This is a guest post from Berkeley, California-based psychotherapist Ben Ringler (who also happens to be my brother):
If you’ve been in a silent struggle for a long time with overeating, desperately hoping that the NEXT meal will leave you pleasantly full rather than bloated and ashamed, only to feel defeated once again, this article will help you.
Specifically, I will discuss how overeating serves to mask or bury certain feelings that felt dangerous to acknowledge and feel in childhood, and I will offer help by suggesting ways to gently and yet methodically peel back the layers that sits atop those buried feelings in order to let overeating fall away rather than be a constant battle of wills.
An Endless Cycle
Like any addiction, overeating is a seemingly endless cycle, a semi-unconscious, automatic sort of ritual that has been developed over time: You sit down for a meal, start eating, when all of a sudden, you fall into a trance, and you begin to throw caution to the wind. You cannot stop eating this delicious food in front of you. Perhaps you battle this impulse for a while until you tell yourself, “…the heck with it, I’ll be good next time.” Afterwards, you feel stuffed, ashamed for your “weakness” of overeating (when you swore you wouldn’t), and resolute that this won’t happen again! As the next meal approaches, you get anxious, feeling the pressure to perform well, and promise yourself that you will do better the next time. And then you go on automatic as the ritual starts over again.
A Biological Dilemma
Overeating is challenging to overcome because you need to eat! It’s extremely difficult to use will power to stop eating like you might try with smoking or drinking alcohol (both non-necessities), and so each meal is a confrontation with a particular kind of beast: the biological need to eat alongside cravings that nip and pull at you throughout to overeat. Because food is an essential and ongoing need, you may notice that the battle to stop eating too much quietly and constantly nags at you. If you listen closely, you may hear anxious thoughts about food in the background of your mind as you approach your next meal. Speaking of biology, both men and women struggle with overeating, and each gender suffers from the shame of their often gender specific stigmas. For women, overeating can cause castigation because of the pressure to maintain a certain body image imposed by society. Men aren’t even supposed to suffer from eating issues and so overeating is a behavior often done in silence, shame and fear.
Behind the curtain of overeating are very strong psychological forces, pulling out all the tricks to make sure you don’t feel your feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, vindictiveness, terror, disappointment, shame, uncertainty, or feeling out of control. In order to stop overeating, you will need to ultimately confront the feelings I listed above, and yet this flies in the face of all you learned as a child, in your home, schools and playgrounds from your caretakers: that those very feelings are not wanted, not acceptable, dangerous and cause a lot of distress. You learned this message either explicitly, if your parents or teachers yelled at you to stop crying or screamed at you when you got angry, or implicitly, if you got the sense, unconsciously, that the adults around you were working very hard to “swallow” or hide their own pain.
Working Through and Recovery
It’s very difficult to stop the cycle of overeating using will power. The psychological roots most likely go very deep. For lasting change, you will need to acknowledge that this is a problem, start to be curious about the feelings that exist alongside the cravings to overeat, and develop a practice that can help you uncover the roots of this behavior.
Here are some suggestions on how to curb your overeating habit:
- Acknowledging that you overeat is a powerful first step, particularly because it is generally a habit that people feel ashamed about or attached to and try to hide, even to themselves.
- Curiosity is a very different mind-set than the mind-set you typically find with overeating: shame, hiding, and obsession. Cultivating curiosity is a good practice that can open the doors to healing. With each meal, remember to be curious how you are feeling, especially as you begin to feel the craving to eat. Bring a cue card and sit it in front of you to remember “Be Curious.”
- Practice Awareness Like curiosity, the practice of being more aware of the ritual of overeating is a revolutionary act, because it flies in the face of the habitual pressure to keep it unconscious. Watch your mind as it relates to food. Watch the feelings that go along with the thoughts. How do you feel as you sit down to eat? When you’re eating? After each meal? What foods do you crave?
- Deepen With this information, you can deepen into the feelings that you’ve had to avoid up until this point. Therapy and Psychoanalysis can be very helpful places to think and talk about this habit, and begin to step gently into the tender places where the lost feelings reside.
Because these unconscious messages that your feelings were NOT ok most likely occurred in relationship to your caretakers, the healing of those wounds is most likely to occur within the context of a corrective relationship, especially with a therapist that you can feel safe with.
I wish you the best in your endeavor to break the habit of overeating, access your lost feelings, and feel more satiated in your life.
To learn more about Ben, get in touch with him or read more of his wisdom, visit benringler.com.