Understanding and Overcoming the Silent Torment of Overeating

Forks on an empty plateDo you silently struggle with overeating? Do you feel helpless to stop?

Overeating, which is sometimes a symptom of the potentially serious eating disorders binge eating or bulimia, often serves to mask or bury certain feelings that may have seemed dangerous to acknowledge and feel in childhood. In the following paragraphs, you will find ways to gently and methodically peel back the layers that sit atop those buried feelings in order to let overeating fall away rather than be a constant battle of wills.

As with addiction, overeating can seem like a seemingly endless cycle—a semi-unconscious, automatic sort of ritual that has developed over time. See if any of this sound familiar: You sit down for a meal and start eating when, all of a sudden, you seemingly fall into a trance and begin to throw caution to the wind. You can’t seem to stop eating the food in front of you. Perhaps you battle this impulse for a while until you tell yourself, “The heck with it, I’ll be good next time.”

Afterward, you feel stuffed, ashamed, and resolute that this won’t happen again. As the next meal approaches, you get anxious, feeling pressure to control your intake, and promise yourself that you will do better. And then you go on automatic pilot as the ritual starts over again.

A Biological Dilemma

Overeating is challenging to overcome because, well, you need to eat. It’s extremely difficult to use willpower to stop overeating, as one might attempt to do with smoking or drinking alcohol (non-necessities), and so each meal is a confrontation with a particular kind of beast: the biological need to eat alongside cravings that nip and pull at you to keep eating.

Speaking of biology, both men and women struggle with overeating, and both experience shame associated with what are often gender-specific stigmas. For women, overeating can result in castigation and compromised self-esteem and body image because of the pressure to maintain a certain “ideal” imposed by media and society. For men, the stigma that they aren’t even supposed to have eating issues can mean they may go to great lengths to keep overeating behaviors under wraps.

Stigmas are also problematic because they contribute to a powerful reluctance to seek help.

Psychological Forces

Fueling the overeating are often very strong psychological forces, pulling out all the tricks to make sure you don’t feel your very normal feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, fear, disappointment, uncertainty, or lack of control. To stop overeating, you may need to confront and accept these feelings, and yet this flies in the face of what many of us learned as a child, in our homes, schools, and on playgrounds: that uncomfortable feelings are unwanted, unacceptable, dangerous, and distressing.

You learned this message either explicitly (if, for instance, your parents or teachers yelled at you to stop crying or screamed at you when you got angry) or implicitly (if you got the sense, unconsciously, that the adults around you were working very hard to hide their own pain).

Working Toward Recovery

To achieve lasting change, it’s important to acknowledge your overeating is a problem, start to be curious about the feelings that exist alongside the cravings to overeat, and develop a practice that can help you uncover the roots of the behavior.

Here are some suggestions on how to curb your overeating habit:

  1. Acknowledge the issue: Acknowledging that you overeat is a powerful first step, particularly because it is typically a habit that people feel ashamed about or attached to and try to hide, even from themselves.
  2. Cultivate curiosity: Curiosity is a very different mind-set than the mind-set you typically find with overeating: shame, hiding, and obsession. Cultivating curiosity is a good practice that can open the doors to healing. With each meal, be intentionally curious about how you are feeling, especially as you begin to feel the craving to eat. Bring a cue card, if needed, and set it in front of you to remember to “be curious.”
  3. Practice awareness: Like curiosity, the practice of being more aware of the ritual of overeating is a revolutionary act because it counters the conditioned pressure to keep it unconscious. Notice your thoughts as they relate to food. Notice the feelings that go along with the thoughts. How do you feel as you sit down to eat? When you’re eating? After each meal? What foods do you crave? Why?
  4. Go deeper: With this information, you can deepen into the feelings you may have been avoiding up to this point. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis can be helpful, safe, nonjudgmental environments to think and talk about these things, and to begin to step gently into the tender places where the lost feelings reside.

Because the unconscious messages that your feelings are not OK may have occurred in relationship to your caretakers, the healing of those wounds is most likely to occur within the context of a therapeutic relationship, particularly with a therapist who specializes in eating and food issues. I wish you the best in your endeavor to break the habit of overeating, access and process lost feelings, and feel more satisfied in your life.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

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.

