When you’re stuck in a pattern of overeating, it’s easy to feel caught in self blame: to believe that the overeating is your fault or due to a lack of willpower. You may hear voices in your head that condemn, “you should know better.” You may feel embarrassed – especially if those around you don’t seem to struggle with food. You may feel frustrated that all your hard work isn’t giving you the results that you’d like.
It’s so painful!
There are two myths about overeating that contribute to this. Both are heartbreaking, for they foster blame, guilt, and self judgment rather then feelings of connection, understanding, and empowerment.
- Overeating is the result of poor thinking, poor planning, bad choices, faulty decision making, laziness, or a lack of will power.
- Overeating can be solved by knowledge – by knowing what to do (such as knowing what to eat) – and earnestness – working hard to do the right thing.
While we may wish that knowledge, earnestness or will power are the answers to heal overeating, unfortunately, different strengths are needed. Here’s why:
What causes overeating in the first place?
Most overeating is driven by emotion – not reason, not logic, not will, and not a lack of nutritional knowledge. (In fact, many folks who overeat have read scores of books on nutrition and are very well educated about what to eat.)
Understanding that overeating is an emotional issue can bring relief, compassion and acceptance. I like to say it bluntly: if you’re overeating, you’re overeating for a valid reason. There is some emotion, discomfort, pain, unmet need, or physiological issue that drives you to seek out food to numb out, self soothe, or to offer comfort.
Will power doesn’t acknowledge this validity. In fact, focusing on will power can be a bypass, a way to override the uncomfortable, painful emotions and unmet needs that drive the overeating. Using will power is an attempt to control this discomfort through force and frankly aborts the healing process.
Healing as an emotional and relational practice
What overeating is crying out for is not will power, but a willingness to explore, understand, and embrace the wounds, emotions, and needs that are underneath the impulse to overeat.
Overeating is a cry for intimacy, to be seen and known. It’s an attachment cry – a hunger for relationship, holding, and connection. These cries say: please see me, please hear me, please acknowledge me, please care for me.
These are the needs that the overeating draws attention to.
The only way to heal overeating at the root is by gently and lovingly turning towards these attachment cries, the pain that drives the food seeking in the first place. That’s why healing is an emotional and a relational practice.
I understand that this is counterintuitive, and can be frightening. It’s often uncomfortable, for it means facing, feeling and being with painful emotions and experiences. It takes patience, and time, because like anything, it takes practice to do something difficult, and this includes the practice of being with painful emotions.
It also takes love: a space of openness, acceptance and welcome for these painful, hurting aspects of yourself.
What happens when frustration and shame drive the healing journey
Love is particularly important, because often what drives the healing journey out of overeating are feelings of judgment and disconnection – emotions like shame, embarrassment, and frustration. Understandably so – it’s frustrating to feel out of control with food, to struggle to be healthy, and to work so hard without tangible results. And it can feel embarrassing to struggle with overeating, especially in cultures that carry a lot of shame around weight, fat and the body.
When shame and frustration drive the healing process, they bring fear, anxiety, and urgency into the process. These emotions create a strong desire to fix and to control. This undermines the healing journey and makes it feel very stressful, a feeling of “do or die,” where there is no margin for error. This can manifest as a need to purge after a binge; fasting, skipping meals, or dieting to make up for times of overeating, or high anxiety – a feeling of “the world’s coming to an end” when you eat the “wrong thing.”
Frustration is the root emotion under aggression, and this aggression comes out at ourselves. Aggression can arise as feelings of disgust – “I am so sick of being fat, and out of control,” a desire to “hack away” at the body, or mental thoughts about being ugly, sinful, bad, wrong, uncontrollable, and disgusting. It can appear as scorn, a withholding of love or approval: you only get new clothes after you lose weight. And it can become a subtle form of punishment, of “whipping yourself into shape” through strict food plans, cleanses, detoxes or overexercise.
Ouch – so painful!
How loving relationship creates the safety to grow
Love – a field of caring, compassion, and understanding – needs to be both the driver of and the container for the healing process. Love plays many roles in the healing journey.
Love softens the urgency and need to control, and fosters patience: a willingness to open to the growth process, something that has its own timing.
Loving relationship creates a space of unconditional acceptance. This gives your brain and heart the safety and connection you need to heal and grow.
Love softens the heart, transforming feelings of frustration and aggression into grief and acceptance. This grief process is one of the key turning points in the healing process. It softens the aggression that I described above. This grieving process is what leads to new life – both different emotions and different ways of caring for yourself. This includes new ways of relating to the impulse to overeat, new ways of eating, and new ways of caring for the needs and emotions under the food.
Love expands the mind from judgment to compassion where there is room for all of you. You can include your struggles with food in your definition of wholeness – you do not have to make these parts of yourself or of your history an outcast.
And love moves the will from a desire to force into a space of willingness – to both face the pain underneath the overeating, and to be transformed.
The healing process is a grieving process
I found this to be true in my own life. I struggled with eating disorders for over 20 years, and I hated my chubby, overeating, out of control self. She filled me with so much shame and self loathing!
Because I hated her, I tried to “cut” this person out of my life as quickly as I could by controlling my food cravings, obsessing over the latest nutritional fad, or trying to lose weight. I wanted to silence her. I was disgusted by her. I was caught, and I was split – fighting amongst myself.
It was only by turning towards this part of me in compassion – curious about what she was feeling and needing – that I uncovered the hurt that drove me to food. Over time, as I opened to this pain, grieved my wounds, and gave myself acceptance, I slowly found a space to grow, heal and transform.
In many ways, the loving process and healing process is a grieving process. In opening to these hurting, messy parts of ourselves, we face our human vulnerability and pain. In this vulnerability and pain we find our buried grief. This grief is the attachment cry under the overeating. It is the well that feeds it.
Please see me, please hear me, please acknowledge me, please care for me.
By attending to this grief, your heart softens. Your compulsions with food soften. The shame and self judgment softens. In your grief, you find a deeper wholeness: acceptance for the full width and measure of your life, acceptance for the part that overeating had to play. And often, a feeling of gratitude for it.
In this way, you’re using your will power in a way that helps, rather than causes harm: to soften the heart, soften the mind, and perservere through the discomfort of the healing process.
If you’d like to read more about grief and its role in the healing journey out of overeating, you may enjoy reading more on why food compulsions are healed in relationship and how to heal the loss underneath an eating disorder, and how grieving heals a sugar addiction.