Have you ever been sitting on your couch post-dinner only to find yourself wrist-deep in a bag of m&ms or a bowl of popcorn? You’re not hungry, but there’s something insanely satisfying about what you’re putting in your mouth so you keep at it.
Six years ago, on the way home from my windowless, ten-hour-a-day, paperwork-stamping, beige-cubicle-prison of a job, I was stuck in traffic, pondering the life choices that had gotten me there. My mechanical engineering career looked great on the outside, but it was unfulfilling on the inside.
So, I pulled into the Krispy Kreme drive-thru to make myself feel better. I knew I shouldn’t eat donuts, and I also knew I would eat donuts anyway. I thought about ordering just one, but in the heat of the moment I ended up with two original and one fritter. I don’t even like the fritters, but I wanted to feel full of something good.
Food for comfort is surely a familiar scene most women can relate to.
Some of my clients are quick to identify their emotional eating. They will tell me they eat the candy because work sucks or they’re still lonely 6 months after a breakup. Some of my clients are less attuned to their emotional eating, in their minds they eat the candy because it’s good or because they are bored, but often—when I dig a little deeper—I find they are eating the candy because the candy makes them feel a certain way, and it’s that feeling they are chasing.
In simple terms, emotional eating is eating for the feeling it gives us.
Sure, it’s more complicated than that. Some of us chase the feeling of pleasure in the form of chocolate to avoid pain in the form of social rejection. Some of us pursue comfort in the form of fried chicken to compensate for all the fear and dis-ease we experience at our jobs. The relationship between food and feelings is a complicated one. It’s not necessarily easy to make the connection from brownies to your brain, and that’s why I don’t start there.
Last week I wrote about pausing long enough to decide what you really want to eat.
This week, it’s a different kind of pause. Pausing before we eat to contemplate what we’re feeling can be a useful tool. However, if you’re not used to thinking about what you’re feeling, you probably shouldn’t start thinking about it in the context of your tumultuous relationship with food.
Let’s start small.
Can you pause throughout your day to take inventory of what you’re feeling? How does getting up and going to work make you feel? How does talking to your sister on the phone make you feel? How do your after-work plans make you feel? How do you feel before, during, and after your meals? How does your bedtime routine make you feel? Your pajamas? Your bedsheets?
When I first asked myself these questions, they felt a little silly and my answers were rather undescriptive. Happy. Sad. Indifferent. But the more I talked to other people about it, journaled about it, and paused often to think about it, the more I could articulate that my job as a mechanical engineer instilled dread all the way to the core of my being—that’s enough to make anyone need a donut for comfort.
The problem wasn’t that I was eating donuts. The problem was I was feeling so much dread at my day job that I needed instant comfort. My husband was travelling a lot at the time and my family was far away. I did the only thing I could do to comfort myself, and it’s a good thing I did that. I would have lost my mind otherwise.
But if I had continued to do it, my health would have continued to deteriorate.
And if I had just gone and found a “healthier” way to cope, I would have only been addressing a symptom.
I had to cure the dread, not comfort it.
Now, I’m not suggesting you quit your job after a couple of stressful weeks. What I am suggesting is that you take more pause in your life to notice what you’re feeling and how often your feeling it.
Your emotional state is intertwined with how and why you eat. If you keep trying to address the eating without addressing the emotions, you’ll only run in circles.