Food starts off as being not just a source of life but an expression of love. At the heart of almost every culture, hospitality is shown by feeding people. And a celebration or a time of grief wouldn't be complete without food.
Using food for reasons other than for simple sustenance is a normal part of life. It becomes a problem when food becomes so closely linked with feelings that the two overlap and become one. The foundation for this starts in childhood: "When I was good I got a cookie;" "On summer nights we went to the lake to get ice cream;" "Sitting at the kitchen table eating bologna sandwiches and chips was the only time I had with my mother;" "When I misbehaved dessert was withheld."
Food was transformed from a simple source of nutrition to a reward, a diversion, a punishment, a love object, a friend. Once that happened, food became a way to control your emotions and to deal with your feelings of powerlessness.
Excerpt from Shrink Yourself reprinted with the permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Copyright 2007 by Roger Gould
Why Do You Eat?
When you've installed food as a preferred way to cope, you stop developing new ways to deal with stress, your weight becomes increasingly difficult to control, and ultimately you end up reinforcing your feelings of powerlessness.
In simple terms, when something happens to bother you (such as a person ignoring you), it makes you feel bad, and you suddenly have the uncontrollable urge to eat.
Then, when you eat more than you know you should, it's always followed by regret, self-hatred and extra pounds.
For many of you, the moment when something bothers you overlaps with the moment when you suddenly have the uncontrollable urge to eat. For instance, my patient Gloria, a married woman who is 33-years-old and 30 pounds overweight, told me about an eating episode that occurred after an argument with her husband.
I asked her why she chose to eat to deal with how she was feeling. She responded, "What other choice did I have?"
In the next half hour of the session, we developed six other things that she could've done instead of eating.
For example, she could have taken responsibility for her part of the argument or done something to relax, like going for a walk or taking a bath, to buy herself some time to think things through and clarify her feelings.
Why You Eat When You're Bothered
I was struck over the years by how many people were similar to Gloria. Something happened, and they felt that there wasn't any other choice but to deal with what happened by eating.
By choosing food, they totally relinquished their ability to solve problems and deal with their lives in a mature and empowered way. The only way to recover that power is to pause long enough to determine what other options you have besides eating when something in life troubles you.
Even though it may not be obvious that something happened that bothered you, if you suddenly find yourself starving when you know you've just eaten, you can logically suspect that you've been emotionally triggered in some way.
Extensive research has shown that you're not really starving in those moments. It's almost always emotional hunger that drives you: a fight with a spouse, an uncomfortable work situation, a lull in your work day, a needy parent or child, your life, your future, your past. It's something that sets off a brief episode of powerlessness.
This book is really about finding the space between when something has affected you and your sudden urge to eat (which is not real hunger), and then exploring what goes on in your mind when you have that uncontrollable urge.
Up until now, the emotions and issues that fuel the urge to eat have been operating behind the scenes, sabotaging all of your good intentions.
Food Protects You From Bad Feelings
Why has food become the thing that you consistently turn to when feelings triggered by people or events feel unbearable?
Food serves two very effective purposes. First, it helps you avoid feelings. I call the desire to avoid emotions the "feeling phobia." Also, food gives you a way to replace bad feelings with the pleasurable experience of eating. I call the pleasurable experience that food provides the "food trance."
In short, eating protects you from the feelings that you don't want to feel. If your feelings open the door to your interior world, then eating slams the door shut.
It keeps you functioning on a surface level, and although you feel powerless to control what and how much you eat, at least you don't have to focus on the deeper things that really make you feel powerless (including failed relationships, unsatisfying careers, and difficult children).
Many people report to me that as they're approaching their goal weight they often sabotage themselves and all of their efforts. They wonder why that is. It doesn't seem to make any sense. In fact, you may be able to relate to that experience.
The answer, time and again, proves to be simple: if you didn't have your weight to think about you might have to think about what's really bothering you, and that's very frightening, because I know that you feel powerless to change the things that really bother you.
You've made what I call the "unexamined powerlessness conclusion." It's a conclusion that you're powerless over your feelings and the circumstances in your life that the feelings point toward, so you might as well eat.