Just the other day I heard a patient describe something about emotional eating that I had not noticed before. She said that she found herself "checking out" for the last several weeks, which meant she was binging in anticipation of a stressful event that was to take place soon.
Checking out meant to her that she was no longer pausing and thinking. She didn’t want to even try to understand what her emotional hunger was all about. Usually she “checks in” with herself, is on top of what is going on, and quite able to limit and control her binge eating.
Most of the time I hear patients describe eating episodes that happen AFTER something has upset or frustrated them or caused them to question themselves in a critical way. However, this time, my patient was having eating issues BEFORE the event occurred. It’s as if she predicted that there was going to be a situation she couldn’t avoid, that would make her feel so helpless and powerless that she would not be able to cope with it unless she comforted herself with food weeks in advance.
The anticipated event was a meeting she set up with her boss as a favor for two former classmates from a small town in the Midwest. She needed nothing from them. They were old friends of the family about her same age. When I asked her what was so disturbing about the anticipated visit that required her to eat in excess in order to cope with it, she said she imagined them coming into the office and looking at her and thinking what a loser she was for being overweight, even though her office and her position reflected her success in the world. She was ashamed of herself, and predicted that the shame she felt would come back at her in the form of their critical judgement.
She said she does this frequently. There’s a cycle in her life. There are normal times, then there are these periods in which she just hunkers down in anticipation of a painful assault, eats her way through it, and then can go back to feeling normal and “checking in” again. During this “checking out” phase, when she binges-in-anticipation, she imagines that food and fat is a protective layer, a kind of psychic insulation that will soften the impact and the hurt of the attack she predicts is going to happen. Of course, nothing like what she anticipated actually happened. Her boss loved the meeting he had with them, everyone was cordial and her friends were quite appreciative, warm and friendly.
It's the anticipation of the unavoidable blow and the use of food and fat as a form of insulation and padding, that we need to pay more attention to here. The contrast between what she imagined would happen and what actually happened is stark. In order to help her hold on to this awareness I labeled her two realities as REALITY ONE and REALITY TWO.
REALITY ONE is what she could reasonably expect from what she knows about life and experience to happen, which is exactly what did happen. REALITY TWO is what we call in the Shrink Yourself Program, a “catastrophe prediction.” When she checked out and binged for two weeks, to give herself imaginary padding and protection, she actually believed that REALITY TWO was the accurate version.
However, her behavior showed me that she was confused and wasn't sure whether REALITY ONE or REALITY TWO was the real truth... so she responded to both of them. She over ate for comfort when REALITY TWO, her fear, was the controlling factor. But she didn’t cancel the meeting because she also believed in REALITY ONE, that it was going to be a successful event. If she had “checked in,” she would have struggled long enough to diminish or eliminate the impact of her erroneous prediction and she would not have had to gain the 7 pounds that she did in anticipation of a catastrophe that didn't occur.
In the same session she told me that she asked for a raise. She is highly valued, has a critical position, and has been a long-term and loyal employee. She was anticipating, in her catastrophic thinking imagination, that the personnel director would wave a finger in her face and tell her what a greedy person she was for wanting a raise. But in fact, she got the raise she wanted with no difficulty. However, when she told her mother of her triumph over the phone, her mother said; "isn't that being greedy?"
When we put those two stories together we see the common theme clearer. The imaginary catastrophe prediction, REALITY TWO, is based on a critical internal voice where the self-doubts of the past continue to reside. Imagining this kind of personal catastrophe is nothing more than the projection of one's self-doubts and self accusations onto the world screen as something that is about to happen out there, when in fact it is happening inside of you.
Once more, we can trace the act of binging and overeating back to self-doubts and self-criticism. When you apply the pause technique, the feelings you acknowledge are the beginning of a pathway that will almost always lead down to that unfinished business, that lack of confidence and uncertainty about one's worth and goodness that plagues so many people who are struggling with the habit of emotional eating.
What “catastrophe” are you predicting will happen if you loose your protective layer? (please discuss)
Joshua 1:9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go." (NIV)
| current weight: 166.6