Weight Loss: Why Emotional Control Matters

An apple and a pear have a the shape of an heart carved into the skin.Flora was proud of herself. Her stomach felt flatter. Her new diet and exercise regimen was paying off. She ate things she liked and found exercises that fit in with her energy levels—not the self flagellation she inflicted on herself in the gym the last time she tried to lose weight. She was amazed at how easy it was to follow her program, and how much she was enjoying it.

A couple of weeks into the project Flora was part of a decision making team at work. There were disagreements and heated opinions flying around, making her feel uneasy. She wanted to let them know what she thought but couldn’t fight her way into the conversation. She didn’t want to be the center of attention by yelling her way into the debate. Nor did she want to be ignored.

Suddenly, Flora sensed something was missing. She grabbed a pillow and put in on her abdomen. What a relief! At that very stressful moment Flora missed the ‘padding’ that her fat had provided. The cushion smothered her conflict, removing the need for making a choice. Driving home she felt annoyed that no one had invited her to comment or made room for her opinion. Demeaned and diminished Flora’s anger frothed up. She stopped at a store and bought a quart of vanilla ice-cream and a large bag of corn chips.

The Payoff of Emotional Eating

Flora may have lost the diet battle but she won the war of emotional control. Her rage was a delayed protest at being choked off in the meeting. It felt like a ball of sharp nails stuck in her mouth that couldn’t be digested. Chewing and tasting it would tear up her insides and make her bleed. It had to be anesthetized with ice-cream and chips. So what if she gained back the 10 pounds she worked so hard to shed? At least she didn’t have to deal with the storm of fury that threatened to obliterate her sense of self.

Payoff Part II

But there was an even better payoff. Sealing off her feelings in an industrial strength freezer bag means that there were no disgusting leaks. Flora wasn’t weak or needy—the twin towers of terror. No one would want to be with her if her feelings oozed out, least of all herself. Logic and rationality were the only winning strategies. The earned self-respect and admiration was the best meal ever!

Converting Emotional Trash Into Fat

Each time Flora traded uncomfortable feelings for a shot of strength, she gave a powerful message to the people in her life. She said, “I am made of steel. I can take all your whining, selfishness, love with strings attached, and melt downs.” Better to make her feelings into bad guys and murder them, than stand her ground. She couldn’t afford to upset the people in her life and risk being an outcast.

Flora made herself into a tough bottomless pit for everyone else’s debris. She was bloated with her own undigested emotions and other people’s sewage. Keeping it all in was a badge of honor. Emotional constipation was her sign of strength and resilience. Her body took on the job of dealing with the massive amounts of gunk by converting the trash into fat. Her weight went up and stayed up, despite her valiant efforts with personal trainers, fitness gurus, nutritionist, and weight loss support groups.

Flora the Fat Girl is Better than Flora the Bad Girl

During the first few months of psychotherapy Flora described her experience of eating in the context of family relationships. Eating and pleasure were strangers. Meal times were either a chore, a lonely experience, or a punishment. Young Flora often had to make her own lunch, and take care of her evening meal while her mother was away. At grade school she was considered the model child from a divorced family. She survived by turning up the volume on being the best ‘grown up’ child and muting her feelings of helplessness, neediness, and fear of being alone. There was no reliable person to lean on. An inner steel container was built, fast, to lock up those big scary powerful feelings.

Flora’s mother fell to pieces over every little thing, so Flora protected her mother by keeping her worries and fears to herself. Flora added several more layers onto her tough and limitless container to hold her mother’s emotional gunk. Two dumping-lots of muck rotted and festered, accumulating poisonous properties with no opportunity for detoxification.

As a preteen she lived with her father and stepmother who disapproved of her having her own opinions. Flora learned to stuff her feelings in order to survive. Flora, the fat child, was born. The fat became her armor. Family members ridiculed Flora the fat child, not Flora the ‘bad’ child. The fat took the piercing blows, protecting Flora’s fragile personality.

Often she would be left alone at the table to finish her food, making her feel punished for saying something wrong. She had to murder her own individuality to receive acceptance and care from her family. The sadness, frustration, outrage, and loneliness was squashed. Flora began to hide food in her bedroom and binge when she was alone and safe. At those times food was a comforter. Secret gorging kept the feelings from exploding, it comforted the scared girl.

