How Can Fear Make Us Fat?

Trigger warning: abuse, trauma.

Let’s say you’ve managed to heal your relationship with food and have found autonomy.

You’ve been eating in tune with your body for a while – you’re eating when you’re hungry, you’re eating exactly what you feel like, and you’re stopping when you’re satisfied. In addition, you’re getting better at acknowledging your feelings and you’re finding ways to meet your emotional needs directly. Now that you’re no longer overeating, you’re really beginning to work with your metabolism and, whaddaya know, you’re starting to lose some weight.

All good.

Or is it?

You may not be aware that often the purpose of binge eating is not only to take you away from challenging feelings but also to make you put on weight.

I’m not saying you deliberately put on weight. I know you’re not consciously thinking “great, this’ll put loads of weight on me” after you’ve binged (quite the opposite, in fact). But that doesn’t mean something isn’t going on behind the scenes, outside of your awareness.

The fear is that if your body is smaller you somehow transform into a different person.

There can be many reasons why people who binge eat put on and retain excess weight and, in my experience, they’re all valid and worthy of exploration.

For example, suppose you’ve had a really damaging relationship with someone who was abusive. Issues with food may always have been lurking in the background but they were seriously triggered during the relationship and you started secretly binge eating in an attempt to detach from the emotional pain of the abuse.

You may have managed to escape the relationship but the experience was so profoundly negative there’s a part of you that’s terrified about having another relationship ever again.

Running contrary to that is your belief that if you’re any smaller you automatically have to begin a new relationship, or that the act of losing weight makes this more of a possibility (are relationships only the preserve of thin people? I don’t think so).

It’s this belief and the fear that it generates that can initiate a return to bingeing, as a part of you says “quick, let’s get the weight back on so we don’t have to be in a relationship and can feel safe again”.

Beliefs such as this give you the sense that if your body is smaller then THINGS WILL CHANGE and that thought can be deeply alarming.

Here are a few other beliefs that people often (unconsciously) hold about losing weight:

If I lose weight I’ll have to dress differently.
• If I lose weight I’ll have to be confident and outgoing.
• If I lose weight I’ll have to have sex.
• If I lose weight I’ll become cold and heartless.
• If I lose weight I’ll have to have my act together.
• If I lose weight I’m not allowed to fail.

The fear is that if your body is smaller you somehow transform into a different person.

You have to dress very differently, perhaps more fashionably or provocatively. You’re never allowed to be shy or insecure. You’re expected to have sex. You must be self-assured, successful and on top of your game.

At the same time, you have to become frosty and uncaring towards others (sometimes people equate fat with being warm and caring, and worry they’ll become cold and indifferent if they lose weight. But it’s you who’s warm and caring, not your fat).

This list is by no means exhaustive and it would be good for you to have a think about any beliefs you might have about being smaller that may be getting in the way of really healing your relationship with food (I’d love to hear them).

The point is that a part of you can feel frightened and vulnerable about your body getting any smaller and you need to assure this part of you that nothing has to change unless you want it to.

Things start to improve the day you decide to sling your eating issue in the back of the car while you clamber into the driving seat and take control of the wheel.

A good way of doing this is to create your own personal rules. If you’re having a bad reaction to the word “rules” then pick something else – how about personal guidelines?  You then clearly set out what you want to believe and how you want to behave.

For example, I’m aware that I have a slight self-aggrandising side to my personality. My fear was that if I lost weight, a raging narcissist waiting in the wings would suddenly enter stage right and take over. So, the first “rule” I wrote for myself was:

“If my body reduces in size I will not act like a douchebag”.

Now that I am a bit smaller, if I’m in danger of behaving in a self-aggrandising manner I hear a voice in my head say “erm, just so you know you’re being a douchebag right now and you said you wouldn’t do that. Just saying”. That helps to keep that part of me in check (sadly, it doesn’t always work).

If we take the examples I gave above, some new “rules” to counteract these beliefs might go as follows – If my body becomes smaller…

• I don’t have to have a relationship if I don’t want to.
• I don’t have to dress any differently if I don’t want to.
• I’m allowed to be unsure of myself.
• I don’t have to have sex if I don’t want to.
• I’ll keep an eye on my behaviour (also known as “The Douchebag Rule”).
• I’m allowed to be imperfect.
• I’ll still be the warm and caring person I’ve always been.
• I’m allowed to make mistakes, as we all are.

I wouldn’t stop there. I would write as many as you want to in order to give the message to your vulnerable side that you know what you’re doing.

