I’ve talked about it over and over again – when you’re reaching for more food yet you know you’re full, or you’re reaching for food for non-hunger reasons, you have a need which is not being met.
Before continuing, I want to clarify and emphasize that emotional eating in and of itself is NOT bad or unhealthy. In fact, sometimes emotional eating can be the healthiest thing to do! Eating grandma’s homemade cookies, celebrating a special occasion, getting yourself through “that time of the month” with some chocolate, tasting a fresh strawberry that you just picked… the list goes on and on. Eating for purely emotional reasons can be a beautiful experience, if the intention is to savor both the food and the moment. I don’t think that emotions and food should be or ever could be separated.
With that being said, the kind of emotional eating that I’m referring to here is the painful kind. The kind where your body is telling you please no more, and you want to stop, but you literally can’t. The kind where you’re not hungry whatsoever, but then you pass a Krispy Kreme and next think you know there’s one in your hand. The kind that gives you a numbed-out sort of high followed by a bloated and regretful low. It’s these instances of emotional eating that are based in a need not being met.
When I first heard this concept, I honestly thought it was a bunch of B.S. I really did, because when I heard the word “need” it made no sense to me. In those moments when I just wanted to binge on a tub of ice cream, it felt like there was literally nothing else in the world I needed besides that. I didn’t want anything but food. There were times I would pause right before polishing off a row of cookies and I would ask myself in desperation, what do I really need? The only answer I ever heard was FOOD! It took me a long time to realize that there were in fact needs not being met within me, but here’s the thing – I had to learn the hard way that in order to be able to meet my unmet needs, let alone be aware of them in the first place, I had to change the way I fundamentally lived my life. I learned that whether your struggle is with food, drinking, drugs, gambling, shopping, or ANYTHING, it’s in fact not about that thing at all. It’s about WHY you feel the need to reach for a coping mechanism in the first place – and that is all based in chronically unmet needs. By the time you’re reaching for your 20th Oreo, you are already meeting your need with food, so asking yourself what you need in that moment is futile. You are meeting you chronically unmet need through food, so of course you don’t want anything else but food!
One of the most important things to understand is that the list of potential unmet needs is endless, and they extend far beyond food, water and shelter. You may need something incredibly small and seemingly trivial, like a cup of tea under a big blanket, to write down your to-do list, to sleep, to be hugged, or, surprisingly enough, to simply acknowledge your emotions! You may need something a little more involved, like eating more regularly throughout the day, or talking to someone who has been on your mind, or to leave the crowded party that’s draining you. On the biggest scale possible, you may need a new career, or to start seeing a therapist, or to move to a new home. Don’t get scared though – you’re not doomed to engage in your detrimental behavior until you’ve quit your job. If what you need is something big that can’t be done immediately, there are still helpful, positive ways to take care of your emotions. The point is, I guarantee you that when the urge to engage in your coping mechanism starts to bubble up, ten out of ten times you are uncomfortable in some way. Maybe you’re physically uncomfortable, like being too cold or in a poor position, or again, maybe you’re just tired. Maybe you’re thinking stressful thoughts about what happened at work today, or how you’re going to get that thing done tomorrow, or why that person never called you back. Maybe you’re restless. Maybe you’re sad. Maybe you need to create something. Maybe you need to zone out. Maybe you need to exercise. Maybe you need to rearrange your furniture. Maybe you need to not shadow everything your partner does. Or maybe, you need something to look forward to. The possibilities are endless and completely specific to you. That’s why all those self-help books that say “just go for a walk” or “just take a bubble bath” are not helpful at all; you and only you can know what you need at any given moment.
But before you can even hope to meet your true needs, something else must be practiced first – being in touch with your feelings.
Essentially, we must become emotionally intelligent enough to identify and validate our feelings, rather than pushing them down and then needing to rely on detrimental behaviors and distractions to make us feel better.
And this is the biggest key of all!!! :
We need to practice being aware of our feelings and attending to them ALL THE TIME, not just as a hurried method of avoiding emotional eating, for example.
Because your urge to abuse food (or anything) is your way of coping with a life that feels less than great. If you live a life that truly feels good, you won’t get the urge to use a coping mechanism in the first place. I don’t want you to learn coping mechanisms for your coping mechanisms. I want you to live a life which feels so good that you don’t need to cope with it. You eat emotionally because you have made a habit of resisting and stuffing down your emotions; it’s not something you do only right before you get the urge to overeat. We don’t like to admit when we’re feeling down, anxious, uncomfortable, angry, or just plain “off”. For some of us, even happiness can be an unsettling emotion! If the emotion is big and noticeable enough then yes, we may admit to it and work with it. The thing is, not all emotions are loud and clear, yet all emotions are valid and need attention.
You’ve experienced the consequences of ignoring your internal reality first hand. Now it’s time to learn from that experience and make a complete lifestyle change. It’s time to create a new habit, a practice, of actually caring about how you feel. You’ll find that if you make your emotional life a priority, then the occasion to need an emotional crutch such as food simply won’t exist anymore. Know that your particular struggle is not the problem in and of itself – it’s a symptom.