“Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening.”

Alexander Woollcott, critic and member of the Algonquin Round Table

As you can see from the story in the previous post, of Rebel’s response to Domination, binge eating is an act of defiance, not of weakness. This is a fundamental point that must be understood in order to overcome emotional eating.

The diet culture encourages us to believe that there are good foods and bad foods. Roughly speaking, good foods are those that are bland and unsatisfying, and bad foods are sinfully self-indulgent and delicious.

There are two ways in which the meaning that one attaches to food impacts the urge to overeat for emotional reasons. One is the experience of feeling controlled by a powerful source, namely, the pressure one feels to lose weight by avoiding “bad” foods. Is anyone really forcing you to diet?

The other is the degree to which you feel that the defiance against that perceived pressure has some power; namely, the “hell-with-you-I’ll-eat-whatever-I-want” response. An act of defiance is only effective if the behavior is really prohibited. It’s not very subversive to say, “I’ll show you – I’ll eat my vegetables and ignore the dessert! What do you think about that?”

If emotional eating is an act of defiance against control, it is only effective if that control and the way you respond to it have real meaning. The key here is that the strength of the power food has over you depends on your perception of it. As long as you consider certain foods as “bad,” the pressure to avoid them is great and eating them will continue to feel like an effective expression of defiance. However, if you view food as having no intrinsic good or bad qualities, but instead are things you either do or don’t want to eat, you effectively neutralize the power that it has both as a source of control and as a response to it.

Understanding emotional eating in this way is very different from seeing food as an overpowering force against which you must expend a limited resource of energy to resist, a strategy that can succeed only with consistent determination and self-restraint. Eventually, according to this limited resource view, as this energy to resist becomes depleted, your desire will get the better of you and, exhausted from the battle, you’ll surrender.

The reality is, the desire for these blacklisted foods is not something you always have to fight against. Even though you enjoy them, you’re not always in the mood for them. However, when you believe you may never legitimately eat these foods, you always wish you can. That’s where the sense of constant craving comes from: the belief that they are always forbidden.

If you can overcome this sense of prohibition, then you can  assess your desire for that treat on its own merits. As with anything, too much of a good thing can ruin the experience. So it’s best to know what you want to eat, whether you want it at that moment, and, if so, at what point you’ve gratified that desire. That would be the time to stop. If you do that you can walk away guilt-free, satisfied, and, since it doesn’t take that much to indulge a taste for something, with a minimal amount of calories consumed. Win-win-win.

Let’s say you’re in the break room at work and someone has left a box of doughnuts for anyone to have. If eating doughnuts doesn’t feel like an act of rebellion, you have the luxury to simply decide whether or not you want one.  Since you know that you can have one whenever you want it, and that the world is not going to suddenly run out of chocolate-glazed doughnuts, the fact that opportunity knocks is no longer a relevant factor in your decision to eat. The only issue to decide is whether you’re in the mood to get the most enjoyment from it. Otherwise, skip it and wait until you are. And if you do have a real desire for the doughnut, only have enough to satisfy that desire. Why spoil a good experience by overdoing it?

By changing your view of food’s power you accomplish for yourself what Toto did for Dorothy when he pulled the curtain aside to expose the Wizard of Oz. The Great and Powerful Pastry is not so scary anymore. You defuse the power that food had over you and take back the control. Once those foods are neutralized and powerless, then it actually feels kind of silly to rebel against them. What’s the point?

The focus of this step is how to make eating an unnecessary and therefore ineffective act of rebellion by viewing all food as permissible and on the menu every day. As you would in a restaurant, you just order what you really want. That means that since the “diet imperative” is less of a controlling force in your life, the cause of the stress and the reaction to it are both less powerful.

However, it’s not always a sense of control by the Diet Tyrant in your head that drives you to rebel, it’s often the actual tyrant in the office or any other area of your life that you feel is controlling you and makes you want to turn to food.

So it still leaves open the question of how to deal with a controlling force that’s not diet-related, such as a person who is either in a position of power or acts as if they are, so that you feel like your freedom is limited and want to prove – to yourself, anyway – that no one else is the boss of you.

To answer that question ask yourself another one: are you sure that what you’re experiencing as an attempt to control you is really what you think it is? Could there be another way to view it? Remember what Hamlet said, “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

We’ll talk about that in the next step.

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You already know that emotional eating, as the term implies, is caused by emotional stress. What you may not know is that it’s not just any emotional stress that can trigger a binge episode; it’s a very specific type of stress that is most likely to cause it.