As an adult Flora repeated those abuses on herself by murdering her feelings in order to maintain relationships that were important to her.

Flora’s struggle may appear to be with her physical weight. Her real struggle is with weight that represents the unbearable aspects of life and the weight that comforts and shields.

Unbearable things turned into fatty weight:

  • The tragic weight of growing up before she was ready
  • The stifling weight of her suppressed individuality
  • The unfair weight of other people’s emotional trash
  • The paralyzing weight of being abandoned by significant others, if she asserts her individuality
  • The terrifying weight of not being able to trust that loved ones will treat her well
  • The angry weight of not being acknowledged and loved for who she is
  • The disgusting weight she needs to beat herself up with, just like her parents did
  • The protective weight that can take the hit, safe-guarding the authentic Flora

The protective armor of weight:

  • The comforting weight shielding her vulnerable self from abuse and annihilation
  • The numbing weight that bypassed all those overwhelming feelings
  • The reliable weight that no one else can take away and that is totally in her control
  • The friendly, familiar weight when there is no one else around

Flora’s Dilemma: Feeling Physically Attractive or Emotionally Strong

Flora’s euphoria at dropping the pounds quickly faded when she felt vulnerable to awful feelings of weakness or explosiveness. When the armor of fat was needed, the diet had to be aborted. Flora was left with an intolerable choice: Should she focus on feeling physically attractive by losing fat, or feeling emotionally protected by keeping the fat? Either way, she had to abandon one part of herself—a no win situation.

With continued psychotherapy Flora found a safe place where she began to loosen her emotional muck and get rid of her constipating experiences. She experimented with expressing herself, without fear of losing her therapist. Her messy feelings were accepted, understood, detoxified, and digested. She used the nutrients from the therapy to build her emotional muscles.

She learned how to set up effective boundaries that allowed her to receive and give support, without having to seal up and freeze her feelings, or explode and feel ashamed. Along the journey, Flora tuned into her hunger pangs, learning to be mindful of when they came up. She learned that a craving for ice-cream and chips meant she had some yucky feeling to digest.

Mutual exchange in the therapeutic dialogue, in conjunction with artistic expressions, honored her need to feel capable and strong. Unsatisfying meetings with family and friends that once led to gorging, changed to releasing her disappointments and fears after tasting and chewing them. That made room for Flora to prepare for re-configuring relationships without the risk of loss. It also helped her make new relationships where she was not a doormat, and didn’t have to hide her individuality.

Flora worked hard in her therapy. She found a way of accepting and expressing all parts of herself equally. Her eating patterns followed suit. In therapy she digested the emotional weight she had been carrying. As she found room for all parts of herself to be appreciated, she no longer needed the fat to be her armor. She lost weight and did not put it back on. As her emotional life stabilized, so did her body weight. Flora had a new relationship to food, because she found emotional sustenance with her therapist, and then allowed herself to find similar sources of nutrition with other significant relationships. All parts of herself were allowed to get attention. Flora was in balance and her body responded.

© Copyright 2008 by Jeanette Raymond. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • amyhop

    May 23rd, 2008 at 6:47 PM

    For so lond I allowed my own weight to shelter me from life. It kept me isolated in a sense from the troubles which were going on around me. I was simply overlooked as a result of my weight and quite frankly looking back on that now that was my security. When I lost weight and became the focus of attention that was very hard for me and there is still a tendency to turn to food in times of crisis as that has always been my comfort.

  • Kyle

    May 24th, 2008 at 3:34 AM

    I am the opposite of an emotional eater- when I get stressed I think my appetite shuts down and it makes me ill to think about food! But I know others who are exactly the opposite of me and it is like their only coping mechanism in times of stress is to eat.

  • gamecock96

    May 25th, 2008 at 9:17 AM

    Kyle you knwo that your comments have made all of the women out here gag- why can’t I lose my appetite when stressed?!? I am living proof that stress can make you blow up because there are stressful times in my life when food is like a comforting thing to me although I really have no idea why. It feels like a security blanket.

