Five Keys to Recovery: #2 Emerging from the Emotional Soup


Did you know that there is a hidden force that drives your behaviors associated with food addiction, emotional eating and binge eating?

Here’s a patient’s story to illustrate that:

Maryann just turned sixty years old. She is married and has a successful career in nursing. Although she feels good about most things in her life, she continues to struggle with her food and body image issues. When she feels happy, she overeats. When she’s sad or angry, she overeats. When her husband has to work late and she’s home alone, she overeats. She describes food as "my best friend." Her husband is very health conscious and often makes disparaging comments about her size just as her mother did when she was younger.  She really believes that if her life were just less stressful, she could stop overeating.

Maryann’s story above demonstrates how the emotions she feels about food and body image issues started in her childhood, and now, as an adult, these same emotions are triggered when her husband makes comments about her size. The emotions of embarrassment, guilt, shame, anger, loneliness, and disappointment are the driving force behind her overeating.  

When you are stuck in the emotional soup, you may feel that your emotions are in charge of you as opposed to the other way around.

Emerging from the emotional soup requires emotional development— that is, being able to identify, express, understand, and very importantly, regulate your emotions. It is not your emotions themselves that cause problems in your life. Rather it is your attempt to suppress or avoid your emotions that leads to problems.

Learning to identify your emotions, to put a name to what you are feeling, is the first step to being able to express emotions in a healthy and safe way. Emotional expression is important because it allows you to be the individual you are, with your own perceptions, emotions, and viewpoints. Emotional expression also is a necessary part of what it means to be human.  

Emotions can be called the energy of self-expression.

The second step to uncoupling your emotions from your behaviors is learning to express your emotions, without using food.  Patterns of emotional expression may also be similar to patterns in your relationship with food. For example, you may skip meals or restrict what you eat (similar to withholding emotions), which usually sets you up for the next binge (or emotional outburst).  

Many people have trouble expressing certain emotions—usually because they have a judgment about themselves (or feel others will judge them) if they feel certain feelings.

Each family has patterns, often unspoken, concerning emotions.

The third step is understanding your emotions.  One way to do that is by understanding your family rules around emotions which is how you learned to express or not express your emotions.  

Emotional rules can include ones that (1) allow a child to change his or her expression of certain emotions to protect another person’s feelings and (2) mask emotions to protect himself or herself from harm or to avoid embarrassment.   For example, your mother may not have told you not to get angry, but she may have left the room or given you a disapproving look whenever you expressed anger, indicating that expressing anger was unacceptable.

Emotions themselves are neither bad nor good, neither right nor wrong.

The 4th step in uncoupling your emotions from your behaviors is learning to manage or regulate emotions without using food. Maryann’s story above is a good example of an emotional overeater—someone who uses food to regulate her emotions.   Emotional regulation begins in early infancy when babies learn to self-soothe or calm themselves. By the age of four, children have usually learned to change how they express emotions to suit the expectations of others.

You may be using many healthy ways of regulating your emotions in other areas of your life but, like Maryann, find yourself at a loss about to how to do that with food and body image issues.  Many people with binge eating, food addiction or emotional eating have been taught to suppress their emotions from a young age.  Messages like "be a good girl" or "boys don’t cry" are examples.  Or you had a parent who raged and you learned to be afraid to express anger.  A history of childhood trauma contributes to the problem of emotional dysregulation.

The goal is to be able to experience a normal range of emotions without feeling so uncomfortable with those emotions that you use food (or other substances or behaviors) to avoid dealing with them.

Whether you have a history of specific trauma, abuse, or neglect or you are just "wired differently" in terms of how strongly you feel your emotions and your ability to regulate your emotions, it is important to understand that emotions are often the driving forces behind your behaviors.   You can learn new skills for dealing with your emotions that will enable you to finally uncouple your emotions from your unwanted behaviors.

Below is an exercise to help you emerge from the emotional soup:

  1. Make a list of emotions you have trouble expressing.
  • a.     Example;  ANGER
  • b.     What is your judgment about people who get angry?
  • c.     What do you do when you begin to feel angry (to avoid expressing your anger)?
  • What were your family rules about expressing emotion?
  • Think of times when you’ve expressed your emotions in healthy ways and unhealthy ways, and ask yourself how each affects your eating.
  • Think of 3 skills you’ve used to deal with stress in other areas of your life that could be applied to your food and body image issues.

All the best,
Dr. Carolyn

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