The first thing to learn, even before you try to identify the stressors that might be causing the emotional eating, is what to look for. There are two important concepts that are essential to understand before you can identify the stressors that drive the eating behavior: homeostasis and autonomy.

Homeostasis is an idea that has been around for about 150 years that explains how the body regulates its internal functions by maintaining a comfortable balance between opposing forces, thereby reducing fluctuations. If you get too hot there are processes to cool you off and if you get too cold the processes reverse and warm you up. That’s how you’re able to maintain a stable temp of 98.6. The same process applies to many of the body’s automatic functions such as regulating hormonal activity, blood pressure, respiration, and so on. Although we can’t yet observe its activity, I believe that the same process helps us regulate our emotions; specifically, for the purposes of our topic, by helping us maintain a consistent sense of control over our lives.

One critical influence on our emotions and a central force in motivation is our sense of autonomy, or the ability to control our own lives. We each have a sense of our personal domain of authority and responsibility, and within that domain we want to call the shots. At the same time, we recognize the need to accept and tolerate a certain degree of control that comes from the outside. In fact, that external control is what we call Structure, and we can appreciate that it can be very helpful in staying organized and being more productive.

However, sometimes Structure becomes a little too pushy (micromanaging boss, controlling parent, bossy spouse, etc.) and it turns into a toxic type of control. Think of it as Structure’s evil twin, Domination, or Dom, for short. They are the extreme ends of a continuum called extrinsic control. When Structure goes too far in making you stay on a very restrictive diet, for example, he limits your sense of autonomy and eventually morphs into Dom. Kind of how Dr. Banner becomes The Hulk.  That’s what you experience as emotional distress and you feel the need to fix it.

This is where the concept of balance or homeostasis is key to understanding the connection between stress and eating. Because on the opposite side of the scale, there’s another continuum; we’ll call it the autonomous control side. The good end of that continuum is Independence. Think of Structure (the red cylinder) co-existing peacefully with Independence (the blue box), as illustrated below. Both sides are serving an important function in maintaining emotional balance by offsetting each other and keeping you feeling stable. This is the normal state of affairs when you’re happy, life and work are going smoothly, and your stress level is low.

Now Independence has a difficult-to-manage (but not evil) twin as well, called Rebel (accent on the first syllable). Rebel comes into the picture when Dom starts to bully you and knocks your equilibrium out of balance. Rebel means well; he’s just trying to help you defend your autonomous control. The problem is he’s impulsive. He’s also not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Rebel’s idea of restoring balance is to become just as extreme as Dom. In a process that parallels what happens on the extrinsic control side of the scale, Independence morphs into Rebel on the autonomous control side of things. (I imagine Vinnie Barbarino from “Welcome Back Kotter,” but feel free to come up with your own image.) So what does Rebel do? He finds a way to prove that no one can push you around like that and demonstrates it by, say, eating a dozen doughnuts. Hah! That’ll show who’s the diet boss!

The problems created by Rebel’s methods to prove who’s boss are less of a concern to him at that point than the fact that he gets you back in balance. Consequences like feeling sick, guilty and out of control, not to mention what the behavior will do to your weight, are problems to worry about later, not now. The good news is, you’re back in balance. The thing he’s slow to pick up on is the bad news: you’re still dealing with Domination’s bullying ways, and now you’re having trouble controlling the well-intended behavior of simple-minded Rebel.

When you think about this little parable, you can see that it makes no sense to just focus on reigning in Rebel by, say, going on a diet. He wouldn’t even be around if wasn’t for Dom; besides it would just make Dom want to clamp down even harder on the control. Instead, the focus needs to be on getting Dom to turn back into mild-mannered (if perhaps a bit rigid) Structure. I’ll describe how to do that in Part 2.

Up to this point, I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for presenting a new way of understanding emotional eating and how to overcome it. In previous posts I discussed the nature of emotional eating and how to recognize it; I explained the current and most widely accepted way of looking at the problem of self-control and self-regulation of behaviors like emotional eating, the research that supports it and some of the main problems with that theory; and I then presented an alternative way of understanding self-control, and specifically how it applies to emotional eating.

With that information providing the conceptual background, I’ll now try to explain in detail how these ideas can translate into a practical approach for overcoming emotional eating.

