I have been an emotional eater.
Eating to fill loneliness as a friendless teen, eating to calm my nerves as a frazzled stay-at-home-mom, eating to balm my heart when my dad was dying. Yep: I’ve been there.
If you have a history of emotional eating — and let’s face it: most of us have at least some experience in this area — you may feel it’s a hopeless cycle you’ll never break free of. But it really is something you can learn your way out of.
Overeating is not a character flaw. …Beating the overeating habit is a learning process.”
– Alison Golden, 3 Questions to Ask Yourself After You Overeat
Here are five essential steps in the process.
(But first, a disclaimer: I’m not attempting to address eating disorders. I’m not qualified. This post is just about the average emotional eating that most of us do from time to time.)
1. Learn a new response to guilt and shame
Habitual emotional eating almost always carries with it guilt and shame, and this easily becomes a self-defeating cycle.
In the past, you’ve probably tried to fix this at the “need to eat” stage, but if you tackle it first at the “feeling guilt” stage, that will reduce the “stress” part of the equation.
Your first step isn’t to stop the emotional eating: it’s to stop beating yourself up when it happens.
Unless you live with an abusive person, I can guarantee you this: You are the one being most hard on yourself. Can I offer you a different way to think about this?
The next time you’re kicking yourself for emotional eating, look at it differently: consider it a red light on your dashboard telling you that something is wrong under the hood. It’s not a character flaw: it’s a message.
New and improved self-talk:
So instead of your usual “That was so dumb! I’m so stupid!”, try saying some things along these lines:
“What would I say to my best friend if she/he were in my shoes?”
“It’s okay for me to have needs and feelings. I’m in the process of learning how to deal with them better. I’ll get there!”
“What’s going on in my heart and spirit? What am I trying to soothe or fill?”
It may take time for this to feel natural. That’s okay. Give it as much time as it takes. You’re not on a deadline.
2. Identify the causes
“Often, [our] emotions have been clogged, stuffed down beneath the weight of our busy days, days filled with work, relationships and yes, food. Too often we have touched our feelings and recoiled as from a hot stove. We have been angry and felt our anger was taboo….”
– Julia Cameron, The Writing Diet,
Unlike the dashboard signal, which tells you whether the problem is with the engine or the oil or the brake fluid, the flashing light of emotional eating may need some sleuthing to reveal its cause.
When I was dealing with nightly emotional eating and I talked to my therapist about it, he offered me this simple exercise. When you’re feeling the urge to eat outside your healthy boundaries, ask yourself these four questions:
1. What do I want to eat right now?
2. What am I feeling? (You may also need to ask: What happened that caused this feeling? Or: What happened right before I wanted to eat?)
3. Will eating what I want fix that feeling?
4. Do I still want it?
And here’s the crazy part: If your answer to question number 4 is “yes,” then go ahead and eat it! The goal at this point isn’t to stop the eating: it’s just to learn from it.
I found it surprisingly helpful: it really did help me see the needs in my heart and soul that were going unmet, the feelings I was stuffing down.
Sadness, loneliness, anger, anxiety, boredom — those are all legitimate feelings revealing genuine human needs; needs that you don’t need to feel guilty for. And if the feelings you discover are inherently not healthy, such as bitterness and jealousy, you need to realize that these will only go away if you face them and deal with them.
And no: applying large amounts of food does not qualify as “dealing with them!” 🙂
If you have problems identifying your feelings, this is probably a sign that you’ve stuffed or denied them for so long you’ve become deaf to your own deepest needs. It’s common for emotional eaters to subconsciously do things that cut off the feeling before it even happens.
“For the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to feel grief instead of using food to not feel. …. I realized then that feeling bad can almost feel good – because at least I was feeling something…. My counselor told me that [although] people cope in different ways – alcohol, work, food – they were all the same thing: a way to push away the feelings.”
– Jeanette, personal testimonial
There may be many reasons for habitual stuffing/denial of feelings, but some common origins are:
– having a parent who spoke and/or modeled that it’s not okay to show your feelings or be vulnerable;
– living in a strict family or community where failure was shamed or punished;
– living in a family where addiction or abuse was covered up;
– having been a victim of sexual, physical, emotional, or psychological abuse.
If you have trouble naming or admitting your feelings, you may need some practice and “training wheels” for a while till you get better at it. Some people find journaling helpful.
