Free When Food is Your Mother Webinar
Free online training with author Karly Randolph Pitman on September 20, 2017. Replays available
Like an iceberg, what drives overeating lies below the surface.
There are five primary reasons why we turn to food – either in emotional eating, overeating, or binge eating. In each case, you’re eating to meet a need – and not because you’re deficient, lacking in will power, or because there’s something wrong with you.
In a nutshell: overeating is an attempt to feel safe and connected in the face of disconnection, overwhelm, pain, and separation.
The fierce intelligence and wisdom in overeating
I view overeating with tremendous respect and deep listening: it has intelligence and wisdom and even love in it. In other words, if you’re overeating, there’s a valid reason.
Approaching these reasons and the overeating itself with curiosity and compassion – rather than moral judgment – creates the space, rest, and room to respond to your needs differently and to grow out of overeating.
Understanding the emotions and needs that drive overeating brings you face to face with this intelligence, your vulnerability, and all your attempts to care for yourself, to soothe pain, and to feel empowered.
Healing through relationship
With this approach, you’re not trying to cope with the pain that feeds the overeating, or trying to manage or control the impulse to overeat. Both of these approaches are exhausting, and don’t work.
Instead, no matter how you’re relying on food to meet your needs, you heal by turning towards your pain, relating to it with kindness and compassion. As you change how you relate to the needs, feelings, pain, and conflicting emotions that lie underneath the overeating, over time, you unwind, drain and resolve the emotional pain and internal conflicts that drive the overeating.
The result is two fold – less emotional pain and greater empowerment to care for your needs and emotions without overeating. A change in relationship fosters new ways of responding.
What about physiological reasons for cravings, binge eating and overeating?
While this article covers the emotional or psychological reasons for overeating, it doesn’t cover the physical reasons. Physical reasons for overeating include low blood sugar, food allergies or intolerance, sugar sensitivity, candida overgrowth, vitamin or mineral deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, and more.
I don’t cover them here as they aren’t my area of expertise. However, they’re worth exploring, and I invite you to explore the work of Donna Gates and the Body Ecology Diet, Dr. Julia Ross and her book The Diet Cure, Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Kathleen des Maisons, or your health practitioner for more help in these areas.
What’s driving the overeating – five main emotions
Now I’m going to turn to the five main reasons why you overeat. In each case, I’ll describe the need and primary emotion that drives the overeating as well as tools and practices to help you shift.
This is eating to soothe the build up of anxiety, fear, inner tension, or stress. In this instance, overeating is almost like a panic attack. (Read more here about how a binge is a cry for connection and a cry for help.) When you finally eat the food fix, you’ve “had” it. The anxiety has reached its breaking point, and you turn to food to cope.
The metaphor I use is that of a tea kettle that reaches a boil. The kettle boils, the whistle blows, and the steam and pressure finally releases. In this instance, when you binge or overeat, you initially feel better because you’ve lowered the anxiety and stress.
Often, underneath overeating you find undigested grief, loss, fear or trauma. These experiences may still be living in the nervous system, and can drive this build up of alarm that seeks relief in food. In the work of the Grief Recovery Institute, they call things like overeating “short term energy releasing behaviors,” because in the short term, they do release the pressure and build up of painful emotions – even though they don’t provide relief or digest the emotion over the long term.
Here’s what to do instead:
1. When you’re in the intense space of wanting to binge, you need to protect yourself, to ride the storm of emotion without overeating. I find the damage control tool from EBT, emotional brain training, very helpful in lowering the build up of stress. You can also sign up for the free Binge Rescue worksheet here.
2. Find ways to come down, to lower the anxiety, overarousal, inner tension, or intense energy. Anything involving movement or rhythmic activity can help – exercise, walking, yoga, a bath, going outside, meditation, knitting, being in water, and more.
3. Drain the build up of emotion underneath. The ultimate resolution for alarm driven overeating is to drain the alarm, fear, grief, and other stored up emotions. Emotional support is often very helpful, whether that’s found in loved ones, friends, or a therapist.
Comfort eating is eating to nurture, soothe, comfort, nourish or care for unmet needs or feelings. We may bury our true needs for belonging, love, acceptance, comfort, and companionship, telling ourselves we can survive without them. Or we may feel too vulnerable to express our needs honestly.
We may be so used to caring for others that we feel guilty or afraid in caring for our own needs. We minimize our own needs as we overextend ourselves and take on the needs of others.
We may comfort ourselves with food when we’re grieving; when we’re feeling sad that our needs aren’t acknowledged, met or understood. We may eat to soothe our disappointment over life’s no’s.
All of these things are examples of using food to care for relational and emotional hunger – what we’re meant to find in loving relationship. (I talk more about relational hunger in this video here.)
What to do instead:
1.Caring for your unmet needs helps you become both more aware of your buried needs and ways to move through the anxiety about caring for them.