There are four practical steps to addressing this problem:

  1. Understand how certain types of stressors lead to emotional eating and how to identify them
  2. Challenge myths and beliefs about dieting, especially the demonization of any and all types of food
  3. Identify sources of the specific stressor(s) that are likely causing the behavior
  4. Address ways to reduce the stressor and/or its negative psychological impact

Even though I’ve talked about all of these ideas in previous posts, I’ll address each one separately and in detail with a focus on the practical approach to accomplishing each of the steps. I’ll begin by explaining the specific type of stressor that is associated with binge eating and the cause and effect connection between them.

 

In the second act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark welcomes his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to  his country, although Hamlet feels sorry for them that they have to be there…

HAMLET:   … What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune that she sends you to prison hither?

GUILDENSTERN:   Prison, my lord?

HAMLET:   Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ:   Then is the world one.

HAMLET:   A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ:   We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET:   Why, then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Imagine you’re in a room that has lots of things to keep you busy and occupied – a computer with internet, books, television, music, a well-stocked kitchen and a bathroom. You could easily stay there for days without feeling bored or unproductive. There’s only one problem: you’re locked in. You know there are people who may be around who can let you out, but they’re not responding right now and you have no way of knowing if they’ll be back in a few hours or a few days. You look around for the key and can’t find it anywhere. You try to get work done but you have a hard time concentrating because you keep thinking about how long it will be before you can get out. Not that you have to or even want to leave; you just want to know that you can. Until then, however, you can’t focus on anything else.

This is the situation in which a lot of people find themselves. They feel stuck in circumstances that are not of their own choosing. What bothers them isn’t the way their lives are right now, it’s just the feeling that they don’t have other options if they wanted them. The sad thing is that they could be perfectly content with what they’re doing and whom they’re with, and they may even choose to stay just where they are even if they felt there were many other options available. The problem is that they don’t feel that they have other options, and that is keeping them from enjoying and being productive with what they have.

Let’s go back to the imaginary room. What if, at some point during your many breaks from work to get up and look around for that key, you suddenly found it? Would you feel the need to open the door and run out? You may, but not necessarily. You might want to unlock the door and then go back to work or whatever it is you were doing. Or you may just want to leave the door locked for privacy.

Whichever you choose,  it just feels better to know that you could leave if you wanted to. Now that you know that, you find yourself able to concentrate on what you’re doing, and feel much happier and content staying in that room. What happened to make you feel better if you haven’t changed anything about your circumstances? Your perception of the situation has changed. You know that you have the freedom to do something different if you choose to.

I’ve been talking about the importance of autonomous control and the role it plays in how you feel and, as I’ve also been arguing, in how you behave. In this illustration, the sense of having the ability to choose is the only thing that has really changed. You’re there now because you choose to be, not because you have to be. It’s about perception: Hamlet and his friends are talking about the same place; to him it’s a prison and he pities them, but to them it’s not and they’re fine with it.

Think about situations that you may be in, like relationships or work, that make you feel stuck and unhappy. Is it all bad? Are there any benefits to being there? For example, if you’re not happy at your job, do you find yourself focusing on all the reasons you feel that way? Put those aside for a minute and think of aspects of it that you like and would want to have even if you had the option of leaving. Thinking of those things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave, but until you have that opportunity, it could make life a lot more pleasant.

Just having the knowledge that you can take control of your situation by viewing it differently is a major part of feeling less trapped and hopeless. This can affect not just how you feel, but how you actually perform at work or behave in other situations, since, just like knowing where the key is in case you want to leave the room, you can now focus on getting back to work and being more productive.

The implication of this as it relates to emotional eating, is that when you feel trapped in one area of your life you may feel the need in some other area to prove to yourself that you’re really free to behave as you wish; for example, by breaking your self-imposed rules about eating. The ability to see yourself as more in charge of your life could reduce the need to find that “freedom” elsewhere in ways that, ironically, make you feel a prisoner of your own behavior.

I’ve talked about changing your perception of things when you don’t have the ability to control them directly. This can help strengthen your feeling of control, autonomy, and independence without feeling the need to binge in order to regain that sense of control. I’ll give you a great example of how one patient of mine dealt with her frustration about not being in a relationship despite the fact that she has everything going for her.

Obviously, there’s only so much control that a person can have to change this situation. Some people, of course, are more “out there” and are willing to go up to a perfect stranger and start a conversation that might lead to something, and this will certainly improve their odds. But there’s always the annoying fact that there’s another individual who has an important say in whether or not anything is going to happen, and besides, not everyone is comfortable being quite so “out there.”

