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.