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Feeding our feelings.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

I recently asked a client if she thought she were an emotional eater. Her response struck a chord with me. "Well," she said, "I used to be. But I haven't had that much stress in my life lately and I'm still eating poorly so I don't know that I really am."

I had to think about this for a minute because, on the face of it, it sounded like every other thing I've thought about emotional eating for myself. If I had a really bad day, I'd come home and open the fridge. After the cheese and crackers were polished off - each slice made individually before I put the packet back just to repeat the exercise 4 more times, failing, as usual, at restraint - I'd move into my dinner and clean my plate. An hour or two later, I'd be back at the fridge or pantry sniffing out some other solace for my broken down day. Yup - big emotions = big eating.

And it wasn't just negative emotions either. I have attended more than a few celebratory events where the joyful feeling of a new marriage or new graduate or new baby spurred me to multiple trips to the dessert table or ordering more courses of food than my stomach could manage. Celebrating with food is another emotional connection I totally understand.

Even under times of severe stress, there's been an emotional response to food - often by not wanting anything to eat. I know the physiological action responsible for this lack of food desire is normal but, what isn't so peachy are the times I've come out of that horrible time and thought, "hmmm, if I could only get THAT level of stress back again I'd be alright." What's wrong with that picture?

So, it's sometimes easy to associate emotional eating with these big emotions. But, if, like me, you've ever had an emotional eating response to a big emotion, chances are really, really good you're having an emotional eating response to littler emotions that you may not even be aware of yourself feeling.

We become so darn good at stuffing down our emotions with food that we stop recognizing what we're feeling altogether. One of my clients said to me "it took me about an hour to sort out what I was feeling. I thought I might be angry... then sad... then bored... it took me a long, long time to recognize that I was lonely."

What an AHA moment! Because angry, sad, bored and lonely are all little emotions that we have all the time - first feeling angry at ourself for sleeping through the alarm, feeling sad that we missed the train and are now standing in the rain, feeling bored during our manager's self serving meeting, feeling lonely because, yet again, we're eating by ourself at our desk - too much work piled up to join colleagues.

None of these are huge crises - we have these feelings so frequently during a day that we forget they are there - we don't actually feel what we're feeling because we're too busy feeding it! Slept in past the alarm = skip breakfast. Missed the train = head into the station for a coffee and a pastry - I'm starving and deserve a treat. Bored in the Boardroom? Where's that donut tray? Did someone bring in cannoli? Is that bowl of jelly beans coming back my way? Lonely = well, I can't join them for lunch but I can treat myself to a burger and fries at my desk.

The saddest thing about feeding instead of feeling is that the food we're choosing as a treat actually acts more like a punishment. Skipping breakfast tells your body it doesn't deserve love and care if it can't get itself out of bed on time. The coffee and pastry looked way better than they tasted and now they're grumbling around together as you rush to the office. 600 cals worth of jelly beans have made your teeth ache and the boss is still droning on and on. You're not really hungry when that burger and fries arrives but, you've paid for it and might as well eat it anyway. Dealing with the 2 o'clock drowsiness and the extra weight all this eating is giving me will be something to worry about later.

There are all kinds of reasons we adults have become so shamed by our emotions that we learned to substitute feeding for feeling. It takes courage to put the food down and sit with your emotions for a few minutes until you identify what's going on. Because, once you name it you need to own it and take responsibility for it. You need to acknowledge it; praise your soul for bringing up the point with your brain; figure out what happened - plan for something different to happen next time or just sit quietly with your disappointed self and say "hey - I'm human and imperfect and that's okay."

Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you need to cry. And sometimes you need to run up and down the street in mad joy.

What you really, really, really don't need to do is open that bag of chips or box of chocolates.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post

    Thought provoking blog.... I can totally relate to this.
    Next time, before I swan off to the kitchen for 'something sweet to eat' I will sit with my emotions for a few minutes to identify what is going on.

    Congratualtions to you and hubby - an inspiration to many
    and you both look fantastic

    emoticon emoticon emoticon emoticon
    3539 days ago
    What a great blog. Food for thought, as they say...

    3539 days ago
    This is fantastic!
    3539 days ago
    I discovered a not so easy to find book called reinventing yourself. It is full of chapters describing traumatic life events that are easy to identify with and then most of it is a workbook trying to find the points in your life when things changed. When did you last feel safe? Last feel loved? Last feel valuable? I was amazed to find that there were moments when my perception of myself changed. I learned a "truth" about myself that today I look back at and shake my head. It was never a truth at all. But my development was arrested at that moment. The shame of that "truth" sent me spiraling into an eating disorder. Of course I had no idea. But dealing with it meant going back and talking to the child or teen me as an adult talking to a kid and put all the puzzle pieces back as they were meant to be, not how I had forced them together. I learned to accept my eating and exercise behaviours as coping mechanisms that kept me alive but were no longer needed. All those emotions you talked to for me were based in shame. It kept me from loving myself, believing in myself, feeling worthwhile. I am grateful (today) for the hardships I experienced that forced me to go back to those roots. I'm so glad you are counseling. I'm sure it is going to be a 2 way experience all the time. Keep your own cup full. Justyna
    3555 days ago
  • KELPIE57
    Yes, also interesting to look at some common linguistic examples, I just can't stomach that person, film.....
    I haven't digested the feeling.......
    And you find such examples in French too.
    3557 days ago
    Super blog: I can see you are a very talented coach!!

    When it comes to emotional eating of the positive variety (ie eating to "celebrate") I tell myself that there are way way more good things happening in my life for me to have enough calories to use food to celebrate all of them!!
    3558 days ago
    Great blog! Well-said!
    3558 days ago
    Wow! Very Well Said, and probably word for word what I could say too! emoticon
    3558 days ago
  • CHRYS13
    Thanks so much for posting this! It's so true! When I'm tired, lonely, I've had a hard day....oh, my goodness! Even though I know better, I still run to the kitchen...
    It's time to sit down and sort it all out.
    Thanks again....
    3558 days ago
    WOW what a great blog.... you certainly had a way of putting it out there. I also know I eat emotionally and yea I can see anger, boredom and lonely in it all.... I will sometimes read instead or when I can, go for a walk... but yea I still eat. Now that I am trying hard to do gluten free to see if it helps this pain, I am not eating as much so hopefully that will help with the wt loss.
    I just wish the pain in my legs and the falling asleep of my foot, and both hands when laying down would stop. Dr has me on lyrica and I want off as soon as I can. He has a ct scan ordered but you know Canada and our wait times.......... anyway I am eating healthier and also trying hard to get my emotions out there when needed.
    thanks so much!!!
    3558 days ago
    Wow, what a great blog. Gave me a lot to think about. emoticon
    3558 days ago
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