She said that every morning she would get on the bus to work and look around at her fellow commuters. Her thought was always some version of, “There are so many good looking guys in Chicago, what’s wrong with me that I can’t find even one to be in a relationship with?” This left her feeling defeated, helpless, and often hopeless. This sense of her life being determined by forces outside of her control creates the need to correct it by asserting control in some other area that also makes her feel that way, but one that she can, at least momentarily, do something about. For her that means going home after work and bingeing.

After discussing these ideas for the past few sessions, she now has a better sense of how changing her way of viewing that situation leads to those feelings and what she can do to change that perspective. Now she gets on the same bus, looks around and thinks, “Wow, there are so many good looking guys in Chicago, my chances are great that I can find one to be in a relationship with.” This change was her own idea and it came to her automatically; we never actually discussed this particular situation before, just the idea of shifting perspective.

You might object, as she herself did at first after reporting this, “That’s great, but I’m still not in a relationship.” True, but the feeling of control that she gains from this shift in perspective will affect her feeling of control over her life and her sense of hope, including the possibility that she too can be happy. In fact, this experience made her feel more willing to go out with friends that weekend to an event where she would have an opportunity to meet someone. The main point is that even if it doesn’t turn out that way, she is feeling better about herself, more hopeful, and more in control. As a result, she feels less of a need to reassert her control by bingeing.

Here’s another example. I’m seeing a young man in therapy who is in his late 20’s and has been having problems with episodic drinking binges and emotional eating. “Jason” has also been very unhappy in his job and has gained about 25 pounds since he started there about 9 months ago. He is working as a tech specialist in an organization where few of the employees are very computer savvy so there is a lot of demand for his services. He and his boss are the only two technical people in the office, and they have to deal with the full range of cell phone, internet, email, hardware and software issues that come up. He’s very good at what he does, and is a problem solver by nature so he enjoys doing this type of work. But he’s miserable at his job because, in his words, “my boss is an idiot, paranoid, and controlling.” Not a great recipe for job satisfaction.

In our most recent session, Jason told me about an incident earlier in the week that led to him going home and overeating. His boss asked him to work on a problem that he himself was unable to resolve but he wouldn’t give Jason some important technical information that he needed to get the job done. As he put it, “My boss is too stupid to know how to figure it out for himself, but he’s also too paranoid to give me the codes that will let me get the job done. He told me, ‘you’re a smart guy, you’ll figure something out.’” Jason said he had to suppress the urge to strangle the guy – or at least scream obscenities in his face and quit. Instead, he said the only thing he could have done without getting fired or arrested was to restrain himself and tell him he’ll try do what he can. He felt there was no other option than to shut up because the guy’s not going to change and telling him off will just make his life more difficult.

It was clear to him that the experience led directly to his loss of self-control after work and I explored a bit about what he thought the connection was. “I just needed to blow off some steam,” he said. I reflected back to him my understanding of the problem: that the way he saw the situation, he was locked into a tight space with only two options: blow up now or blow out later. He chose the blow-out. Either way, he had no choice about whether an “explosion” of some kind would happen. Plus, he was still angry at his boss – and now at himself too for taking it out on the food.
We have all been there: it’s the classic dilemma of finding yourself in a situation that is intolerable as it is, you have no power to change it, and you can’t get out of it. What do you do?

I told him that there is a third option. That is to recognize that his emotional reaction was not directly caused by the situation, even though it did feel that way. There’s another step between what happened and his reaction to it, and that step is how his perception caused him to experience the event.

The way he was looking at it, he had the responsibility to get something done but had no authority over how to do it. That never works out well. You can’t have the responsibility to do something without the authority over how to do it and still feel a sense of autonomy and freedom. It’s like the slaves in Egypt who were told to make bricks without straw. The good news is that although he can’t change his crazy boss, he does have some choice about how he perceives the situation that he’s in.

Instead, without saying or doing anything to try to change the boss, he could view the part of his job that he does have authority over to be all he is really responsible for. Beyond that, it’s like he’s doing the guy a favor and that figuring out how to solve the problem is an interesting challenge. If he solves it, it’s a win because he did the impossible; and if he doesn’t, so what? He was asked to do the impossible!

You can’t feel responsible for something you have no authority over. Keep in mind that he didn’t have to change anything but his own internal perception to feel better. He may still end up telling him the exact same thing that he did; that he’ll do what he can. But not feeling the burden of responsibility would make all the difference in his experience of it. He agreed that he felt better just imagining doing it with that perspective.

I can probably blog on this topic forever, providing new examples every day. The bottom line is this: How you feel about some experience might seem like it’s a direct response to that situation. In reality, it’s a response to how you perceive the event, not the event itself. That’s something that you, and you alone, have complete control over.