Maybe you’ve had this experience. Something happens that makes you feel a way you don’t like: in pain, sad, angry, scared, lonely, depressed, vulnerable, etc. You want something that will help you not feel that, and you reach for the first thing that comes to mind – food. It doesn’t matter if you’re hungry of not. All that matters is that eating is pleasurable, provides a distraction, and numbs the feelings.
This is something I’ve certainly done, especially with deeply traumatic events. Growing up, food was often my means of self-medication. And as choices went, it had a lot of advantages. It was always there, it was legal, it tasted good, it never asked me hard questions or expected anything of me. It was simply there, as much as I needed and whenever I wanted.
Of course this also had down sides. The most obvious was weight gain, but the more subtle effect was more damaging: I didn’t let myself experience those emotions and so never truly worked through them. Instead, they lingered, taking on a life of their own because I couldn’t let them go.
Learning to be honest with myself about what I was feeling, and managing those emotions more effectively, may have been one of the hardest parts about learning to eat mindfully. It required brutal honesty with myself, introspection, a willingness to go deep, and most of all, allowing myself to feel whatever it was. What makes this even more challenging is that our society tends to label emotions as “good” or “bad”, when really they all have their place and can give us valuable information about ourselves.
But the flip side is that hard as it was, I felt an enormous relief when I expressed those emotions, rather than stuffing them down. They lost their power over me once I gave them a voice, and it also meant that I was no longer inclined to reach for food. In fact, I found it quite uncomfortable not to let myself have the feelings. It no longer appealed to me.
So if this is something you struggle with, perhaps you can find some hope in knowing that, difficult as it may seem, it feels better in the long run not to numb yourself with food. Remember, too, that you can start small and work up to tackling the deeper emotions – any amount will help you have a healthier relationship with food, and yourself.