Many of us who overeat find that once we start eating, we can’t stop. This is particularly poignant and problematic at the end of the day. You may be able to feel present and relaxed with your eating at breakfast and lunch, and even make it through the afternoon without bingeing.
But as you move into dinnertime and evening, you might really struggle. You may eat dinner, and then another dinner, and then several more meals before bed.
This pattern is so incredibly frustrating – particularly when you wake up the next day determined to do differently, only to get stuck at night time again.
What’s underneath night bingeing
Night bingeing is not evidence of a lack of will power, control or even hunger. It’s not a symptom of a spiritual deficit or a “bad” ego.
It’s often the sign of something very tender: an unmet developmental need, a sign of facing some sort of separation, or a sign of unresolved trauma. When we feel dysregulated and overwhelmed by our inner world, strong urges and impulses to binge can arise.
On some level, our brain thinks of food as a source of safety. In this way, food becomes a “mother,” a substitute parent. It’s where we turn to feel safe in the face of overwhelming feelings or anxiety. It’s how we regulate. It’s how we feel cared for: nurtured, loved, and soothed.
Separation anxiety from food
When we have a strong emotional bond with food – when food is our primary way of meeting our relational and emotional needs – we can feel a form of separation anxiety when we’re about to be separated from this safety net.
To turn this source of soothing and love off – to stop eating for the day – feels like a void, what psychologically feels like death. It feels like being separate from the mother; from safety, from love itself.
The roots of separation
Some of us are extremely vulnerable to feelings of separation. It often goes hand in hand with chronic, high anxiety, a sense of walking around in the world feeling somewhat “unsafe.”
The roots of this are often in childhood, in some form of loss. As infants and small children, we experienced either a physical or emotional separation from our caregivers. Either the parent wasn’t physically or emotionally there, or we experienced some trauma – perhaps we were ill or hospitalized, or had an ill parent, or our family experienced a loss or separation.
The need to feel attached – connected and safely rooted to an emotional available, non stressed, attuned caregiver – is a primary need of all human beings. According to one of the world’s preeminant developmental psychologists, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, it’s the foundation for all human development.
“Crying it out”
I hear from many women who were raised in the “cry it out era” of child rearing – where it was believed that a crying baby was trying to manipulate you, and should be ignored. Their mothers left them in cribs and playpens to cry it out, as that’s what they were told was best.
Some women experienced abuse or childhood trauma. Other women were raised by mothers who were depressed or stressed and therefore emotionally unavailable.
These early experiences can arise later in life as a discomfort with needing – where we deny our needs and feelings, minimize them, ignore them, and “should” over them – “I shouldn’t feel this way.” At a very tender age, you may have learned that you were on your own.
You may have learned to suppress your needs, becuase it felt too painful to need and have them go unmet.
Understanding our wounds is not blame
I’d like to make an aside and say that pointing out our developmental gaps is not an exercise in blame, guilt or judgment against our mothers or parents.
No parent, no matter how loving, can be 100% attuned to their child’s needs 100% of the time. You can have incredibly loving parents and still have gaps.
All of us carry wounds from our childhoods, to one degree or another, because we were raised by imperfect parents and live in an imperfect world.
A parent can love a child deeply and yet still be emotionally unavailable due to stress, their own emotional wounds, family challenges or circumstances outside of their control.
None of us does life perfectly, which is why I’ve found forgiveness of both self and others to be foundational – I would say essential – to healing.
Here are common ways you may experience a fear of separation in your relationship with food:
- once you stop eating, you can’t stop because not eating feels like a void, a separation
- you can’t stop eating your favorite binge foods; you’re “attached” to them (In this case, instead of being attached to a loving caregiver, you learned to become attached to food as your “mother.”)
- you avoid going to bed at night (night time is a huge separation, and was so for the infant and small child)
- you avoid being alone with yourself and your thoughts – it feels too scary
- you are highly distractible
- you are highly susceptible to rejection – for example, if someone averts their eyes while they’re talking to you, you feel rejected
- you have fears of intimacy
How we care for ourselves in the face of too much vulnerability
Our coping strategies – keeping ourselves constantly busy, overeating, staying up late, ‘sabotaging’ relationships or intimacy – are attempts to care for ourselves, to avoid this terror, this feeling of psychological death.
They are attempts to avoid what is too vulnerable to bear.
