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Body, Mind & Spirit

Magic of Munching

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The Magic of Munching

Understanding the internal logic of emotional eating.

Bina Bretiner



A lot of people eat for emotional reasons: because they're bored, they're lonely, they're angry, they're worried, scared or sad. They know eating doesn't fix the problem, but they eat anyway. Sometimes they diet, until they backslide and feel guilty, ashamed and helpless. Sometimes they threaten themselves with visions of that heart attack to come; other times they hold onto the image of themselves as they'd like to look and feel. And still they eat.

If every conscious trick or discipline in the book hasn't improved their relationship to food, what might? Consider sympathizing with what motivates the eating: magic.

Usually, they've felt overwhelmed. Life and people became unreliable, or maybe something bad happened suddenly. Or, just as disturbing in its own way, there's been a chronic stressor like loneliness, grief, poverty or someone's alcoholic neglect of them. The problem could be current or part of their ancient history. In the "infinite present" of the unconscious mind, it doesn't matter when or how it occurred. Until there's some kind of resolution, it's still happening "now."

So they did what every overwhelmed person does—look for omens, signs, meanings that will decipher the indecipherable. And look for something they can control, like food.

Food, or the act of eating, becomes the generic compensation: "I'm lonely, so I'll eat." "I'm angry, but it's bad, and I mustn't show it, so I'll eat." "I hate myself, so I'll eat." "My feelings are hurt, and I'm ashamed, so I'll eat." "I'm anxious and frustrated, so I'll eat and feel better." You go into that trance of compensatory eating, which takes you away from the problem.

The goal is to find equilibrium. Because you get to decide what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat, you feel you're in charge. So what if all that food is gradually hurting you? At least you're managing to stay in emotional balance. Oh, and the fact that food won't fix anything is irrelevant. Magic never yields to reason, knowledge, common sense or discipline. You're coping, and food is (magically) helping.

A few people can stay on a diet for 30 years, but most people who want to reduce their emotional eating need to change their relationship to food. Ideally, they'll find a better solution to whatever is requiring the magic. That is, they'll stop fixating on the symptom (eating) and start thinking about what's actually wrong, and how to help make it right.

To create this kind of change, you have to recognize that the distress was real. What is the extra food taking you away from, or protecting you from? The loneliness, the shock, the grief, the neglect, the anxiety—these were real. You can't change what happened, and you can't change how you experienced it. But you can distinguish between your need for relief (an honorable goal) and how you provide that relief.

If the distress came early, food was a good choice, mostly because there weren't any others. But food is only food, however delightful, not a magic solution for any and all problems. It can help you cope, but it won't cure—and we all deserve a cure, not just a temporary (and potentially destructive) fix. Finding what will provide real equilibrium is your job today.

What leads people to use food as a cure-all? It's a natural candidate, because it's always around, it has life in it, it converts to energy in the body, it combines in different ways to liquefy or rise in the oven, it's essential to life, it alters how we feel from the first to the last bite. Eating can make you feel "full" of love, and satisfied. (So what if your "starvation" isn't nutritional? It's starvation nonetheless.) Food can distract you from how bad you're feeling, so you can stay cheerful the way you're supposed to. Food can give you the extra strength to "be" whatever you think the world wants you to be. Besides, you can be in control, grab it, hide it, steal it, put it in your mouth, chew it and taste it—see, you're not powerless.

A single bite can change your relationship to food. One woman told me she walked home from school at age six, furious that a first-grade classmate was bullying her. Her mother gave her a candy bar and sent her back to school. She remembered being confused: What's a candy bar got to do with this? But one bite later, her entire mood shifted to the experience of that delicious chocolate. The boy and his bullying were forgotten. Wow, what a great drug.

Other food-dependent clients have described the scariness of having an emotionally disturbed parent, of being sexually abused, of being beaten or abandoned, or being isolated for years in their families. Food was their only consolation, their only "safe place" in a world from which they wanted to hide.

Eating can distract youngsters from the scary sense that Mom and Dad have become enemies. Or maybe if people are heavy they feel they'll take up more space so people will "see" them. Maybe the experience of eating is vivid enough to reassure them that they do exist. Maybe food calms their anxiety, because, in the most primitive sense, having enough food means survival, and besides it alters their mood biochemically. Maybe sexuality has become frightening, and they think they can stop being sexual if they're fat and, presumably, unattractive: The predator won't want them, and their own sexual energy can be buried under a mass of flesh. Maybe the magic in food can prevent the next bout of unhappiness. Maybe they're being told to diet (go hungry), so eating asserts their right to be alive and to make their own choices. Maybe having more bulk feels like being armored and stronger. Maybe Dad bugged them about their weight, so being fat passively extracts some revenge.


Emotional eating always has its own internal logic. Sympathizing with the logic—with the magic—is the only way to hear what it's saying and to have a conversation with it. And that conversation is the only hope for sustainable change without the tyranny of deprivation.

Think of it this way. If you knew someone was doing something weird because he thought it would save his life, you wouldn't assume it was enough to scold him, insist he was wrong, and tell him what to do instead. You'd listen to his fears, understand how he saw the situation, congratulate him for trying to stay alive, and then suggest a better way for him to take care of himself. You'd teach him. And without understanding his logic, it would be very difficult to deal lovingly with his confusion. If you didn't listen, just issued orders, he wouldn't trust you—and he'd be right.

People waste years in their effort to deal with unresolved issues by eating compulsively, and trying not to. The problem may be in the past, but their behavior hasn't changed because their memory keeps replaying the unresolved feelings. The problem doesn't feel "past" to them; the need for resolution hangs around until they eventually pay attention.

If they want to take themselves seriously and be helpful, rather than continuing to rely on magic, they can become curious about their struggle (however trivial they believe it was). And they can acknowledge how they felt (which is never trivial).

Then they can work toward providing an emotional equilibrium that lasts. If they want to move from a magic fix to a true solution, they have to know what they're dealing with (not just the symptom). They'll have to spend some time, on their own or with a counselor, actually finding a way to help it.

If extra food got them through their difficulties, then "bravo!" to them for finding whatever help they could. The real way out, however, is not through the temporary magic of munching, but through the magic that does work: the magic of compassion.

 

Bina Breitner is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in private practice
at 808 W. 8th St. in Silver City. She can be reached at (575) 538-4380.

 

 

Body, Mind & Spirit is a forum for sharing ideas and experiences on all aspects of physical, mental and spiritual health and on how these intersect. Readers, especially those with expertise in one or more of these disciplines, are invited to contribute and to respond. Write PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062, fax 534-4134 or email editor@desertexposure.com.

 

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of Desert Exposure or its advertisers, and are not intended to offer specific or prescriptive medical advice. You should always consult your own health professional before adopting any treatment or beginning any new regimen.

 

 



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