Why Should We Make Friends with Our Feelings?

Feelings. Yuck. Murky things that make us feel really uncomfortable.

To people with overeating issues, feelings are about as welcome as a dog in a game of skittles.

Our natural inclination is to run from our emotions, to avoid them like the plague. They’re so ambiguous, unsettling and uncertain. And we don’t like uncertainty. We like to be in control and know what to expect.

Rather than stay with ourselves emotionally, time and again we abandon ourselves and reach for food. We don’t even have to be experiencing “negative” or challenging feelings. Many clients report that they turn to food when they’re feeling anything – sad, happy, frustrated, excited. Most of the time they’re not even aware of what they’re doing. There’s no thought process involved. Before they know it, they’ve switched to autopilot and are eating like there’s no tomorrow.

And it works. Let’s admit that. In the short term, bingeing on food to bypass what you’re feeling works.

Following a binge, you’re no longer in danger of experiencing those indistinct, confusing emotions. You know exactly what you’re feeling: you feel sick because you’re full to the point of bursting and you’re consumed with self-loathing because you’ve “failed” yet again.

In this way, the physical and psychological aftermath of overeating is better than running the risk of experiencing what you were feeling in the first place.

Or is it?

What would be so awful about acknowledging what you’re feeling?

Many of my clients began using food as a coping mechanism when they were children because their emotional needs were ignored by their parents or carers. Food was their way of dissociating from feelings which would have been too overwhelming to experience – feelings such as abandonment, abuse, isolation, loneliness. As an adult, however, we can learn to recognise and tolerate these feelings without turning to food.

Acknowledging your feelings is not a great, dramatic event. It doesn’t mean you run around telling anyone who’ll listen what you’re experiencing at any given moment. It’s a deeply personal process involving you getting to know and understand yourself better.

Maybe start by becoming aware of what you’re feeling as you’re reading this. Is anything coming up for you? Are you feeling any discomfort? You don’t have to try to get an exact handle on what you’re feeling but just accepting that something is going on within you is a really good start. “I am feeling something” is still an acknowledgement.

You may even be able to find some words that fit, such as “tense”, “resistant” or “intrigued”. Here’s a list of feeling words to help you.

Most people with overeating issues suffer from a lack of emotional language and, like any language, it takes time to learn. So please be patient with yourself. You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to get it “right”. Don’t let this be another thing you beat yourself up about. Above all, don’t judge your feelings. My clients will often say “it’s ridiculous that I feel like this” or “I shouldn’t feel this way”. If you dismiss your feelings you terminate the connection to them.

And you need that connection, because using food to regulate your feelings may work in the short term but it really doesn’t work in the long term.

Turning to food to soothe yourself ultimately doesn’t bring you comfort.

Overeating and carrying a lot of excess weight make you really unhappy and get in the way of you living your life to the full. Therefore, bingeing doesn’t do the job you think it does – it doesn’t ease your distress, it contributes to it.

Emotions are a vital part of our experience and they clamour for our attention. Just acknowledging them can reduce their energy so you feel calmer and are able to think more clearly. Try it and see how it feels.

In time, you may find that, instead of resenting them like an uninvited house guest, you’re able to welcome them like a good friend.

Here are some thoughts about how to get in touch with your feelings.

Why Is It Not Unusual To Feel Conflicted?

“I just want to lose weight”.

If you’re overweight you probably hear yourself say that a lot. Sometimes it might feel like the extended dance mix is playing on a loop in your head with repeated choruses of “I hate myself, I’m so disgusting”.

With such conscious thoughts, it’s easy to believe that all you want is just to lose weight and if you could do that (ideally instantly) then everything would be OK.

However, while it’s true that there’s a part of you that really “just wants to lose weight”, there may be another part that really doesn’t. And while the part that wants to lose weight is very well known to you, the part that doesn’t can be completely unfamiliar.

Clients often struggle to believe that they feel conflicted about changing their eating behaviour and losing weight, but time and again it comes up. They can be doing really well normalising their relationship with food when bam! they’re back to bingeing quicker than you can say “where are my car keys? I’ll just pop to the all-night garage”.

While relapse is a perfectly normal part of recovery, these episodes go beyond a bit of overeating or occasionally reaching for food when they’re not hungry. It feels like something else is going on here – some subconscious self-sabotage at work.

So why might you be conflicted about resolving your issues with food and weight?

It’s a really good question to ask yourself. Does anything come to mind? Is there a small voice inside you trying to get your attention?

There can be many reasons why you might be afraid to change.

If you turn to food to look after yourself emotionally the thought of changing your eating behaviour can be terrifying. If you’re not going to binge to supress your feelings then how else are you going to deal with them? It can feel like nothing will ever replace food, nothing will taste as good or do the job you need it to do.

One of the most powerful reasons for retaining surplus weight is sexual protection. This reason can be complex in itself. On the one hand, the thought of reducing in size can make you fear being more sexually attractive and, therefore, vulnerable to attack. On the other, you can be concerned if you lose weight that you will become sexually provocative and promiscuous and will turn into someone you don’t like.

Dealing with conflict is a normal part of the process of recovering from overeating issues and it is where your psychological energy is best spent. Try as you might to normalise your eating, if there’s a part of you that’s not on board, you’re going to struggle. There’s no point trying to force yourself to do something that a part of you fundamentally doesn’t want to do.

Crucially, while the part of you that doesn’t want to change is intensely vulnerable, it’s also tremendously powerful. It’s this part that motivates you to binge. It doesn’t care about nutrition or how much weight you gain or how awful you feel physically. It’s just trying to survive emotionally in the world and it believes it needs food in order to do that. In the battle of to eat or not to eat, it will always emerge victorious.

So please get to know it, maybe start by writing down how you truly feel about resolving your issues with food and weight. Be gentle with yourself. Understand the scared part of you as well as you do the part that desperately wants to change. In this way, you might find a compromise between these conflicting factions of your personality that seemingly want very different things.

Then perhaps you can begin to work with yourself to heal your relationship with food and allow yourself gradually to let go of your excess weight.

Here are some more thoughts on how to deal with inner conflict.

Why Should We Eat ‘Normally’?

It’s my job to help people normalise their relationship with food.

I’m a psychotherapist who works exclusively with people who overeat.  I use the term “emotion-driven overeating” to encompass the overeating spectrum that includes compulsive eating, emotional eating and binge eating disorder.

But why is it important to have a “normal” relationship with food?  After all, some would argue that most people have a dysfunctional relationship with food, that there is no “normal”.  So what’s the big deal?

Continue reading “Why Should We Eat ‘Normally’?”