When our vulnerability is high, we often can’t reach out to other people – the very thing that can help us feel connected, loved and attached. So we seek out substitutes.
One reason why we cling to food is that it doesn’t ask us to be vulnerable. It just loves us. It gives us feelings of love and connection by amping up the brain chemicals that create these feelings, like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin.
It’s a similar reason why we seek out pets, books, the computer, computer games, and even virtual communities like Facebook. We go to them for connection because they don’t ask us to be vulnerable with another human being who can potentially hurt us.
I hope this helps you feel more compassion yourself. For we can feel such shame about needing! We can feel less than or unworthy – “I’m a bad person because I go to these unhealthy things for connection instead of to real people.”
Creating safety to heal
Thankfully, our brains and our bodies can heal. We can soothe this hurt part of us that feels so vulnerable and alone.
How do we heal? Safety and belonging are crucial. We can’t stop relying on food unless we feel safe that something else will step in to take its place.
There are several ways to support this feeling of safety.
One way is to nourish feelings of safety in our own hearts, building up our sense of connection and belonging. This is why self acceptance and self compassion are foundational – they allow us to create a feeling of belonging – of sanctuary – inside.
Here are some ways you can use self acceptance and self compassion when you’re feeling scared:
- Try putting your hand on your heart and connecting with the feelings that are arising. Offer your feelings care, love and tenderness: “I hear you.”
- Offer yourself forgiveness at the end of the day or when you’re feeling small, separate or ashamed.
- Do something that helps you feel held, soothed, or nurtured like rocking in a rocking chair, going outside and listening to the birds, or cuddling with a stuffed animal.
- Play – moving energy, moving the physical body in physical play, creating or making something, doing something you love.
Reaching out for support
I also encourage you to reach out for more support. For while we want to build tolerance in ourselves in the face of a binge – where we can feel the impulse without acting on it – we don’t build this tolerance on our own, but through relationship.
It’s so painful – we can try too hard or overfocus on self regulating when we feel overwhelmed, or feel ashamed that we’re feeling dyregulated in the first place. This often looks like working really, really hard to stop bingeing rather than asking for, seeking out and receiving more help and support.
Looking back, I can see that this was true for my experience with binge eating for many years. I had a hard time reaching out for help, and wanted to hurry up and ‘get myself together.’ Underneath this drive to fix myself was shame about struggling and feeling so scared in the first place.
When I did reach out for help, I often felt judged or like my pain was minimized. Ouch, so painful.
Whew – it takes courage to shift these patterns and to find trusted and trustworthy people to support us.
How self regulation is built
It helps to understand where the capacity to self regulate comes from. From birth on, this capacity is shaped and formed by and in our relationship with others. I love the way therapist Bonnie Badenoch describes this – that the ‘capacity to self regulate is the internalized village.’
To learn more about this idea, Bonnie gave a powerful and insightful talk here on The Myth of Self-Regulation: How Our Inner Community Supports Us Every Day. In her talk, she speaks to the importance of co-regulation – where our relationship with others help regulate our minds and brains – and the pain of overfocusing on self regulation.
Loving friends, support groups, therapists and counselors, and supportive family members can all help us co-regulate when we’re feeling dysregulated.
Shifting the sense of being alone
These relationships are crucial because they help change the implicit belief that “I’m all alone.” Our relationships with others can support us so that we can touch those spaces inside that are too traumatized to touch on our own.
In order to find lasting healing, I think we have to experience both internal healing with ourselves and external healing with others. Reaching out to others, then, is a necessary step, even as it can also be a scary one.
A note on trauma
If you find yourself struggling with regular night bingeing, I highly encourage you to reach out for support from a healer or therapist. It’s possible that there’s trauma underneath the urges to binge, and getting support to heal trauma can make all the difference in your journey.
There are some very good and well known therapies/approaches for trauma. I’ve used all three below and have found them to be very helpful. If you click on the links below, you can look for people who’ve had this training in your area.
Wanting more hands on help?
- To learn more about this topic in depth, I invite you to join me for my course, When Food is Your Mother. You can learn more about When Food is Your Mother and sign up for the waiting list here.
- You may also enjoy reading this post on how attachment affects your relationship with food.
Needing hand on help for binges? Sign up to receive the free Binge Rescue worksheet, what readers say is our most helpful tool in the face of a binge.