A couple important points to start
A lot of what we think is emotional overeating, is usually a normal response to restriction (via some kind of dieting behaviour). Before you tackle emotional overeating, it’s important to first make peace with food and stop trying to lose weight. When folks do this, often this resolves what they originally thought was emotional overeating.
Please also remember that emotional overeating was quite possibly a healthy and adaptive response to unmanageable stress at some point in your life. Hopefully that situation has now passed. If it has, then developing your skills to allow your emotions will certainly serve you in your life (not just with your relationship with food). If it hasn’t, I hope you’re able to access support.
You’ve let go of trying to control your body size. You’ve stopped dieting. And yet, you still find you’re eating in response to emotions.
The surprising truth is this: I believe you don’t eat because of the emotions themselves.
You eat because of resistance towards feeling the emotions.
It’s not about the story connected with the emotion (the ‘triggers‘). It’s not because someone said or did something you didn’t like. It’s not because of your finances, relationships, job, or circumstances.
It’s because you are resisting a feeling.
The discomfort you feel is actually the discomfort of resistance. It can’t be discomfort about the emotion itself because you haven’t felt it yet! The resistance is the fear of feeling the feeling.
Why we resist emotions.
Partly it’s what we’ve been taught. Children are punished for, discounted because of, or at best distracted from their feelings from when they’re tiny babies!
I remember feeling frustrated when people would ask if my tiny babies were ‘good.’ If they were good, they didn’t cry much and slept through the night. If they were not solid sleepers or if they were fractious, did that make them bad? I won’t go into that topic now – it’s another ball-game altogether and I’m not a parenting coach, so back to emotions and why we resist them.
I can’t think of one person I’ve coached who grew up in an environment where s/he was given permission to feel and express any emotion that arose, let alone taught how to recognise and name them. Some were only permitted the feelings of happiness or contentment (aka ‘being quiet’). For some joy wasn’t even on the cards – that was too show-offy, over the top, too big.
Many clients tell me they simply weren’t allowed to show anger, hurt, or sadness. Guilt and shame were allowed and reinforced – and unsurprisingly it’s the emotion they most commonly recognise! Neuroscience for beginners says: what you practice, grows. If you were blamed or criticised over and over again by your primary care-givers, upon whom you depended for your survival, then feeling and acting on guilt and shame would have kept you safe, in your young mind. Fear is one of those primary emotions that simply can’t be helped – but children (adults too!) are often shamed for irrational fear – ever been told ‘don’t be such a baby!’?
Here are some ways that fully experiencing emotions are distracted from, discounted, or discouraged:
- Wipe those tears and put a smile on your face
- Don’t cry!
- That’s enough of that now
- Don’t be frightened!
- Don’t be angry!
- Don’t be sad!
- I can’t deal with you when you’re like this
- You’re too much
- Here, have a [insert food] – that’ll help you calm down/ make you feel better
- Calm down!
- Look at that [bird, spider, book]!
- What’s wrong?(why are so-called negative emotions classed as ‘wrong’?)
- What’s the matter? (note, we don’t ask people ‘what’s the matter’ when they’re happy, peaceful, joyful or content! And therein lies the cultural message that some feelings are acceptable and others aren’t and need to be fixed.)
- There’s no need to feel sad/angry/upset about it!
- It’s a little thing – don’t make such a fuss!
- I’ll give you something to cry about!
So that’s where it started. Culturally, we are not taught to allow and experience the full spectrum of emotions all the way through. We are not taught that feelings are simply feelings. We are not taught that they will pass, and they’ll pass sooner if we give them room to exist. We are not taught that all feelings are acceptable, and a part of the human experience. We are not taught that sadness, fear, anger, humiliation and shame (indeed any feelings) are not wrong to feel; that we don’t have to fix them or try to change them.
Animals are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Can’t do much about that. But added to this is the fear of the feeling. Because so-called ‘negative’ feelings are given such bad press, and we’re not practised at feeling them – we want to avoid something we’ve been taught to believe is wrong, scary and painful.
And then, negating, ignoring, suppressing and in the most extreme cases, detaching from emotions becomes a habit. After all, practice makes perfect…
So how does this relate to emotional overeating?
If you could learn to pause before taking the first emotional bite just long enough to allow yourself to fully experience your emotion, you would not need to eat as a way to distract or suppress them.
Yes, but how?
This practice dovetails so beautifully with mindfulness practice. Here’s why:
Mindfulness is paying attention, moment to moment, to your internal and external experience, without judgement. As you practise this skill you become better at developing the Observer or Witness within, without attachment to the experience (i.e. not judging it as good or bad, or wanting it to be a certain way). The practice helps increase awareness and decrease automaticity. It supports the ability to pause before taking that first emotional bite – or to pause after the first few emotional bites!
Once you’ve paused, you have a choice.
You can choose to eat, or you can choose to allow your feelings.
I encourage my clients to set a clock for 5 or so minutes, in which they will pause and allow their feelings – and then, if they want to choose to eat, they do so – at least with more awareness and mindfulness. With practise, that pause lengthens, and with practise, they become less afraid of, more willing to experience, and even become curious of the feelings that want to be felt.
Yes, but HOW do you feel?
Turn your attention to your body, and away from the thoughts (circumstance around the emotion or anything else, including trying to name or understand the emotion).
Become intensely watchful and curious about what is happening in your body:
- Notice where in your body, your attention is drawn
- You can put a gentle hand where you can feel it in your body
- Notice how the feelings change position, intensity, location and other qualities, as you observe
Here are a few examples of what you might experience:
- do you feel open or closed?
- expansive or contractive?
- hot or cold
- is the feeling soft or hard?
Observe and allow whatever arises until it changes and you feel a sense of release, or some loosening or opening up.
This will not take as long as you might think! When we allow our e-motions – they do just that – move! When we resist, suppress, discount, ignore or distract from them with food (or screens, shopping, sex, books, work etc.) they stick around and resurface later.