Often it can feel like you’re sitting in the passenger seat while your emotion-driven overeating is steering. But it doesn’t have to be.

Generally, things start to improve the day you decide to sling your eating issue in the back of the car while you clamber into the driving seat and take control of the wheel.

You may not know exactly where you’re going but at least you’re in charge now.

Hopefully then the day will come when you decide to dump your overeating baggage at the side of the road and put your foot on the accelerator.  Smiling, you watch it disappear in the rear-view mirror as you head off into your binge-free future.

©️ Julie de Rohan 2018.

16 thoughts on “How Can Fear Make Us Fat?

  1. This is a great post, Julie. It may explain why people who lose weight often gain it back too. Once we start getting attention from others, or maybe feel more “exposed” when thinner, we have to deal with other insecurities. Being fat can feel like protection against all that unwanted attention, even though we may experience shame about being fat. I’ve been there for sure. For the record, I *know* you are not a douchebag!! Lol. But as someone who used to assume “skinny girls were stuck-up” I can relate to the feeling, of not wanting to change my personality. 🙂

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    1. Thank you for your insightful comment – there can be so much conflict around losing weight and it’s great to hear your experience of it (especially your assumption that “skinny girls were stuck-up” – so interesting!). There are many beliefs that can get in the way and it’s really worth people trying to bring them into their awareness so they can challenge them in the way you did.

      Thanks for saying I’m not a douchebag, my friend! I suspect we can all behave like douchebags sometimes…

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  2. Those unconscious reasons to eat, including to distance yourself emotionally from an abusing relationship, makes sense. And the person often won’t even realize what’s driving them to eat! This is why I say therapy is not something to be ashamed of but can really help us get to the core of why we act certain ways. Great post, Julie.

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    1. Many thanks for your comment, Christy. My hope with this post was to outline just some of the reasons that drive people’s overeating. Understanding that it has a purpose, and identifying what that purpose is for the individual, means there is a much better chance of changing behaviour that causes so much unhappiness. I agree there’s no shame in seeking therapy (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?!)

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  3. There are a lot of reasons why I got fat and why I stayed fat. Those ‘If’ statements are the absolute truth and I’d add a couple more. ‘If’ I lose weight, people will notice me. ‘If’ I lose weight men will talk to me. The emotional fear is so powerful. Thank you for doing your part to help. Julie. It’s a long road and sometimes takes a long, long time to walk down it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can really relate to your “if I lose weight” statements – the thought of being without the extra weight can make us feel so vulnerable about being “seen”, can’t it? You’re right that it’s a long road but, I have to say, I’m glad I took it! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and thank you also for your encouragement, I really appreciate it.

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  4. Wow. You hit the nail on the head with this one. I do believe I’m an emotional eater. I can tell when I become frustrated and angry that I reach for the sweets. I’m trying to break this cycle now because it just isn’t healthy.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It can become so automatic to reach for food when we’re experiencing challenging emotions like frustration or anger, can’t it? It can feel like there’s just no time to work out what’s going on before you’re putting the food in your mouth. For me, it’s all about developing a curious and compassionate inner conversation. That way, you can find a gap where there wasn’t one previously where you’re able to say “I’m aware I’m reaching for food and I’m not hungry, what is it I think I can’t be with right now?” You then have more of a choice about whether you want to go ahead and eat or not. Many thanks for your comment, Lisa.

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  5. I am 56 are have struggled for a large portion of those years with my weight. I could connect with so much of what you have written. When I was 5 years old I had done something that my parents thought was naughty so I got the belting from Dad and the talking to from Mother…her statement follows “fat, ugly and stupid are no way to go through life but you will have to learn”. I am what we now refer to as an abused child on all three levels (sexual, physical and verbal) so the moment I feel as if something is wrong (I always think that it is me who has caused the problems) I take comfort in food because I feel at home when the person who is being nasty has a proper reason to abuse me.
    I really enjoyed reading this piece and found myself taking notes for my self-improvement journal, so this way I can work on the parts where I need to improve myself. A massive hug for sharing xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Adrienne, I’m struggling to put into words all that I want to say to you – I felt so sad reading your comment. I feel for you and for your vulnerable little 5-year old self who deserved to be loved, accepted and cherished but instead was treated so cruelly. It’s very understandable that you turn to food to comfort yourself given your experiences and I’m pleased that this post has been useful to you. My hope is that, perhaps rather than improving yourself, you’re able to accept yourself and appreciate all your qualities, despite the negative messages you’ve received. Thank you so much for your comment and a massive hug back to you.

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