The bookshelves are currently locked and loaded with volumes of advice on how to handle our emotional eating issues. True it is that we have some epidemic concerns around weight, overeating, under-eating, binge eating and bulimia. It’s a noble undertaking to find the healing ways that would bring relief to these poignant challenges. But I’ve noticed that despite the strategies for emotional eating that the experts are suggesting, people just can’t seem to control themselves. So many of my clients and students try hard, make efforts, eat only when they’re hungry, watch their nutritional choices, and do their best to manage their appetites, only to report some sort of failure – “I was doing so well, and then…” Why can’t we get ourselves under control? Why can’t we enact the simple strategies with eating that our hearts and minds so sincerely believe in? And are we really the nutritional/emotional losers that the voices in our heads say we are?
For this last question, the answer is a resounding “NO.” Oftentimes, when we can’t solve a problem with food, eating, nutrition, or any problem in life – it’s a sure sign that it’s time to “re-frame” the problem. By doing so, we improve our chances of the lights coming on and some wisdom coming through. So here’s a re-frame of the problem called emotional eating: It isn’t really a problem.
Here’s what I mean. At our core, we are emotional beings – rich, complex, juicy, unpredictable feeling-filled creatures. We love, we celebrate, we laugh, cry, mourn, giggle, we break down, we rise up, we get hurt, we soar, we worry, we yell, we sulk, and wow – we’re powerfully passionate creatures – even those of us who seem quiet and content. (You know who you are.) So how could we NOT be emotional eaters? We love food. We love our favorite restaurant. We love how food makes us feel good. Some of us love cooking for others and nourishing them. Some of us are passionate about how to eat and what to eat. It’s time to get over it – if you’re a human and alive on planet Earth, you will bring emotionality to the table.
Once we embrace the factual reality that we are genetically hard-wired for emotional expression, we can relax a little more. Eliminating emotional eating is like eliminating emotional sex – sure, you can do it, or try to do it, but for many of us, it’s forced, it’s difficult, and someone’s likely to end up hurt. Underneath the quest to eradicate emotional eating from one’s life is a hidden and unconscious desire to not feel feelings that are unwanted and uncomfortable. We strive for an impossible to attain goal that constantly leaves us frustrated and in failure.
For sure, there are those of us who need to work with our emotional eating, pay attention to it, and get help with it. Yes, this thing called emotional eating can be very painful. But it’s not the actual problem – it’s a symptom that’s pointing to something deeper. It’s an alert mechanism from body wisdom that’s calling us to check in, and follow the flow of emotions within us to see where our soul is calling for more awareness and insight.
So here’s your suggested homework assignment: Welcome your emotions to the table. Embrace the part of you that loves food, and loves to use food to relax, to calm down, feel loved, or that uses food to fill up loneliness. We cannot expect to fight this part of ourselves and beat it into submission. Sure, you can choose to work with your emotional eating by limiting it. But before you limit it, love it. So many people have been fighting their emotions and emotional eating for years, or even decades, with little success. In fact, deep within, the problem usually is this: We’re denying feelings, giving them little air time, or pushing them aside in the hopes that they’ll go away. Unexpressed feelings often find their way into the sunlight via emotional eating. These could be long held feelings of aloneness, abandonment, betrayal, or anger. They can also be unexpressed feelings of love, hope, or beautiful desires for intimacy, connection, and sensuality.
We’re not perfect. Eating teaches us that. Can you relax into the times you emotionally eat? Can you stop fighting it and simply observe it with humanity and compassion? Can you allow yourself to see that sometimes, emotional eating might actually be a useful strategy? Can you call off the dogs and forgive yourself for bringing your heart and your passions and your unpredictable feelings to food? If you can, you just might find that eating with emotion becomes less painful, more manageable, and a friend. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014
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