In May’s column, we dove into the topic of emotional eating by looking at the differences between physical and emotional hunger. In June’s we took a look at our triggers—not the emotions that drive us to eat but what causes those emotions in the first place. And in July’s, we did some digging into the idea of what self-compassion could do for us: what happens when we allow ourselves to feel our emotions and trust ourselves not to act them out inappropriately.
Many of my clients come to me firmly believing that it’s a lack of self-discipline (AKA willpower) that causes or exacerbates their emotional eating problem. (Spoiler alert: it’s not about willpower or self-discipline.) They approach emotional eating from the perspective that there is something wrong with me and I have no choice in the matter.
This is the perfect segue into an important mindset shift, one that I learned at my nonprofit job as a grant writer: “Don’t ever talk about ‘the problem,’” I was instructed. “Instead, talk about ‘the opportunity.’”
As I mentioned last month, there are two ways to ask a question about a perceived failure of willpower: one is very judgmental and ends any positive conversation (“UGH! WHY DID I EAT THAT *AGAIN*?!?); the other is curious and opens the door to finding a range of options, the power to set ourselves up for success next time (“Huh, why did I eat that again?”)
The difference between “problem” and “opportunity” is similar: if we mention a problem, there’s a sense that there’s a solution (meaning just one) that will solve it, end of conversation; if we talk about an opportunity, it opens the door to a variety of actions that can be taken—it’s the beginning of a conversation, not an end.
We have choices
Emotional hunger can feel insatiable: an entire bag of chips, a whole sleeve of crackers, an entire cake, or a pint of ice cream can disappear before we even realize it—and we still aren’t “full.” There’s a sense of being dragged along by our emotions, a momentum that feels unstoppable.
And it’s a sense that many of us can relate to in other areas of our lives: the way we do one thing is the way we do everything. This is the way it has always been, the way it is, the way it will be—whether we’re talking about the direction of a relationship, a career, our overwhelming number of obligations to others—so why fight it?
My clients often come to me at the point where they’ve lost all hope of things changing unless they can somehow start a new life away from everyone who has claims on their time. I call it the Witness Protection Program Diet: the only way out (they think) involves a plane ticket, a wad of cash, and a change of identity.
The bad news: the federal government is quite busy these days, and those who are burning out at increasing rates during the pandemic and eating themselves into oblivion just don’t seem to be at the top of its list of priorities for the program.
As Erin Brokovich writes about our nation’s water crisis, Superman’s Not Coming to save us. Notably, the subtitle of her book is Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It (emphasis mine).
There are actions we can take to deal with any crisis, whether it’s personal or local, national or global. We seem to have forgotten that, with the result that we feel disempowered, so we wait for Superman (or Prince Charming or Joe Biden or the Covid-19 vaccine) to come rescue us.
What’s the way out, whether we’re talking about emotional eating or any other situation in which we feel disempowered? It’s not self-discipline or willpower—it’s self-empowerment.
Self-empowerment starts very simply with recognizing that we do have choices, and when we shift our mindset from thinking problem/solution to considering opportunity/options, those choices become clearer.
And once we see that we have options, we recognize that we do have the power to choose what we do (or eat).
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” He doesn’t say that we will necessarily make the “right choice”—whatever that is—and he does promise us the power to at least make a choice if we take a pause.
For emotional/stress eaters, the pause comes just as we’re reaching for that bag of chips or pint of ice cream: if we can recognize that our hunger is emotional, ask ourselves what triggered it, identify the emotion and what it’s really asking us for, we can often figure out a non-food way to satisfy the hunger, which we’ll dig into more next month.
In the meantime, I offer you an Integrative Nutrition® exercise that might be helpful when you’re feeling like you have no options, like the pull of the bad-choice food or the second (or third) helping is too much. Once again, it’s a language game, one that helps you reframe your relationship to your sense of powerlessness.
Start with a sentence you use that contains the word “should”—that other dirty word that starts with s-h: I should eat an apple instead of that pint of Ben + Jerry’s,” and write down the emotions that come up when you say it. (Think about your energy when you say it: light, heavy, expansive, contracting, etc.)
Rewrite it (on paper or in your mind) using the word “could:” I could have eaten an apple instead of the ice cream. (How does that feel? Ooo—look: you have options!)
Now rewrite it one more time using the word “will:” The next time I feel sad, I will take a walk in nature instead of eating the ice cream. (And look at you now: you are choosing a better option, and I’ll bet you feel a bit more powerful—even if you’re still doubtful about whether you’ll actually succeed.)
When we feel self-empowered (like we have some choices), we are able to reclaim our agency and act on our own behalf: we’ve set ourselves up to get out of the cycle of stuck.
Feeling cynical? Try it anyway—and let me know what happens.
If you’re following along with the series and trying to address what might be emotional/stress eating, here are your action steps/assignments so far:
- Determine whether your hunger is physical or emotional
- Identify the trigger of your emotional hunger
- Name your emotion—and allow yourself to feel it
- Find self-empowerment in recognizing that you have choices, whether you make the better one or not—awareness is always the first step!
WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, and COO of a busy family of four spread across the country—and the globe. Liza lives in an empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.