The Emotional Eater's Repair Manual
A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for Putting an End to Overeating and Dieting
By Julie M. Simon
New World Library Copyright © 2012 Julie M. Simon
All rights reserved.
When Overeating Is Driven by Emotional Hunger
People come to my seminars, workshops, groups, and Twelve-Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program because they feel they've done everything they can to stop overeating and lose weight. They've tried diets, fasts, exercise regimens, pills, shots, hypnosis, gastric bypass, lap-band surgery, and alternative health care practices, all to no avail. They've lost weight and gained it back, and they still can't stop overeating. Referred by their friends, family members, colleagues, physicians, dietitians, and other health care providers, they come to see me in a confused and desperate state — they feel like I am their last hope. Some are obese; some are suffering from multiple degenerative conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Others are closer to their goal weight but can't stop thinking about food and fatness. They believe they lack willpower. They label themselves as lazy, undisciplined, or powerless, primarily when it comes to eating and exercise.
Many emotional eaters believe that their weight challenges are the result of factors outside their control.
"Everyone in my family is heavy; it's just my genetics and there's nothing I can do besides severe dieting."
"There's no time to exercise while working full-time and raising a family."
"There's constantly food around at my job, and most of it is high in fat and junky; it's just too tempting."
"Socially, we eat out regularly in restaurants, and it's nearly impossible to eat healthfully without offending others."
"Ever since I injured my foot, I've packed on the pounds. I can't do heavy-duty cardio like I used to."
"I overeat just because I love food and eating."
While these factors are reasonable and do play a part in our overeating, they do not represent the true cause of our inability to take weight off and keep it off. We all have a natural body weight, and our bodies are not naturally overweight or underweight. Maintaining this weight is supposed to be easy, comfortable, and intuitive.
We all enjoy eating and, on occasion, will eat when not hungry or overeat just because the food is incredibly tasty or because it enhances our personal or social experiences. An afternoon out with a good friend is certainly more enjoyable with coffee and a pastry. And what would a good movie be without a bag of popcorn? There's nothing wrong with occasionally using food to enhance enjoyment and celebrate life. The problem arises when we use food in this way so often that we become overweight or our health is at risk.
The truth is, if you regularly eat when you're not hungry or when you're already full, or if you regularly choose to eat unhealthy comfort foods, the bulk of your overeating occurs not just because you love food and enjoy eating or have a stressful schedule. And it's not because you're lazy and undisciplined, have bad genes, or lack willpower. Your emotional eating represents your limited ability to care for yourself. It's a sign that you're lacking self-care skills that are generally learned in childhood. Emotional eating highlights your difficulty in connecting to yourself; in paying attention to your mind, body, and spirit signals; and in responding appropriately to meet your needs. As disturbing as this may sound, it is true.
What do I mean when I say mind, body, and spirit signals? I'm talking about emotional signals, such as joy, happiness, sadness, and anger. And cognitive signals, like pleasant, empowering thoughts or persistent pessimistic, fear-based thoughts. I'm referring to physical signals, like hunger, fullness, cravings, fatigue, bloating, headache, insomnia, and irritability. And spiritual signals, like inspiration and passion, or meaninglessness, purposelessness, and apathy. When we pay attention to these signals, they can guide us in meeting our daily needs.
When you eat emotionally, it's as if you're saying one or more of the following:
"I don't know how to read my signals; all I know is that I feel physically hungry."
"I don't know what I feel and need."
"I'm afraid that if I allow myself to feel my feelings, I'll be consumed by them and might lose control."
"I'm aware of my signals; I know when I'm hungry or full, and I know what I feel and need, but I don't know what to do with these emotions or how to meet my needs. I eat because I feel powerless and hopeless."
"I can't meet my needs until I lose twenty pounds, get a nose job, straighten my hair, earn more money, become an extrovert, and so on; I'm stuck."
So you use food to calm, soothe, comfort, and pleasure yourself, distract yourself from unpleasant emotional states and powerless thoughts, and fill up an inner emptiness.
No doubt your emotional eating has helped you cope daily with selfdefeating thoughts and emotional states like anxiety and depression. But it isn't a very effective long-term strategy for meeting your needs and desires. Not only does it lead to weight gain and poor health but it also can never be a substitute for learned skills. And you won't learn more effective self-care skills by going on another diet! Without these skills, you'll tend to feel somewhat disconnected from yourself and others. Your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors can become easily imbalanced.
