waste the rest of my life searching for the unattainable. Thank you for your honesty even though it’s not what I hoped to hear.

    avatar Audra
  13. Hi
    Years ago I actually did have that light bulb moment, it happened much the same as many success stories tell you whilst I was trying on a new pair of jeans. Thats it I cried Im going on a diet, and I did and i was successful and I kept the weight off for years. However that was years ago and everytime I have tried to lose weight since I have wished for that moment that certainty that i woulld succeed. i have moaned and groaned to my fella, family if I could just get it right in my head if it would just snap into place. It hasnt and it wont.
    I know without a doubt that this is working already for me. I actually feel better without losing weight and I feel lighter and happier than I have in years. and Ive only just started!!! funny though usually when Im not on a diet my weight just goes up and up, its not changing at the moment either way,
    thanks for sharing,

    avatar forreal
  14. forreal – it just goes to show that “light bulb moments” aren’t real, or it would have stuck. There is no way around the hard work. Recovery doesn’t happen like throwing a switch. It’s lots of little moments that gather together slowly over time.

    – Sheryl

  15. Hi Sheryl,
    I have read it all — All of Geneen Roth’s books, Overcoming Overeating …and about 3o more in between. Your truth speaks to me so loudly. After dealing with this for years (decades actually) I still have some evenings with emotional eating. I am pretty good at identifying the source (pain) but it is still sometimes a choice to not spend time sitting with it…tolerating it. Last night was one such night. I found your site. And your words resonated so clearly. I was looking for the perfect affirmation — the perfect mantra — that I could say 100 times a day and frustrated when it wasn’t magically working as I had assumed (like I have a million times before) it would. You are so right. This is messy stuff. There is no perfection in eating. We are not perfect people. I have been on my case about not “picking” …having a bite of this or that when cooking or with the kids…but I also realize trying to be perfect at this, as I was trying to do yesterday, yet again, — my big plan for 2012 — is just so unrealistic. I have worked on this and myself with therapists, self help books …all of it…for years. I have not bought a book in a long while, but I will buy yours…because something is telling me I need your words by my side. I am thankful that I was searching for inspiration last night — because I found what I needed even more — the truth.

    avatar Angela
  16. Hi Angela,

    I’m glad my book speaks to you. This is a very difficult problem. One of the things that many people miss is that emotional eating isn’t so much about soothing difficult feelings as distracting from them. Emotional eating is the world’s best distraction!

    – Sheryl

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