When you’re trying to heal painful behaviors with food, your hunger – your ground floor, human need for food – can bring up a lot of mixed feelings. Your hunger may bring up anxiety, fear, apprehension, doubt, hope, joy, desire, longing or confusion – if you read 10 books on what to eat, you can get ten different answers.
These feelings can be uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that we attempt to make them go away. The most obvious is how we “kill the messenger” – blame and hate our hunger – because of all the feared, loathed, shameful, painful things it stirs up in us.
It’s not our hunger that’s the problem; it’s what we feel in response to it.
In our culture, you’ll find plenty of books, websites and and magazine articles that will teach you how to tame, control or overpower your hunger – all attempts to shut off and shut down these uncomfortable feelings that hunger stirs up.
That’s not what you’ll find here. I’d like to offer an alternative perspective – one that offers a surprising mercy.
How do you feel about feeding yourself?
Your human body, hungers, and needs bring you in touch with aspects of yourself that bring up shame, discomfort, anger, and fear. These are the “forbidden parts of you” that you try to tame, control, minimize, edit, suppress, and eradicate.
You may fear your appetite. You may start to hate the fact that you need so much…that you’re so hungry. You may wish that you could make your hunger disappear.
Feeding yourself may start to feel so anxiety filled that you dread it. Many people have shared their frustration in having to eat everyday, and several times a day at that. Because their relationship with food can feel like a tangled mess, they may wish to avoid being entangled in it. They may wish that they can simply eliminate this daily struggle and not have to eat at all.
“Controlling” hunger as a coping strategy
When we’re feeling anxious, one coping strategy is to tighten down the clamps and to control. If feeding yourself brings up anxiety, you may try to minimize your need for food. You may try to eat less at meal times, reduce how many times a day you eat, or reduce the types of foods that you’re “allowed” to eat.
For years, I tried to control my hungers, my ravenous desire for nourishment. In my attempt to heal my overeating, I began eliminating any food that I binged on, any food that led to overeating. It started with sugar. Then it went to all carbohydrates; then to nuts. Fatty foods. Dairy. Corn. Wheat.
As you can imagine, this led to my being “allowed” to eat from a very, very small list. My control – the number of foods I could abstain from eating – was a measurement of how in charge I felt over my messy, messy hungers. I used control to minimize the stress I felt about feeding myself. It was my attempt to alleviate my anxiety.
What’s underneath anxiety
Instead my anxiety became a moving target. Trying to “control” my eating didn’t alleviate the anxiety I felt; it simply meant the anxiety found other outlets – mostly body perfection, diet perfection, and self improvement.
My anxiety wasn’t really about food, but about my self. It was my very needs, hungers, feelings, longings, and desires that I believed were wrong. They needed to be controlled, tamed, clamped down because they were too much.
The anxiety was the panic I felt whenever those forbidden needs and hungers arose – a measurement of, “Oh no, here come these messy needs.” No matter how much I tried to control – my needs or anxiety – it didn’t work.
Feeling ashamed of hunger
In my experience, the only way to soothe the anxiety we feel about our hunger is to befriend the needs and hungers that arouse our anxiety (and that we deem “wrong.”) This is an act of vulnerability.
Many men and women share how self conscious they felt about their hearty appetite as a child – feeling like there was something wrong with them because they were so hungry. This feeling of, “I need too much,” arises when our neediness is unwelcomed, criticized, dismissed, or ignored. In the face of this disconnection and separation, we feel shame.
This separation becomes internalized: “There’s something wrong with me.”
These roots go deep. In modern, Western society, “not needing” can be viewed as a badge of pride. Not needing to eat, to sleep, to rest, to slow down, to need connection, period is almost a sign of moral superiority. As a culture, we laud those who work endless hours and who somehow don’t need rest. We’ve praised those who eat like a bird and who “control” their appetites.
What hunger symbolizes
The need for food is often a symbol of something much greater – a symbol of our desire for love, for human affection and for connection. As children, if our needs weren’t validated and honored as okay, we may feel insecure that our needs are somehow too much.
We may worry that people will push us away if we shared our needs with them, put off by our neediness.
So the fact that we can’t “eat like a bird” and get by may be a symbol of how we feel too much, period – how much we wish we could be more in control of all our messy needs.
This is because we equate “needing less” with feeling safe, being more loveable, and receiving others’ approval and love.
Beyond that, our hunger is a symbol of our very dependency and neediness. It’s a symbol that we can’t survive in this world alone, or without nourishment. It touches our deepest vulnerability.
Feeding yourself as an act of love
Rather than looking at your hunger as something to clamp down – or feeding yourself as a chore to dread (something to get over with as quickly as possible) – see if you can view feeding yourself as an act of tender love.
To facilitate this shift, imagine a hungry infant, crying in your arms. How do you feel as you look at this infant, longing for nourishment?
- Do you imagine that this baby shouldn’t be hungry, or shouldn’t need to eat?
- Or do you feel a warmth in your belly, a softness towards the tender neediness of this helpless young one? Do you want to scoop up this child in your arms and hold it and care for it?
I’m guessing the latter. Small children, babies, and animals soften our hearts. They bring up these feelings of tenderness in our hearts and bodies. We look at them with this softness and feel moved to care for them.
Softening towards your hunger
The next time you feel hungry, I invite you to bring the same tenderness to yourself. How does this shift in perspective change how you relate to feeding yourself?
We are meant to need. It’s a part of our inherent, human vulnerability. You were born needy, and you will remain needy, every day of your sweet life. It’s not something you’re meant to grow out of or eradicate. Interdependence is part of being human.
Imagine that your hunger was a lover, wooing you as a lover woos, an invitation wrapped in love. Imagine that your hunger was an opportunity, a call to open your heart – to open to this tender humanity that feels and longs and needs care.
Each time you catch yourself feeling hungry today, grasp this opportunity. Care for your hunger. Nourish it fully. And let yourself be softened by it, marinated in it, until the anxiety and shame and shoulds about your hunger soften – and all that is left is love.
Hunger is a call to intimacy
Things that stir us up – that bring our fear, ambivalence, anxiety, and aversion up to the surface – are not things to avoid, or even to cut out. They are angels in disguise, dressed in work clothes, and speaking of “welcome.” Hunger is one such angel.
Hunger is a profound invitation to intimacy – an opportunity to come to know ourselves well; to expand our strength and vulnerability; and to open to a different perspective. Through this expansion, we may discover something new: we may find out that our hunger isn’t the enemy that we think it is.
As uncomfortable as it may be, see if you can shift your thinking from, “I don’t want to feel this,” or “I don’t like what my hunger stirs up in me,” to an approach of acceptance, welcoming this angel that comes unaware, and welcoming perhaps what it has to teach and open in you.
Wanting more hands on help?
- If you enjoyed this article, you might also like this post on embracing your human needs.
- You may also like this post on caring for anxiety without overeating.
- If you’re looking for help in befriending the needs underneath your desire for food, I recommend Heal Overeating: Untangled. Untangled helps you foster a loving relationship with your overeating – what both softens shame and creates a supportive container for growing out of it. Learn more here.