Behind every eater is an emotional human being. We are programmed to want food and to be satisfied by food. Food is also central to our upbringing, and therefore represents different things to each individual depending on the way their parents dealt with eating and particular foods: Food as love, food as reward, food as punishment.
Similarly, we all have an emotionally charged meaning to the way we view our bodies. How we view ourselves if we are overweight, underweight, like what we see, or get attention from others because of our bodies: Body as lovable, sexual, vulnerable, strong. Combined, these make eating and dieting have a huge emotional component driving all the behaviors.
The typical emotional stories driving difficulties with losing weight are:
1. Food as comfort.
Almost everyone deals with feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, and frustration at times. When a negative feeling is more intense than one can comfortably tolerate, then one will look for a way to make themselves feel better. Food is one of the most common “rescues” to bad moods.
Psychologically, it feels like being nurtured in the way mom gave you food as part of taking care of you and making you feel better. This is why common choices may be those “foods of childhood” like mac-n-cheese, chips, and cookies. Food also provides a more direct positive behavioral feedback by stimulating areas in the brain responsible for satiation.
Solutions to this roadblock to dieting are identifying which negative affect/feeling you struggle with, what tends to set it off, and thinking of several other coping mechanisms that you find soothing, such as writing in a journal, listening to music, taking a warm bath (using other “sensory” stimulators as comfort and distraction).
2. Food as punishment.
When someone is struggling with low self esteem or with guilt, they may use overeating and staying overweight as a means of self punishment. An extreme version of this is binging: When you know full well that eating an entire package of Mallomars will be followed by feeling sick, gaining weight and feeling very badly about it, but you continue to do it anyway, think guilt.
People can feel guilt for all sorts of seemingly nonsensical reasons. You may not even be aware that it is guilt, but rather have a sense of being an undeserving person, or a bad person. Some people experience thoughts like “Why bother,” “There is no use,” “I will never look good.”
The key here is to figure out that you fit here, that there is something unconscious that is making you feel guilty, like a person deserving of punishment. Even if you intellectually know you didn’t really do anything terrible, allow yourself to think of the strange ways you may think you are wrong or have done wrong. Then think this over to see if you can change them once you compare them to reality.
3. Fear of success.
This is much bigger than many women realize. If you have lost weight many times and then get increasingly and oddly uncomfortable as the weight comes off, so it somehow magically comes back on, this could be you.
Many women are quietly afraid of getting attention or of having men become interested in them. They are frightened by their own sexual and intimate desires and have dealt with that by staying so heavy they kept others away and don’t have to deal with it: Once the pounds come off, the fear of how to handle a man’s desire, her own desire, and getting into the game with fears of rejection, too. (“What if he rejects me and I can’t say it’s because I am fat.”)
Sometimes a woman in this boat can really benefit from professional help to understand why she is so afraid of sexuality, her own, and/or a man’s. It can relate to a past experience, relationship, or simply the meaning of sexuality has gotten corrupted early in life. Understanding the root of this is key to moving past this roadblock.
What have your experiences with emotional eating been like?