Emotions and eating go together like peas and carrots, especially in our culture over the last 60 or so years. A woman’s own relationship with her body, eating, and her emotional life can be very complicated. This relationship is unique to each woman; we each have our own pieces of the emotional-food-use puzzle discussed in this section. A women who struggles with too much mindshare spent on food, eating, and her body may be only slightly aware of what is going on in her mind. Much of the emotional involvement is going on below the surface. My hope is that you can see yourself in some of the following discussion of food and mood, so you can become aware when your own emotions are engaged around eating and food. Once aware of what you are feeling, you have the option to choose another way to be around food, rather than have eating and food mixed up with coping with or avoiding your emotional life.
Our goal is to be conscious of where our emotional involvement with our eating doesn't serve us well, so we are able to limit its role in our lives. Like almost everything discussed in MyBodyMySelf, we are talking about balance. It is about cultivating emotional eating intelligence, an understanding how our emotional life affects our body image and eating behavior. For example, most people would want food to be a source of pleasure – which is an emotional state - but would not like to eat for pleasure all day long. Most people would not want to use food to soothe emotions too much – although a little bit of soothing at the right time works really well! If a cookie would make you feel better after your boss yelled at you, and a guy cut you off driving home, and your newspaper was completely rained on when you got home, it could be nice to have something that works to ease a rough day.
There is a problem when food is substituted for noticing what you are feeling.
Many, many women use food as cover for experiencing their negative emotions and as a distraction from their emotional life. If we could indentify when this is happening and have another option, such as learning to process emotions, we wouldn’t actually need the cookie that much. We would neutralize some of the attraction of that cookie. We can’t take away its attraction to be delicious, we are innately programmed to be drawn toward delicious food. But, we can take away the power we’ve imbued it with to soothe life’s ups and downs. We never want to substitute food for actual emotional processing. We need to be able to work through problems in our lives that need addressing and solving, such as the issues around a bad marriage, a tough work situation, or problems with loved ones. (See discussion of of how to process emotions in the MBMS Guide to Processing Emotions). Covering over or distracting oneself from a problem in living leaves the problem perpetually unsolved.
Speaking with one voice
For the woman using food or exercise as a cover for or distraction from her emotional life, her job is to figure out when she is actually experiencing emotion and when she is pushing it away. Once she is able to sense what she is feeling (See discussion of of how to process emotions in the MBMS Guide to Processing Emotions) she could have her emotional side inform her logical side. By speaking with one voice, her emotional side and logical side could create a respectful dialogue to begin to address life’s ups and downs. Once our heart and our head are engaged in healthy dialogue, food is no longer needed to unconsciously to cope with emotional needs. We won’t want that cookie, or any other food we are using, because we are able to meet our emotional needs more directly. This is cultivating the emotional eating intelligence to understand why we are reaching for food when we are not hungry, what is bothering us, and how to address that situation to get our needs met directly.
By getting to the heart of why we are eating, and addressing the cause, I am suggesting a very different weight management tool from dieting. We are creating a situation very different from dieting mindset that (1) judges us as weak for not summoning up the muscle to power over our need to soothe our emotions with food and (2) requires huge amounts of willpower to eat as the diet requires constantly fighting our desire to eat as we would like. And, as has been pointed out again and again, this requirement for you to employ muscle and willpower in perpetuity to remain thin -- the dieting mindset -- fails 95% of the time. It is too hard to be that vigilant 24/7 -- there is no time or energy to do anything else.
"If you continually diet, you are putting your body in a quasi-famine situation. It slows your metabolism down and breaks the thermostat. Diets don't work. They don't help you understand why you're eating more than your body wanted in the first place." --Susie Orbach