Just as physical hunger is the signal for us to eat, and thirst is the single for us to drink water, loneliness is a signal for us to seek connection. Unfortunately, what keeps so many people stuck from seeking the connection and support they need is shame. Shame is the belief that inherently there is something wrong and broken with us and therefore we are unworthy of true love and belonging. This differs from guilt, which is a signal that we have acted out of alignment of our values. While guilt says we’ve done something bad or wrong (that could be changed), shame insidiously tells us we are bad or wrong.
The cycle so often goes like this for food and so many other addictive-type behaviors:
Feel intense loneliness and shame —> binge eat —> isolate oneself and feel more lonely and shameful —> continue binge eating
I’ve seen from my experience and that of my clients that feeling out-of-control with food in itself is painful. Add on top of that feeling like you’re alone and the only one struggling with the issue and the experience can be excruciating.
Last year, I attended a talk by Allison Kinnear, the owner of a Voice of her Own and an amazing coach for women leaders. In her talk to busy, high-achieving women, she spoke about the importance of self-care to fuel yourself. I find for my clients when they prioritize their self-care not only do they feel happier, more energized, and calm but inevitably those around them get to benefit.
There was one particular exercise Allison led the participants through that I particularly loved. It was an incredibly simple question that I think can help you distinguish between when a habit, such as eating, is beneficial for you and when it is detrimental.
One key question to begin healing your relationship with food is:
Green smoothie for breakfast, salad for lunch, and you managed to say no to the donuts someone brought in for work. You’re feeling fantastic and oh-so disciplined.
But at the end of the day, you’re feeling tired and low-energy. It was a pretty tough day where you were running around from commitment to commitment and you couldn’t wait for the day to end. You’re willpower is weaker and you find yourself in your tired, groggy state, making your opening your apartment door. The first thing you’re thinking about is the Haagen-Daaz in your freezer. “I’ll just have a little bit…” you say as you plop on the couch and turn on Netflix. The first bite is delicious, so you have another… and another. You put the container back in the fridge but soon find yourself going back and forth between the couch and the freezer to get more. The food was so good as you began eating but at some point that inner voice starts to become mean and ugly. “I knew it… you’re so lazy… You’re such a failure… You’re going to be fat and ugly forever. No one likes you…” Then, you feel guilty and the guilt fuels the eating. It continues and continues until you’ve finished the entire container.”
“What is wrong with me?” you might ask yourself. “UGH, I blew it…”
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? I know for myself and for my clients, it’s all too common. If this describes you, I want you to know there is nothing wrong with you and it’s absolutely possible to start shifting the pattern. The key to breaking free is in understanding what eating is doing for you in the moment so that you can meet the underlying need in a way that serves your health and wellbeing.
Here are the most common reasons that people overeat and binge eat after work that I’ve seen from my client work:
I’m sitting her in a coffee shop where I just enjoyed some tea and a cupcake (gluten-free for me ;), having fully enjoyed experience of eating. To think, in the past I feared cupcakes and would avoid them at all costs…
Flashback to 2013….I remember a particular morning I woke up, feeling bloated and disgusted with myself. I had binged the night before going completely mindless with food. For me, binge eating started as an occasional occurrence in middle and high school, but once I started my first year of college, it had become an daily nightmare. I was in my 4th year of college at the time, which had been incredibly stressful with the number of classes I was taking, trying to balance my extracurriculars and social life, and uncertainty about my future career.
I look back with compassion on the writings of my younger self. I wish someone could have told her that overcoming binge eating wouldn’t always be a linear process. There were some days I would learn a new concept or tool and do really well my eating. “Yes!!! Finally! I’d tell myself… this is the answer.” Inevitably, the new “diet high” would wear off and I would be back to where I started. Then I’d beat myself up and wonder if something was wrong with me or even binge to escape the sense of unworthiness I felt.
Looking back, I wish someone had told me to be gentle with myself. After all, I was doing my very best. I wish someone had told me that change and healing isn’t always linear. At the time, I think it’s something I understood theoretically but didn’t fully embody especially having come from a culture and expectation of “Straight A’s” all the time.
So let me tell you this, if you struggle with the dieting-binge eating-repeat cycle, there is nothing wrong with you. You just need a better understanding of yourself and your biology.
Here’s the thing - there will always be stress in our lives. Change inherently causes stress, even if that change is something positive, such as get a new job or going on a date with someone new. So it’s important to start developing other methods and strategies to handle it better.
Are you someone who turns to food under stress? If you want to start shifting this pattern, I recommend to start making peace with your emotions and finding other ways to manage them. Here are 4 keys to break the stress eating habit.