“Often we say: ‘I don’t know what to write….’ But… as we simply sit down in front of a sheet of paper and start to express in words what is on our minds or in our hearts, new ideas emerge, ideas that can surprise us and lead us to inner places we hardly knew were there.”
– Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
A good therapist can help you find your voice. Ask people you trust for recommendations. Take your time to find one you feel you can trust. If you’re a Jesus follower, I highly recommend finding a good Christian counselor. Going to a counselor who doesn’t understand your faith or its importance is like going to a doctor who doesn’t understand the heart. But it’s also important to find one who has experience treating eating issues; not one who will just tell you to pray harder!
Address the physical, too
Also, don’t forget: the types of food you eat are a component — and possibly the biggest driver — of your ongoing cravings. If you’re also cutting out sugar and junk food as you work on emotional eating, that will help suck the power out of your cravings, too. The first two weeks or so are a bear, but after that, you’ll be amazed how your appetite changes.
For more on this, see my post on kicking the sugar habit.
3. Develop a way to discuss these with yourself gently and kindly.
As you begin uncovering the emotions behind your eating, you may be tempted to beat yourself up for not seeing this sooner, or variations on that theme. Practice talking to yourself like a kind, patient friend.
A few ideas…
- Practice ahead of time. Write out a new script for how you’ll talk to yourself next time.
- Ask someone who loves you to help you with your self-talk.
- For people of faith: Spend time in prayer and meditation, mulling over just how thoroughly God has forgiven you, and how much He wants healing for you.
None of these are one-time fixes. They’re things you’ll need to do repeatedly until your mind becomes accustomed to new patterns of thinking. And you may need periodic refreshing, even then. This is called “being human.”
4. Figure out how to deal with the causes
I once had an ornate dining table that had been my grandma’s, but was torn about what to do with it. I associated it with fond memories, but it didn’t fit my decorating style.
I asked an antique-loving relative what I should do with Grandma’s table. Would it be bad to paint it? I expected her to caution me about how the value might be compromised.
Her answer surprised and freed me: “If you don’t love it and it doesn’t go with your other stuff, don’t keep it,” she said. And here’s the freeing part — “You have other ways to remember your grandma.”
Whether you eat to relieve stress, or to evoke happy family memories, or to fill a non-food emptiness, I want you to grab hold of this truth: You have other ways to fill that need. It’s not that you can’t celebrate family: there are myriad ways to do that without unhealthy food choices.
It’s not that you just need to live with your stress: you have other ways to combat it.
It’s not that you need to live spiritually or emotionally empty: you have other, far better ways to fill those hungers.
For more on your various hungers, see my post Your four hungers.
This will take time and practice, but it is doable!
In a less stressful season of my life, I identified boredom as one of my biggest nighttime eating triggers. I’d stay up late doing boring stuff. And then eat. Finally, I decided to change that pattern. I sought activities that fed my soul and engaged my mind.
Some nights, I tried journaling, where I focused on things to let go and things to be grateful for. Other nights, I worked on memorizing scripture, expanding to a new verse every few nights.
These practices gave my brain the challenge it was craving and helped fill my thirsty spirit. Over time, as I attended to the needs of my body, spirit, and mind, my nighttime munchies faded into the background.
(Remember: eliminating sugar at dinnertime helps late night cravings, too!)
5. Keep on keeping on
Healing comes in stages. Some lessons learned may stick forever; others may need to be revisited from time to time. Again, this is not failure; this is an education, a process.
Will you mess up? Yeah, probably so. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s just a hiccup, a lesson learned, if you get back up and keep moving forward. Or in a forwardish direction.
Author Chandler Bolt said in an interview:
“You have to be willing to fail — and fail a lot. I think the only reason I’ve had success is that I’ve failed more than most anybody! …It’s just fail, get up, fail, get up, fail, get up.”
Recognize your old patterns when they crop up. Refuse to stay stuck there. Reject the idea that that’s the best you can do.
You may need to find new tactics for new seasons. Between changing jobs, growing kids, shifting hormones, and aging parents, there’s always something in flux! What worked last month may not work now. This isn’t failure; this is adaptation.
The equation looks something like this:
Try. > Have some success, make some mistakes. > Learn stuff. > Try again.
(Repeat as needed.)
This post is an excerpt from a book I’m working on. If you’d like to be in the loop about that project, you can sign up on my contact page.
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Peanut butter photo source