After I’d finished yet another secret binge.
After I’d made myself feel sick from the vast quantity of food I’d eaten.
After I’d told myself how weak and pathetic I was.
After I’d said I hated myself with utter conviction.
As I sat alone in physical and emotional pain, this is the question I would ask over and over again.
And I spent the best part of 20 years looking for the answer.
After all, I was an intelligent woman, I had my life together in other respects, so why not with food? Why couldn’t I get a handle on my eating like everyone else? What was wrong with me?
My experience isn’t unique. When I meet clients for the first time, they often describe how they start the day with the best of intentions, how they try to “be good” or “eat healthily”, only to find themselves helplessly bingeing at some point later on. Their bewilderment at their behaviour is evident as they describe the enormous amount they eat, as well as the physical pain and emotional anguish they experience once the binge is over. I recognise their shame and self-loathing. I feel the intensity of their distress and desperation as they ask me “why am I doing this to myself?”
Contrary to what the media, medical professionals and society at large often assume, people with overeating issues aren’t simply greedy or stupid or lazy. Bingeing can seem like out of control, senseless behaviour but it has a very distinct purpose. I’ve yet to meet anyone for whom this wasn’t the case and I’d like to share with you a little of my understanding of this very complex issue.
If someone’s overeating began after they started dieting, then it’s possible their bingeing is a response to the restriction of dieting (this previous post explains more). However, if their dysfunctional relationship with food began before they started dieting, and especially if it began in childhood, then it usually indicates that something else was going on that warrants investigation.
People whose eating is emotion-driven often feel that they don’t belong, that they’re outsiders, they don’t fit in and they never have. They fear being a nuisance or a burden to others, especially when it comes to their emotional needs. They frequently help others while at the same time find it excruciating to ask for help themselves. They often project a cheerful exterior masking a feeling of shame which penetrates to their very core.
What we discover when we explore their childhood is that there are very good reasons why they feel the way they do.
Sometimes they’re simply following behaviour modelled by parents who turned to food themselves to deal with their feelings. Sometimes they were victims of sexual or physical abuse, or serious neglect. But more often than not, what was going on was subtle and harder to ascertain.
Sometimes they were teased or picked on by other family members. In reality, the “teasing” was relentless shaming, especially in relation to their appearance. If they protested about their treatment they were ridiculed for being “too sensitive” or told they couldn’t take a joke. Sometimes a sibling was loved and cherished while they were ignored or criticised.
Sometimes they had a parent who was overbearing or controlling and would become angry or histrionic if they didn’t get their own way. They had no choice but to comply with all their demands, often contrary to their own wishes. Sometimes they had to act as counsellor to an emotionally fragile parent, who confided in them all of their fears and insecurities. Sometimes they were treated as the hired help, or “the skivvy”, expected to do everything for everyone else but not to expect anything in return. If they ever attempted to address their own emotional needs they would be called “selfish” or “ungrateful”.
Sometimes daughters are undermined by mothers envious of their youth and attractiveness. Sometimes sons are made to feel incompetent by their fathers because they were more sensitive than their siblings. Often they were simply overlooked, as though they were invisible in their own family, unnoticed, unseen.
Experiences like these leave people who overeat with the feeling that there is something terribly wrong and unlovable about them. They see themselves as defective, rather than the parenting they received.
The truth is they haven’t been loved and accepted in the way that all children need to be. They haven’t been shown that they’re of value and that they matter. They weren’t comforted and soothed when they were upset. They haven’t had someone to listen to their fears and worries and hopes and aspirations. They haven’t been protected from criticism and cruelty. They haven’t been nurtured. They haven’t been taught that their emotional needs are just as important as anyone else’s.
Because the answer to the question “why am I doing this to myself?” is that you just don’t know what else to do.
If you started turning to food as a child you were simply trying to find a way to look after yourself emotionally. You needed something to help you detach from feelings that threatened to overwhelm you. Feelings such as anger, hurt, resentment, fear, loneliness and abandonment.
You chose food.
You did the best you could.
But it would be good for you to investigate other ways to look after yourself emotionally (this might help). Before you do, it may be an idea to identify some of the messages you received in childhood about whether or not you’re allowed to look after yourself. Just because you weren’t nurtured and comforted as a child, doesn’t mean you can’t nurture and comfort yourself now.
I’m very aware that examining childhood experiences can elicit feelings of guilt and disloyalty about your parents. It can be yet another thing you feel bad about. But this doesn’t have to be about assigning blame unless you want it to be. It’s really about exploring your experiences as a child so you can better understand your behaviour in the present.
Asking “why am I doing this to myself?” is actually a really good starting point. But rather than asking the question out of despair and self-contempt after a binge, could you instead ask it out of curiosity, compassion and caring when you have a quiet moment to yourself?
If you do, you might find you understand yourself and your eating behaviour a bit better.