You Started Out Life in Touch with Your Signals
You began life as an intuitive little being keenly in touch with your most basic signals. When you were an infant, physical sensations like hunger and fullness signaled you to reach for or push away from your mother's breast. Early in life, feeding was associated with pleasure, soothing, and connection. Other bodily sensations, such as tension or discomfort, signaled you to cry out for support and cling for comfort. As an infant, you depended on your caregivers to fulfill your needs and supply nurturance. (I use the term caregivers to include parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and anyone else who had a significant influence on your development.)
As you grew, your mind, body, and spirit signals continued to inform you of your needs and to prompt you to seek care. Each phase of your development involved specific developmental needs and particular kinds of nurturance. Childhood is a time of dependency, and we call these needs "dependency needs." When our dependency needs are consistently met with appropriate nurturance, we acquire the developmental skills we need to care for ourselves throughout our lives.
Stop for a moment and reflect: Were your caregivers kind and empathic? Were they good listeners? Did it feel safe to express all your emotions? Were they patient and comforting when you were upset or discouraged? Did they know how to soothe and comfort you when you needed it? Did they help you identify and meet your needs? Was it okay to have personal boundaries? Did they set and enforce reasonable limits? Were you treated with fairness and respect? Did you feel loved and valued? Keep in mind that even well-intentioned caregivers can miss the mark. The goal here isn't to find fault and blame; rather, it's to understand what might have been missing and where your skill building may have gone off track.
It's our caregivers' job to provide us with an environment that meets our basic physical needs (food, clothing, shelter) and emotional needs. We need our caregivers to help us identify and name our emotions. We need them to allow us to feel and express all our emotions and help us tolerate and navigate challenging emotional states by soothing us and teaching us how to soothe ourselves. And we need them to help us identify and meet our needs. This requires an atmosphere of patience, warmth, empathy, and understanding. We need to experience acceptance, emotional availability, good attunement, fairness, and respect.
It's important that our caregivers model positive, hopeful thinking and help us replace any pessimistic, self-doubting, or fearful thoughts. And it's helpful when they regularly express joy, happiness, and even excitement so we know that these emotional states are also possible and acceptable.
When our caregivers allow us free emotional expression and help us meet our needs, we learn to trust our signals and the goodwill of others. In this loving atmosphere, we develop an inner sense of safety, security, and trust, as well as a feeling of worthiness. We naturally develop selfacceptance and self-love. We learn where we end and the world begins, and that it's okay to have personal boundaries. We learn that there will always be enough. Enough love, joy, and care; enough mature and wise mentoring and guidance; and enough nourishment. In this environment filled with "enough-ness," we learn the important skill of self-discipline. We learn how to set reasonable limits and delay gratification of our impulses, so that we can take the best care of ourselves and meet personal goals.
The kindness and goodwill of our caregivers fosters the formation of a solid sense of self and good self-esteem. We begin to establish our own unique identity as our caregivers encourage our growing autonomy. We are able to separate from them, having developed a capacity for intimacy with and love of ourselves and others and the ability to identify and meet our needs.
Somewhere You Lost Touch with Your Signals
You may have grown up in an environment where, for a variety of reasons, your basic physical and emotional needs were inadequately met. Your caregivers may not have had their basic needs adequately met and may have been incapable of meeting yours. Even well-meaning, loving caregivers can be excessively self-absorbed or needy and regularly distracted by their internal struggles. Yours may have had a physical or mental illness. Perhaps they were angry, anxious, depressed, controlling, dominating, hypercritical, indifferent, irritable, intimidating, overindulgent, overprotective, out of touch, full of rage, or shaming. And the list goes on.
When our caregivers are inconsistent or unpredictable, we adapt to this stress by becoming hyperalert. Perhaps they worked too many hours and had too many responsibilities, and you felt neglected and abandoned. Maybe you were forced to spend much of your precious childhood trying to cope with unpleasant emotional states, insecurity, and low self-esteem. Your emotions and needs were neglected, and you lost touch with these important internal signals.
It's easy to see how we can begin to use food for comfort, pleasure, and calming. Unlike our neglectful family environment and chaotic inner world, food is soothing, readily available, and predictable. Rather than acquiring necessary self-care skills, we end up with skill deficits, which unfortunately can have lifelong consequences. We grow up with an emotionally starved inner child running our lives.
Perhaps Insecurity Is All You've Ever Known
In your childhood, you may have had to maintain your guard against emotional or physical abuse. You probably never thought of this as abuse or trauma; after all, it was all you knew. But moderate or severe neglect of our developmental needs is traumatic and can have a lasting effect on our psychological development.
Abandonment, attack, betrayal, blame, neglect, rejection, and shame are all examples of trauma. Emotional trauma, like physical trauma, creates wounds and leaves scars. Trauma results in and forces us to cope with chronic unpleasant emotional states such as anxiety, depression, sadness, emptiness, hurt, loneliness, and guilt. These emotional states distort our perceptions of ourselves, others, and our behaviors.
