There are key factors that make emotional eating and disordered eating, in general, more complex than any other type of compulsive behaviour.
If someone feels out of control and powerless to resist gambling, smoking, alcohol, or drugs they can be helped therapeutically to end their compulsive behaviour.
The measure of success in these cases is often complete abstinence or cessation of that behaviour.
However, the difference when the compulsive behaviour is around food is that everyone needs to eat. True success with stopping emotional eating means achieving a healthy integration of food into one’s life, possibly for the first time ever.
A true measure of success with emotional eating is to foster a difference in thinking, and self-belief so that it is possible to be calm, and relaxed around food, and once and for all to step off the merry-go-round of obsessive over-thinking about food, and critical self-judgement.
In the West, the definition of an acceptable body type for women, and increasingly for men, is force-fed to us through media indoctrination and imposes an impossible ideal. Unattainable standards of physical perfection are loudly proclaimed on all media platforms by self-appointed body fascists who deride anyone who fails to comply with their narrow definition of perfect.
The constant dog-whistle of not being good enough, read slim enough, read perfect enough, forms part of the almost subliminal white noise of self-admonition heard typically by women, and now an increasing number of men, who are constantly made to feel inadequate. Very few people are exempt from some degree of negative self-judgement about their bodies as the bar of perfection is out of any normal human being’s reach.
Food is an enjoyable, vital source of sustenance for every human. It is impossible to grow, and thrive without proper nourishment. Food and eating become complicated for many people when it moves away from something other than an aspect of being alive, and thriving. Social, cultural and psychological constructs abound, and not all these influences encourage a healthy relationship between oneself and food. The effects on each individual are unique. The degree to which negative emotions versus positive emotions are triggered by food and eating is a key factor to whether someone will develop emotional eating issues, or not.
There is no single definition of a typical emotional eater. It’s a common misconception that all emotional eaters are overweight.
Many are within normal weight range but only because of their obsessive dieting, bingeing, and disordered eating that is a well-kept secret. To give you a sense of a typical emotional eater it’s helpful to understand that their innate sense of self-worth, how they actually see themselves as a worthy person is closely linked to the numbers on their bathroom scales. A pound lost, or a pound gained can set the tenor for their whole day. Emotional eaters battle with their own body’s hunger, and cravings. They know there have been times when they have succumbed, and eaten one ‘bad’ food for it to start a tsunami of over-eating, or even bingeing, and sometimes purging with all the accompanying feelings of shame, and self-loathing. An emotional eater’s attitude towards themselves, and food isn’t logical, and as it is rarely if ever discussed, or admitted to, strong beliefs can lurk in the shadow-lands, at the margins of full conscious awareness.
Liz Hogon and I use a mix of therapies to enable our clients to get in touch with their often complex emotions that cause their disordered, or erratic eating.
Firstly, we use therapeutic approaches to help reveal suppressed feelings that have encouraged self-sabotaging behaviour around food. The process helps to build a person’s own intuition and can be particularly effective in helping to dispel anxiety and feelings of overwhelm from being caught in a yo-yo dieting trap.
Additionally, we work with clients to alleviate sugar and carbohydrate cravings as well as reducing portion sizes which are often associated with weight gain.
Cravings for example are approached using an easy to learn twenty minute protocol. It encourages the client to identify key trigger foods and the process then takes them through to the eventual eradication of any desire for those junk-foods without them experiencing any sense of deprivation. It can work with a whole range of food stuffs including chocolate, soft drinks, and other fattening foods such as crisps, and sweets. The process works to reduce the feelings of desire for whatever foods are creating problems until the cravings are no longer an issue and have been erased.
Another of therapeutic approach we use a great deal in our work is brilliant at helping to discover the underlying reasons for self-sabotaging behaviour around food. With this therapy tool, we can turn down or break the emotional attachment to previous negative experiences leaving people feeling peaceful, and unencumbered by their past. For instance, people who experienced hunger as a child can find it very challenging to address their constant food grazing habits, even though logically they are aware of the implications of their over-eating. This tool works to remove the emotions attached to those past memories so that in the present a person can easily formulate a helpful approach to eating for nourishment transforming their relationship with food.
From this work, clients gain a greater sense of self-awareness of some of the negative feelings and emotions that have been driving their emotional eating.
These are often long held beliefs that they may not have been fully aware of such as old memories of times of stress or anxiety when they turned to food for comfort or distraction.
Gaining awareness is an important early step to being able to resolve those negative emotions. The aim of our work is to empower people to manage their own emotions in healthier ways without having to resort to swallowing down their feelings with food.
Hypnosis is also often used to support, and reinforce all the positive changes being made. We believe very strongly that emotional eating is never about being greedy, and never simply about food. That is why diets do not work, and even Bariatric surgery isn’t always guaranteed to deliver a successful outcome. Hard fought for weight losses inevitably turn into weight gains when the underlying reasons for emotional eating are not fully resolved, and released.
Some people are able to recall specific events, or memories that made them begin to feel negative about themselves. Unsurprisingly perhaps these events or memories most commonly took place in childhood, or early adolescence, often when they felt overwhelmed, and powerless.
Other people may not have any sense of what may have initially triggered their emotional eating habits. However, it is not essential to know what started the emotional eating as our therapy approach can also successfully work with the emotions people feel about themselves in the present.
The therapy tools we use can be used to reframe or adjust their long-held negative thoughts about themselves as the first step towards self-acceptance. Self-acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. It is, however, a vital step in ending harsh, critical self-judgements which are manifested in destructive self-talk. This inner monologue that runs almost non-stop for some people can be transformed into one that is more positive and supportive.
Many people have felt literally weighed down by negativity about themselves for such a long time it can be a transformative process to take steps towards healing, and feeling lighter, and happier in oneself. The approach we have developed encourages listening to oneself and bearing witness with oneself to end the critical self-judgements so that the negative emotions that drive emotional eating can finally stop. We believe it is then and only then that emotional eaters can allow themselves to eat for nourishment instead of self-punishment.
First published in Kindred Spirit Magazine.
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