2. Grounding – regular, rhythmic self care – helps you feel capable, strong, nourished, vital and whole. It tells you, “I have what I need.” This base of support allows you to care for yourself with greater honesty and attention.
3. Connect, connect, connect. The ultimate resolution for emotional and relational hunger is relationship – loving connection. Connect with a friend or loved one, connection with source or spirit through a spiritual practice, or connect deeply with yourself and with your experience.
In this case, we either can’t or don’t want to feel our feelings. This is because it feels too vulnerable to touch our feelings – we may feel afraid that we can’t handle our feelings; we may numb from our feelings because it triggers deep grief (all the things we wish were different), or we may suppress our feelings because we don’t want to feel the isolation when they aren’t acknowledged by others.
When the vulnerability becomes too much to bear, the brain moves into self protection mode. We don’t even allow ourselves to feel our feelings or to have needs – it feels too scary to have them and then feel the void when they’re not filled.
Many of us learned to disassociate from our feelings and needs from a very early age. If, as children, our needs were minimized (“It’s not so bad”), suppressed, edited (“You can’t be hungry – you just ate lunch two hours ago!”), or denied, we learn to eventually stop needing. We learn to turn them off.
We also numb out because we feel ashamed. We see something we don’t like about ourselves and we hide from it in food.
What to do instead:
1. Safety is crucial. Create physical safety with grounding, regular, rhythmic self-care.
2. Create emotional safety with compassion – softening self judgment, blame, and shame.
3. Find a compassionate witness. Whether it’s a 12 step group, a church group, a friend, a loved one, or counselor, we all need someone to listen to our hurts and help us process them.
5. The practice of acceptance helps us mourn – to grieve what we can’t change – so that we can move forward and change what we can.
This is when “frustration turns foul,” to use the words of developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld. In an average day, there are many things that go wrong – the dishwasher breaks, the babysitter’s late, the bill’s overdue, the traffic’s stalled – not to mention the larger frustrations of life!
When these frustrations reach a boiling point, we get stuck. We’ve had it, we’re over it, we’re done with what isn’t working. Eventually, we explode. We explode at others, at ourselves, or in food. Like the tea pot, we’ve boiled over again.
What to do instead:
1. Change what you can change. Can you move to lower the frustration in some way? Do it!
2. If you can’t change the situation, move to these alternatives. First, as frustration is an intense emotion, your first priority is to ride the wave of the intensity without bingeing – not to explore the deep source of the frustration. The damage control tool from EBT, emotional brain training, is also helpful in this case.
3. When the intensity lowers, move to inquiry. Acknowledge your frustration. We’re very quick to say, “It’s all good.” Or, “I’m okay,” when we’re honestly seething inside. Give yourself time and space to move the emotions out of you. Consider venting on a piece of paper, I’m frustrated about…. and let yourself write down all the things that are frustrating you.
4. Move the energy. Use the practice of flowing to move energy. Go for a bike ride, a brisk walk, a run, punch a punching bag, let yourself shout into a pillow, or throw rocks into a pond.
5. Let yourself grieve. This, again, is the practice of acceptance. Let yourself feel the sorrow of, “This isn’t working and I don’t like it.” Cry your tears of frustration. We feel much better after we cry – partly because scientists have discovered that we have toxins in our tears. Crying is a way of cleansing the body. Reaching this point of acceptance helps us move forward and find ways to cope with what we don’t like.
Self attack and shame
When things go wrong, many of us quickly move into anger, blame and judgment. Blame and judgment work this way: either it’s someone’s fault – or more typically – it’s all our fault. We blame ourselves for everything that happens in our lives; we blame ourselves for being deficient; we blame ourselves when we can’t make life conform to our ideas of how things should work.
When we’re caught in a space of blame we move into shame – “I’m bad.” I’m bad because all these bad things are happening to me…
This is too much to bear. Animals die without contact, closeness and love. Our spirits die, too.
To cope, we hide. We hide from ourselves – from our hearts, from others, and from love. Like a dog who hides behind the couch when he’s pooped in the house, we hide when we’ve been “bad.”
We hide from our goodness. We take refuge in our “badness” – and we do this by eating. We overeat to hide, and then we overeat to punish ourselves. We binge because it keeps us from the self care that helps us feel good. We eat because we know it will make us feel like crap – fat, out of control, disgusting, gross.
What to do instead:
1. When you notice that you’re eating to punish yourself, be very, very, very kind to yourself. Adding more blame and judgment only makes it worse.
2. Connect, connect, connect! Self attack feeds in isolation. Find a compassionate witness, someone whom you greatly trust, who can listen as you pour out your regret, sadness, and sorrow. When you’re in this tender space, you need to be reminded of your goodness – not to be reminded of all of your shortcomings.
3. Practice compassion and self forgiveness.
4. Even if you don’t feel like it, return to grounding as soon as you can. Even if you feel like a hypocrite, practice doing the things that care for your body – like exercise, eating regular meals, or resting.