  • Cynthia V

    May 26th, 2008 at 7:36 AM

    It is a personal choice that we all make to allow food to take over our lives, same as with alcohol and other drugs. There has to coma a pont where you take control over the issue and not allow it to ruin your life in that manner anymore. There are healthier alternatives and just because you are stressed this does not mean that you have to add to the unhealthy situation by packing on pounds.

  • Steve H

    May 27th, 2008 at 2:40 AM

    Yes yes and yes. . . emotions can make you put on weight and I totally disagree that it is a personla choice. For people who have used this as comfort for so many years it is no easier to let this go without some form of therapy than it is to stop abusing more dangerous drugs. This can be an addiction and I think too many people treat it far too lightly.

  • upstatesc

    May 28th, 2008 at 1:31 PM

    Yeah too many people do not recognize this as a serious problem at all. Thye just consider some to be lazy and fat with no idea about the underlying issues which have taken someone there.

  • David

    May 29th, 2008 at 1:04 PM

    And why do you think that some people make food their drug of choice rather than turning to alcohol or drugs? Is this because this is the only comfort or nourishment that they received as a child? I think that problems like these are probably very deep rooted and go back as far as childhood.

  • Jillian

    May 30th, 2008 at 3:12 AM

    That is a very interesting thought. When we are kids and need comfort hopefully there are parents and adults there to fill that void for us. When there are not those role models there of course you will turn elsewhere to find that. There are many who find that in food and this can be just as hard of a habit to break as seeking the same solace in illegal substances. We just need to have more empathy for people who struggle with this and help them (and oursleves too!) find a way through issues without incessantly turning to things that are not good for us.

  • Jeni

    May 31st, 2008 at 3:02 AM

    I always tend to eat when I am hurt or stressed. I am not overweight but that seems to be what I always go to for comfort in any situation- happy or sad. I think that so much of the American lifestyle naturally revolves around food and meals that this is inevitable for some of us.

  • Austin

    June 9th, 2008 at 4:39 AM

    But how is it that we have all gottne so far off base with food? When hdid it become used for more than to give us energy and sustain us? It seems that now people use it to sustain them in ways that food was never intended to be used. We have to get back to the basics- food for energy, not comfort.

  • Shannon

    June 10th, 2008 at 9:23 AM

    Yes but so many people have grown up with food as comfort and that is such a tough habit to break for all of us. We even have a genre of food called “comfort food” for Heaven’s sake! Emotional eating can be such a stress for everyone involved and rarely is it healthy. Thank goodness there are trained therapists who are equipped with issues such as this which remain so taboo in our society. We do not need to ostracize but help these people who deal with these issues.

  • Margo

    June 25th, 2008 at 10:05 AM

    I never tend to overeat when depressed but know those who do. It is a terrible pattern for them to get into and I hope that people realize that it is no good to ostracize them for behavior that often cannot be helped. making them feel worse about the situation will do nothing but harm them in the long run.

  • Jeni

    June 28th, 2008 at 4:19 PM

    Thanks Margo- as someone who does eat in stressful situations I appreciate the support. For me when people say negative things about my weight it only makes me want to eat even more.

  • Nikki

    June 29th, 2008 at 11:11 AM

    Jeni I agree with you one hundred percent. The more others dwell on things in a negative manner the more it will make you want to do the opposite of what they are telling you. Emotional eating i think especially for women can be a very dangerous situation and we all have to do better with helping ourselves and loved ones deal with the issue.

  • Sandy

    June 30th, 2008 at 10:05 AM

    We have to stop treating food as medication. It is not- when used in the wrong manner it will only bring on even more problems than you may have intended. We have so many issues in the US with things like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems. Much of this is directly attributable to our unhealthy relationships with food.

  • upstatesc

    July 15th, 2008 at 2:15 PM

    But what can we do to break this cycle? We are inundated with food no matter where we turn!

  • Heather Jamieson

    January 13th, 2010 at 8:11 AM

    Addiction of any kind whether to alcohol, gambling, sex and other forms of substance and bad habit can be damaging. However, the worse among these is to become addicted to drugs as these could alter your life completely or kill you.

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