Emotional eating can feel impossible to stop, almost as if you were powerless as you executed your own self-sabotage. You feel that tug on the inside of your heart. It’s a swirly feeling, a tiny tornado of stress, fear, disappointment, anxiety, insecurity, self-doubt and resignation. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere and sometimes you know what triggers it, but whatever the reason, this tiny tornado of inner turmoil needs to be calmed, and the quickest, easiest fix is found in the pantry, or freezer.
Food feels like the friend you’ve been desperately waiting for. It hugs you, it soothes you, it shushes into your ear and calms you down. Your body gets flooded with oxytocin and all of the emotions you were pushing away are that: away. Far gone.
Forgotten momentarily by the pleasure and comfort the ice cream, or cookies, or chips, or whatever drug of choice you have pulled from the pantry are giving you. For five minutes you have peace and pleasure, but the comfort has an expiration date.
In the blink of an eye, a shift happens. Anger, self-hatred, disappointment and fat-insults start shouting in your mind, shattering the sweet silence you were dancing in in your bliss. You shake and shutter, almost physically, with questions about yourself, and about your inability to be disciplined around food. You feel pathetic, ashamed and angry.
The shame is the loudest voice. It tells you that you will never be enough. It tells you that you are pathetic and that if people only knew the real you, the you that can’t control yourself around something as trivial as food, then they would turn their backs on you. You believe it and you go to bed swearing to yourself that you will do better, apologizing to the people you love for the weighty burden of them having to love you, and promising God that you will stop using food to fix your problems.
It’s a vicious cycle. You determine to discipline yourself – and sometimes you literally do. You put your finger down your throat, take an overdose of laxatives or you punish yourself on the treadmill tomorrow. You were bad and you need to repent. Repentance starts a cycle of restriction and you focus on being “really good” until you break again, either a few days or few weeks later and find yourself back in the black pit of disappointment, despair and shame, angry at food, angry at yourself and hiding under your covers (or in you car) disgusted at yourself.
This isn’t about food at all. It is not a question of self-discipline or dietary follow-through. The food is a coping mechanism. And instead of continuing the endless cycle of self-shame, we can break free by changing the conversation in our heads. We can be thankful for what we are experiencing because it is revealing to us a need. We have a need, and we are numbing it with food out of fear and because we don’t understand. We aren’t numbing it with food because we are disgusting, disturbed or depraved. That kind of name-calling just won’t do anymore, so it’s time to be done with it.
I battled the pendulum of restriction and excess with food for the majority of my life, all the while maintaining a facade of perfectionism, secretly tucking this part of me away in shame. The start of my journey to healing and freedom came when I learned for the first time that I was not alone. That is why I am writing this: I need you to know that you are not alone. You are not a freak. You are not lacking. You are not weird. You are not stuck.
Here are three ways to stop emotional eating for good. These are by no means the only ways, and one size might not fit all. For me, the freedom process has been multi-faceted, but these are good starting points:
STOP SHAMING YOURSELF.
The answer wasn’t being harder on myself. The solution was self-kindness. The solution was love. For me, the trigger to eat emotionally was often aggravated whenever I felt “not enough.” Whether it was that I didn’t feel smart enough, skinny enough, cool enough, successful enough, funny enough, connected enough, far enough, or a dozen other ______ enoughs, the result was always disconnecting. It made me feel disconnected from the world, from myself and from mattering. It drove me into a pit of shame and embarrassment for who I was, and when we feel a shame of self it is silencing and debilitating.
Food is not the problem or the answer. Shame is the problem and self-acceptance is the answer.
When we feel the need comfort and feel so drawn to food, because “we deserve it,” there is a much deeper need going on, something food or drink can only be a band-aid to. Emotional eating is driven by need – need for self-care, self-comfort, self-kindness and self-compassion.
REALIZE THAT YOU ARE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK.
In my own experience, the desire for emotional or binge eating always reared its ugly head when I was at my weakest. I was typically sleep deprived and overwhelmed with something in my life. One of the significant turning points in my relationship with food came when I decided to see myself differently. For ten years, as I felt out of control with food, I told myself that I was “weak” and “pathetic.” I was disappointed in my willpower and self-sabotage and as a result I convinced myself to believe that I was weak. The truth was far from that.
When I changed the language I used to speak about myself my habits and behaviors changed. I started telling myself that I was strong, and I started living that way. It was when I stopped condemning myself to weakness that I was able to rise in strength.
To my surprise, the strength I gained didn’t come with more discipline or willpower around food. The strength I gained was emotional strength. I started therapy. I got closed to God. I gained the courage to face my fears and to work through the deep emotions I was previously trying to cover up. As a result, food stopped having so much power over me. I didn’t need food to silence my pain anymore because I had learned to be emotionally brave and to turn my pain into power. Emotional strength transformed my “willpower” strength and food no longer held the answer to my problems.
DECIDE HOW YOU REALLY WANT TO FEEL IN LIFE
Back in the day I resigned myself to think that I would be stuck in an emotional and physical purgatory. I thought life was on hold for me and would always be. I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to be happy and that I hadn’t earned that right yet. To be happy I first needed to stop being “disgusting” and to stop disappointing myself by my lack of willpower around food. How wrong I was.
Things changed for me when I decide to take ownership of my desires. I asked myself what I wanted from life, what I deserved. What I wanted. I started listening to myself. You can too. I learned to stop looking around at everyone else’s easy, perfect life and used that energy to start creating my own life in the way I wanted it to be.
Take ownership. Forgive yourself for your past and take responsibility for the decisions that you have made that have taken you to where you are. Where you are is where you need to be, so be thankful. Don’t think that the little things don’t matter. They do. Every little victory is worth celebrating. Each thought that you win in your mind launches you forward in a direction of change, of hope and of freedom.
Focus on forgiveness. Forgives frees. Forgive yourself for the ways in which you have hurt yourself. Forgive others for the way they have hurt you too. Know too that as you walk forward into freedom living from the bondage of sabotaging food habits you will need to wrestle in your mind to stay in freedom. You will be tempted to feel guilty about your choices, because you have trained yourself to live with guilt. But you know what? Guilt doesn’t have a place in a heart that has accepted and that extends forgiveness. When do you feel guilt, turn it into gratitude. Maybe you “messed up,” but who cares? There’s a lesson to be learned, for anytime we have an opportunity to learn or grow is an opportunity to give thanks. Look for the lessons and be open to the growth with grace extended towards yourself. Grace feels good. I promise. It might feel odd or unusual when you start practicing it, but don’t worry, you will get used to it. And it will feel good, and life will be good.
Remember, anytime that “not enough” feeling pokes around in your mind, it is shame, and you, my friend, have nothing to hide and no apologies to make for who you are or where you are. You are enough. You are free from shame. You are loved. Believe it. Walk in it.
Friend, I love you and I am cheering you on. Freedom is yours.
PS: If this blog resonates with you, here are a few more resources:
Geneen Roth’s Website: https://geneenroth.com
The Donut Diet: www.thedonutdiet.com
Podcast Episode, Why Emotional Eating Happens and How to Stop It: www.trishblackwell.com/286