Many of us have grown up in an environment of food as reward, compensation, treat or celebration. Food, particularly 'treat' foods take us back to a time when we were looked after by others (my grandmother always gave us chocolate when we fell over) and is a fundamental and lasting relationship we can have with food when it comes to self-care. None of that is fundamentally a problem unless food is what we always use in response to the associated emotions which accompany those situations - this can create a situation of over-eating. In particular many people turn to food in response to negative emotions. But believe it or not, this behaviour is all about self-care.
“Really?" I hear you say. "So when I’m stuffing down a whole packet of chocolate biscuits or having a secret midnight binge, this is about self-care?!” Well, yes it is, because it comes from the learned behaviour and our automatic response to negative emotions (from boredom to trauma). It’s about the role that food has played in our life and the helpful feelings it has and continues to give us, at least in the immediate. We have learned and adopted those behaviours and it's therefore perfectly normal that in response to the same emotions in adult life, we turn to what has always given us comfort - food. As we get older and life gets harder we turn to food to recreate the feelings of care and comfort. Eating therefore, is a way to distract and postpone - a kind of ‘flight’ response from the emotions and situations we don’t want to face or think about.
Some emotional attachment to food and eating is natural and helpful. It’s only when food becomes the main or only tool to manage our emotional self-care, that overeating (or obsessive restricting or under-eating, of course) becomes a problem for us and makes us feel wretched and disappointed with ourselves. Of course, these feelings negate the self-care we are trying to find, so we carry on eating, hoping to eventually reach the emotional support we’re looking for. But it rarely comes because eating food is not really going to address the emotion, how can it?
By understanding the emotions which drive us to eat we can begin to forgive ourselves and take a different route to emotional self-care. There are a whole range of activities which might serve us better and we need to create a new habit towards them. So the next time you think about food in response to an emotion, try to analyse that emotion, take a deep breath, stop and think what will really help you cope with it. Maybe it's a walk, a bath, reading, or something else to occupy your mind which won't leave you feeling despondent and disappointed in yourself.
It’s one of the common eating psychology therapies I use with my clients and it unlocks all sorts of feelings of empowerment and confidence. It’s quite wonderful to see!
If you want help to unlock your emotions and eating behaviours and choose new, more helpful ones to look after yourself better, please get in touch. xx