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  • Wendall

    February 22nd, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    Many people do not believe that this can be a thing that men struggle with too but believe me overeating has been a challenge for me for as long as I can remember. It is something that I do when I am trying so hard to dull the pain but then I always feel worse.
    I have been to half a dozen programs trying to work on the issue and I just can’t seem to stick with any of them.
    I know that I need to get this under control before I pass the problems along to my kids but I am always at a loss, vowing to do something about it and not being able to follow through.

  • Judi

    July 22nd, 2017 at 9:42 AM

    I understand. My best effort has been with overeaters annonymous. I have failed when I take on a sponsor but just going to meetings helped me and I can’t pinpoint why. Of course, it’s related to my negative emotions but I’m going to use these suggestions. I like the concept of being curious. Its important to be a good role model but really focusing on ourselves is our best strategy. It will tickle down to the kids. They pick up the underlying messages as well as eating habits. I wish us both curiosity in the next leg of the journey, my friend.

  • avery

    February 22nd, 2016 at 3:27 PM

    I have struggled with this at various points throughout my life, and I see it usually happening after a break up or something when I am feeling pretty low and looking for something to fill me.
    I know that the only true thing that can do that is ME but that can be a hard one to come to terms with.
    My parents always fed us to make us happy so that is what I still even as an adult equate with happiness.

  • Ben Ringler

    February 22nd, 2016 at 3:51 PM

    Hello Wendall,
    Yes, very hard indeed! It takes quite a bit of work, and the right therapist can really help. Best to you in your efforts to change these patterns.

    Ben Ringler, MFT

  • Ben Ringler

    February 22nd, 2016 at 3:52 PM

    Hello Avery,
    Good awareness in some of the sources of overeating. Perhaps finding other ways to make you happy can be a good start?

    Best to you,
    Ben Ringler, MFT

  • Wendall

    February 23rd, 2016 at 7:01 AM

    Any advice on how to find the right person to begin working with?

  • Moira

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    As a recovering bulimic I am all too familiar with the cycle of over eating and then purging. Sure it makes you feel terrible physically but it also makes you emotionally drained because of all of the hiding and justification that goes into the behavior. I know that I am doing better but I am still challenged on a daily basis, trying not to think of calories and stuff like that, trying only to make healthier choices for my life. I am afraid though that the pain might not ever really go away completely and I think that a lot of that is because I fear that one little trigger that could set me off down the wrong path again.

  • Ben Ringler

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:49 AM

    Wendell, contact me and I’d be happy to help point you in the right direction.

  • Ben Ringler

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:53 AM

    Thank you for sharing your struggle with overeating here. Yes, this can be quite painful indeed and requires, I believe, one to be in relationship with it, rather than trying to fix it, because it can run so deep. I hope your relationship to overeating and binging can change, ease over time, and that you have or find others to share your pain with and can relate to your struggle.
    With you in heart, Ben

  • nicola

    February 23rd, 2016 at 2:07 PM

    It seems like this is something that would on the surface be so benign but reading the other comments on here I see that lives are impacted by this tremendously.

  • Ben Ringler

    February 23rd, 2016 at 5:35 PM

    Hi Nicola,
    Yes, this impacts people in a deeply profound way. Im glad that the folks here have shared and that you can get a sense of the struggle.

  • Alice

    February 15th, 2017 at 9:42 PM

    Hi Ben,

    I have been struggling with overeating all my life! Like you mentioned it’s a cycle of addiction. Thank you for sharing but I don’t think it is that easy to catch your self when u start overeating.

  • Asheer

    February 24th, 2016 at 7:32 AM

    This would have never been anything that I would have talked to my family about because i feel like they have no understanding at all as to why I would do this or why I would ever feel the need to do that. That makes it hard when you don’t have anyone that you can talk to just because of those cultural barriers that my family faces from being immigrants and then some of us growing up here instead. I have struggled with that a little.

