How Loneliness & Isolation Perpetuates the Binge Eating Cycle

The door to my college room door opened and a Matthew, who lived across the hallway peeked in.

“Are you okay, Keia?” he asked. “Why did you leave so abruptly?”

 “I’m fine… I’m fine…” I said…”I just want some time alone.”

“Okay then…I guess."" I could tell he wasn’t convinced.

I was feeling so mad at myself and ashamed that someone had noticed my panic in leaving immediately.  I wasn’t hungry and was doing well all day but at 9 pm, someone had brought pizza into the dorm common room, and I had eaten a whole slice without thinking.  I felt bloated and guilty and as silly as it sounds, I had felt so disappointed in myself (plus feeling somewhat socially awkward at the time) that I left immediately, claiming to be tired.  Truthfully, I wanted to be alone to deal with the guilt and shame I felt and also because at the time I felt like I could only be my true self when I was alone.

Throughout college, as I continued to struggle with binge eating, I would always spend the next few hours feeling sick and isolating myself.  I’d cancel on plans with friends, spend hours lying on the couch, do my best to “run off the calories,” and feel so ashamed that I didn’t want people to know about it.   I found myself even hiding evidence of my binge eating (such as wrappers and chip bags) by pushing them deep into the trashcan or throwing them outside my apartment.

I often had felt such intense loneliness that food had become my companion on a late night of studying or when I felt incredibly socially awkward.  Food became a sense of certainty for me when I felt I had nowhere to belong. 

These days, with the work I’ve done I’ve come a long way with food.  I no longer diet and eat mostly when I’m hungry and stop when I’m satisfied.  I have a wonderful support systems with my intimate relationship my boyfriend, my peers, and from mentors and coaches I admire.  For me, getting support and building up my support network was key to healing my relationship with food. 

To be honest, the intensity of the loneliness I have felt in my life is probably was drew me to the whole personal development field in the first place.  Messages about focusing positively would convince me that I didn’t need people and in fact could think my way out of loneliness.  I would argue, however, that connection is one of the top human needs we all share, right next to physiological need of food and shelter. It is quite common that so many well-intentioned people try to use things like food, drugs, or even “positive thinking” to cope with loneliness and deny their need for connection.

 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.

I want to say this… if you struggle with food….You are not alone.  You are not broken and it is 100% possible for you to find peace with food.

A mistake I see so many high-achieving people make is feeling ashamed to ask for help and support.  The fear is that if they ask for help then they’ll be considered weak and broken.  I too had believed this and prided myself on being independent.  However, I would argue that it’s an act of true courage to ask for help and support when you need it.  It’s courageous to be vulnerable and share your true experiences.

"If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive," 

-Dr. Brene Brown

A common fear is that in sharing your authentic experiences, even painful experiences, someone will plain not be able to empathize or could flat out reject you.   While there is probably some truth to this (Statistically speaking, of all 7.53 billion people on the planet, you’ll probably encounter many people who will not understand or empathize), it is highly likely that if you interact with even a fraction of percent of people on Earth, you’ll find the ones who can offer you genuine support and belonging.  When we start to be more authentic with others and share more vulnerably with others, we can start to weed out the people who are truly accept us for who we are and are truly worthy of our experience.

 How can you bring more support in your life with respect to your relationship with food?  After all, eating is very much a social experience and therefore the more people we can add to our team, the easier it is to have habits that stick. Perhaps you can ask the people you live with to start preparing healthier foods.  Perhaps you’ll be inspired to find a support group that you can coordinate with weekly to support your habits or you’ll get support from a mentor or coach who has seen the other side.

I’d love to hear what you’re inspired to do next to bring support in your life. Please comment and share below!

Lastly, I wanted to let you know that I am also here for you.  If you are looking for 1-1 or group support, I wanted to let you know about that the Food & Body-Love Group Program starting in May.  One of the main reasons I started the Food & Body-Love Group Coaching Program was to a create a safe space where people who were tired of the struggles with food could find belonging, connection, and also accountability to stick to developing a healthier relationship with food.  If you are interested in hearing more, please do not hesitate to apply for a Breakthrough to Food Freedom Consult here.