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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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?
- 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.
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