I see the way my mother treats our family dog, DeeDee, and as funny as it sounds, I get a glimpse of the way she must have loved and coddled me as a baby. If Dee gets upset, starts barking, chews on a slipper, gets into a roll- or seven- of toilet paper, Mom is able to distract her with the very mention of a treat. DeeDee forgets whatever small acts of terrorism she’s committing in favor of Puperoni.
It’s so darn easy to do. To appease and love and distract and reward through yummy. Really it is. And it’s not that I blame my mother in any fraction of a way for my own ending up at nearly 300lbs, it’s just that I know when I see her hush a crying toddler who wants to play with the glass figurine in the china cabinet with a Fudgicle pacifier, I know that I must have been hushed the same sweet chocolatey way. I notice myself doing it as a babysitter. Nothing quite stops a hysterical two-year-old like a promise of cookies and their favorite movie. It’s the distraction and the pacification that works when all rationalization has failed.
Maybe it taught me that I shouldn’t experience discomfort. That whenever I start to feel even one iota of boredom, doubt, anxiety, anger, that food will soothe me. And though logically I know that food does not solve my frustrations and my fears, I’ve come to condition myself that it does. At least temporarily.
I’m an escapist. I want to run away when I feel threatened emotionally. Even from myself. It’s why I loved diving face first into food for so damn long. I look back at two decades and know that yes, I was sad and anxious and lonely and scared and angry, and food was a means of coping. I ate my way away from discomfort. Because I was distracted, I was high on sugar. I was so full I simply didn’t have the room for anything else, most especially uncomfortable emotions.
In truth, I didn’t figure all of this out until after I had lost all 135lbs. I spent a year losing the weight, approaching it as one would any diet and exercise regimen, being diligent and disciplined and willful. I saw a finish line and I sprinted there, thinking, ‘I’ll figure out how to stay there when I cross that line.’ A ‘let’s cross that bridge when we get to it’ mentality. I imagine this is the downfall of any diet, any weight loss surgery, any effort that doesn’t involve the inner work. People regain weight lost because they haven’t sorted out their insides in the time they fixed their outsides. It took me 20 years to pack on an extra 135lbs, and only 13 months to lose it.
I’m not saying it’s easy to lose weight, but it is a world easier to be focused on tangible, physical things, than abstract philosophical ones. And so, in getting to my goal weight, which was less an exact number and more a range of healthy possibilities, I figured out that I had to now cope with everything I had eaten away for 20 years. It was humbling. It was the hardest period of my life.
The only way to describe this work, this period of realizing I just had to sit with my emotions rather than gulp them down with Ring Dings, is to say, “The only way out is through.”
Truly, it was a process of working through feelings rather than around them. It was not distracting, not finding replacement addictions or numbing agents. I read a million and one books on emotional eating, I discovered the brilliant Geneen Roth, author of a slew of literature that connects food with feelings and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And the answer I found to my question of, “So, I’m here, I’m thin, I’m sad as hell, what now?”, was this:
Just sit with your emotions. Be present for them.
What does that even mean?
It means that whenever I felt that urge at night to eat a king sized Reese’s, Snickers, and Almond Joy, I was probably experiencing something deeper. Because there’s a difference between wanting a sweet treat, a sugary nightcap, and wanting three to ten sweet treats. It’s as if the fact that I didn’t just want one candy bar and that I only wanted three king sizes of them in a row, was a symptom of a greater inner turmoil. Was I bored and looking for something to do? Was I sad and looking for comfort? Was I scared and food felt safe?
I found it often happened at night, the deep-seated cravings for lots and lots of food. Days were mostly fine and dandy, but come the dark and I wanted to crawl into bed with Little Debbie herself.
Talking to Daniel helped tremendously. Just forcing myself to realize that it’s not in the name of deprivation that I denied myself three king sized candy bars, but in the name of digging deeper, really checking in with myself about what I was feeling that day that sent me running to food.
So… what do I do next?
1. Realize that you never feel any better after two cupcakes than you do after one.
This is huge. Though I often begin to feel terrible sadness when I’m nearing the last bite of dessert and wishing wishing wishing for three more sweets to follow, when I do go ahead and have a second dessert, it never feels as satisfying emotionally or physically as the first. I heard once that after the first three bites of food, we begin to derive less and less new pleasure from it. Almost as if our taste buds max out. If you think about it, it’s true. And while I don’t stop after three bites, I stop after one cupcake.
2. Get a notebook and write for five solid minutes.
I don’t care how much you hate this, how boring it is, how much you feel like a sixth grader. It helps. Not because you’re penning your own Tale of Two Cities, but because it forces you to articulate the feelings you’re having. No, every time will not be some big reveal. You will not get to the absolute root of your discomfort and the reason you want to binge eat, but you will be working toward listening to yourself and the stories you tell yourself about who you are as a person, what your life is like, and how you handle stress and emotion. Often times, as I found myself begrudgingly writing when I’d rather have been eating at night, I realized that many of the so-called truths I held were unsupported and false. When you’re forced to put your abstract thoughts into words, you expose something more.
3. Just move on.
Stop dwelling, stop missing the days when you ate with reckless abandon, stop lamenting a second bowl of ice cream, stop begrudging the present moment, and move forward with your life. Eating, though it seems like the most important thing in the world, is not. Food, though one of the purest forms of pleasure and fun and reward, is just sustenance. Think about your relationships and goals and other parts of your life that bring you satisfaction. If you focus on the food, the food will take over your life and you will miss out on so much more. Life is more than a great meal plan. Think about what could happen if you shifted all of your energy from food onto other parts of your life.
4. Resist the Urge to Judge Yourself.
Breathe. Rather than judging yourself for not being able to get over the food and the want to eat and eat and eat, be kind and recognize that yes, we all want to have cookies and cupcakes and Doritos all the time. There is nothing wrong with that. The reason food manufacturers are so successfully making millions of dollars is because they’re designing food that hits every pleasure receptor in our brains and those chemicals make us crave more. We’re pleasure seekers. Duh.
The best thing you can do is just stay in the moment you’re in. That means, if you’re reading a book, dive into the story. If you’re cleaning up your living room, just observe the things in the room and the way it feels to move about them. If you’re talking to your friend, really really listen and stay in the conversation. Don’t overwhelm yourself with multi-tasking thoughts of food at the same time. Give the present your full attention and you will see that the world, and food, is much less overwhelming.
What about you? What’s your best advice for overcoming emotional eating?