The neglect and abuse we've suffered creates what John Bradshaw, author of Homecoming, calls "toxic shame: the feeling of being flawed and diminished and never measuring up." The shame we feel makes it difficult for us to embrace both our strengths and weaknesses and develop a healthy level of self-esteem and self-acceptance. We lack the self-esteem to stand up to peer pressure and unrealistic cultural standards, and we begin to compensate for our lack of self-worth by trying to control our appetites and bodies.
The effect on our development depends on the severity of these adverse influences, the presence of more positive counterbalancing influences, and our own constitutional makeup. Children differ in their sensitivity to stressors. Some tolerate major stressors, while others fall apart from minor stressors.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we enter adulthood with a basic sense of insecurity. It's all we've ever known. We have a hurt, sad, angry, anxious, lonely, wounded child within. We're forced to present to the world a false self, the one our caregivers required us to adopt. We've become disconnected from our authentic self.
Trauma Distorts Thoughts and Behavior
The traumas you may have experienced, whether they were mild or severe, have affected more than your emotional well-being; they've most likely distorted your thoughts and behaviors as well. Perhaps your thoughts tend to be fearful, critical, negative, judgmental, obsessive, and self-defeating. In addition to emotional eating, you may resort to ineffective behavior patterns such as avoidance, procrastination, people pleasing, and striving for perfection to cope with unpleasant emotions and negative thoughts. You may also use shopping, busyness, drama, gambling, sex, or even self-mutilation to distract yourself from the pain. All these addictive behavior patterns compensate for your lack of self-care skills, and they perpetuate the pain.
Your Personal Boundaries May Be Too Loose or Too Rigid
Personal boundaries are a sort of invisible psychological edge, or limit, that defines where we end and another person, or the world, begins. Just like the skin on your body, these boundaries are meant to protect you by allowing the good to flow in and by keeping the bad outside you. They keep you safe by signaling whether someone's behavior or energy feels friendly or inappropriate.
When our caregivers model firm yet flexible, healthy boundaries, we grow up with clear, healthy boundaries of our own. Caregivers with poor boundaries raise children with poor boundaries. If your boundaries tend to be too loose, you'll feel somewhat merged or enmeshed with others and their needs. You may have difficulty identifying and expressing your own needs and asking for support in meeting them. Perhaps you regularly say yes when you really want to say no. You might have difficulty tuning in to boundary invasions; perhaps you're overly trusting and gullible. Or maybe you have keen antennae and do pick up the signals, but you have difficulty trusting them and fear asserting yourself. When your boundaries are too rigid, you feel lonely and disconnected from others. You may long for intimacy but fear the engulfment that you associate with closeness.
You Can] Learn These Skills and End Your Emotional Eating
It may be comforting to know that many of us, not only emotional eaters, are missing skills from childhood, and that this leads to emotional, cognitive, and behavioral imbalance. We may not overeat, but a loved one may feel we use alcohol, drugs, drama, sex, pornography, video games, or anger to excess. Maybe we spend money compulsively or gamble irresponsibly. We may be a workaholic or use busyness as our drug of choice.
Perhaps we're chronically late, we procrastinate, or we have excessive clutter. Maybe we battle depression or experience chronic anxiety and panic attacks. Our relationships may be strained; we may have few friends. Perhaps we have difficulty with motivation and discipline in many areas of our lives. We may feel dull and apathetic and find our lives lack meaning, passion, or purpose.
The five self-care skills that follow represent the skills everyone, not just emotional eaters, must master to experience a solid sense of self and lead a fulfilled life. These skills help us take the best care of ourselves. Reconnecting to your authentic self takes time and is a process. It will require some practice and patience on your part. The good news is that these are all skills you can acquire.
The Five Self-Care Skills
Most weight loss programs attempt to apply external solutions to internal problems. They focus on what and how much we eat and how much we exercise. Yet as I've mentioned, it's our inner world of emotions, thoughts, and needs that drive our behavior. In order to understand the behavior of emotional eating, we have to tune in to and explore our inner world.
Focusing on external solutions, such as fad diets or exercise routines, is like trying to solve the problem of a derailed or stalled train by giving it a new coat of paint and polishing its wheels. No matter how much paint or polish we apply, the train will remain stuck. We need to access the engine that drives the train so that we can accurately diagnose the problem. The five self-care skills that follow are the tools you will use to get your train back on track and running properly. They represent the developmental skills and inner support system that help you maintain balance. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Emotional Eater's Repair Manual by Julie M. Simon. Copyright © 2012 Julie M. Simon. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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