The seven most difficult feelings for emotional eaters
All theories of emotional eating share the assumption that before emotional eating occurs, we tend to experience a negative affect that we cannot properly regulate. This affect may prompt us to employ strategies that we have available but that are not necessarily adaptive in the long term. This is an important finding, since it suggests that the problem is not necessarily associated with negative emotions per se, but rather with the lack of adaptive coping strategies available to regulate our negative affect.
This hypothesis is also confirmed by studies showing that a common feature between emotional eaters is the tendency to regularly avoid or minimize a specific set of emotions - specifically what we refer to as negative affects. Paradoxically, it was also shown that these exact feelings triggered emotional cravings.
So, what are the most problematic effects for emotional eaters?
Most of us who are emotional eaters tend to be oriented towards fulfilling other’s needs. Additionally we have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and despite these qualities, we rarely believe that we are good enough. For many of us this equates to a constant state of guilt, as there is a sense that we can never get things right as much as we believe that we should. These incredibly high standards are setting us up for failure. Additionally, we often tend to be people-pleasers and feel inadequate and selfish when we do things for ourselves, therefore self-care is often on the bottom of our priority list.
The "best" way in which we take care of ourselves is through food - you guessed that right.
As emotional eaters many of us are convinced that our eating behavior is shameful and that it is impossible to stop or change it. In many cases if we are coming from shame-inducing families, in an unconscious and paradoxical way we maintain what we believe we ought to feel or what we are used to feeling. If shame is a part of our emotional vocabulary we tend to maintain it through our own behavior, even though this is completely maladaptive and against us.
The experience of hopelessness usually stems from the belief that there is nothing we can do to improve a certain situation. It underlies many feelings including frustration, impatience, anger and anxiety. The belief is not coincidental and many times it relates to early experiences of powerlessness when in crucial moments we did not have an adult to support us or to show us how to handle our fears. This often can lead us to the belief that - something bad is going to happen and there is nothing that we can do about it.
As emotional eaters many of us fight our fears by taking action - managing our food intake gives a sense of control, and comfort foods my sooth us in a state of helplessness, at least in the short-term.
Many of us tend to reach for food in order to soothe our nerves in difficult moments. As those feelings arise, we tend to feel stressed, anxious and preoccupied with fears about what will happen in the future or what had gone wrong in the past. This makes it extremely hard to stay present in the moment and to shut off our should-could-would judgments. Thus concentrating on food or food control often provides a temporary relief from other worries but at the same time creates additional anxiety about food and weight.
Chronic disappointment can lead us to believe that we don’t deserve to have positive expectations and outcomes in life. Wanting something better for ourselves thus causes us to feel needy and so we deny ourselves our most genuine desires. Because it’s too scary to have expectations of ourselves or of other people, we turn to something that is predictable and always in good supply—food. When we suffer a letdown or disappointment, food picks us up, at least for a while. As restrictive eaters we often deal with disappointment by actually raising our expectations of ourselves by obsessive calorie-counting and fixating on weight. In this way we communicate to ourselves, "Others might disappoint me, but I have high standards".
It is often overlooked as a troubling emotion because it’s considered one of the “small” feelings, not a powerful one like fear or shame. Nevertheless confusion is prevalent in a population of eaters who are out of touch with their physical needs and wants. If we are not sure whether we are really hungry or deserve to eat and if we are not certain if we are hungry or full, what we ought to look like, and what we should weigh, confusion runs deep within our emotional experiences. Most of our confusion is then about the concept of "enough" in numerous areas of their lives. What drives our confusion is the desperate urge to find out what is the right thing to do so that we protect ourselves from making mistakes. Because it’s difficult to tolerate the tension created by vague, mixed or conflicting feelings, we often give up and numb the feelings through indulgence or restriction.
To feel chronically lonely can often be traced back to childhood fears of being abandoned, rejected, dismissed, ignored, unseen, and unheard. In our untutored young minds, when we were not reflected in someone’s eyes, we felt disconnected, invisible, and as if we did not exist. When we feel this depth of loneliness, we become desperate to bond with something, anything—to merely feel alive. For some of us, eating reminds us of the comfort we crave. There is a strong association between nutrition and being held and fed, connected to someone, and to a strong reference to a time when we might have felt loved and valued. If we are overwhelmed with emptiness and loneliness, obsessing about food can be a relief. In other cases we can believe that controlling our food intake or weight can be a tool to convince ourselves how little we need.
Stop and ask yourself, how do you feel right now?
Written by Rositsa Stoycheva, M.Sc.
Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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