  • Ben Ringler

    February 24th, 2016 at 12:59 PM

    Hello Asheer,
    Yes this is very hard when you dont have any places to talk about it, and cuturally speaking, therapy does not always feel like an option for some. Its best to seek out a therapist with sensitivity to cultural differences, as well as eating issues. Best to you, Ben Ringler, MFT

  • Asheer

    February 25th, 2016 at 10:05 AM

    You are right that with my family and my community it is like therapy is a no no, should be things you can work out alone and I do not feel that way but then you sort of get lost not knowing where to turn

  • Judi

    July 22nd, 2017 at 9:52 AM

    You have an opportunity to make it ok. I don’t have cultural issues but my generation in general is often the first to go to therapy. I am the only one I know of who has gone and stuck with it. Nobody needs to know. It is a corageous person who takes the first step and my life and relationships are so much better because of it. I’m 57. My children understand that therapy is an option and both have chosen to go with my encouragement for specific situations. You are a different person because of where you are. Embrace your opportunities!

  • Ian

    February 26th, 2016 at 11:33 AM

    I am very scared that this is the kind of behavior that my little sister has engaged in since our parents got a divorce but anytime I even try to remotely bring up the issue she shuts down.

    How do I let her know that I am not trying to be intrusive but I do want to make sure that she is well?

  • Peggy

    February 26th, 2016 at 3:11 PM

    Size discrimination is the last legal discrimination. You can’t look at a person and tell they have any type of addiction unless they are fat. This is so unfair to everyone.

  • Judi

    July 22nd, 2017 at 9:55 AM

    Agreed!!! Glttony. I wear it to church. Maybe it’s a good thing not to be able to hide though I would if I could.

  • Kayla

    February 26th, 2016 at 10:07 PM

    Ian, my parents went through a divorce and I developed patterns of binge eating and purging in response to that. I see now that I was stuffing down profound grief. Divorce among my parents was almost like the death of our entire family all at once and it was unbearable. Attending to your own grief and respectfully (maybe quietly) acknowledging hers, giving both yourself and her simply your conscious awareness (I have found breath practice really helpful) may aid the spirit and mind in healing itself. When we focus on our own healing it allows others to heal. I see love and light in your heart and your sisters.

  • Ian

    February 28th, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    I know Kayla, I am just scared for her

  • Trish

    February 29th, 2016 at 7:25 AM

    I am more like this not with meals but with snacks. They pull me in

  • Ben Ringler

    February 29th, 2016 at 9:06 AM

    Ian and Kayla,
    I appreciate your conversation here. It can be really difficult and painful to see a loved one in pain and possibly engaging in harmful behaviors. I am in agreement with Kayla, that it would probably be best to start with yourself, the feelings that are arising around your sister. That will help you get more clarity as to how you might want to act, if at all. To give more advice here would not be appropriate, but I would certainly seek some counseling for this.
    Best to you, Ben Ringler

  • Milly

    June 16th, 2016 at 11:09 PM

    I have not had chance to read this article fully, but I did find O.A. very helpful. Not for everyone I know but worked for me.

  • Bpink

    July 13th, 2016 at 9:07 PM

    I struggle with Binge eating. I was just officially diagnosed. I a m a therapist myself and live in a rural area with not many specialists in the area of eating disorders. I feel that I would really need a specialist. I have gone to therapy in the past and found it unhelpful because I have better clinical skills than lots of other therapists. I am not trying to sound pompous but finding a therapistis VERY difficult being one myself. Any suggestions on what to do? I

  • Angelica

    September 18th, 2016 at 3:36 PM

    I would recommend finding a therapist that works with self esteem and addictions. Therapists have different passions and work differently with different diagnoses. There also needs to be a level of change that you are ready for. Until you are ready, no therapist is going to be able to help you

  • Judi

    July 22nd, 2017 at 10:02 AM

    You can tell, I am very interested and experienced with this topic. I will start being curious today and dump the heavy weight of shame! We always need a healthy replacement when we rid ourselves of negative thoughts and behaviors. Thank you for providing this one. I don’t often run across New information because I’ve been dealing with “weight loss” for over 40 years! My obesity didn’t occur until my 40’s. Career issues and menopause did me in. A new concept gives hope and it’s very exciting!!

  • Brenda

    March 3rd, 2019 at 6:00 PM

    I struggled with overeating for many years. At the age of 42 I had 90% of my stomach removed. Now it’s impossible for me to overeat. It was an amazing decision for me.

  • JesseA

    December 13th, 2021 at 9:14 PM

    Awesome… Its really an informative and well researched article on overeating. Thanks for sharing this.

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