You’re about to send an email and you’re re-reading it for the tenth time to make absolutely sure there’s nothing in it that could be misconstrued and cause offence. Then you check it another ten times after you’ve sent it – just in case…
You bump into a friend in the street. As you walk away, you replay the conversation over and over in your head trying to work out if you said anything “wrong”. You’re still rerunning the conversation in your head as you lie in bed that night…
A work colleague seems a bit off with you. You instantly rack your brain to recall your most recent interactions with them. You spend the day desperately trying to work out what you did to upset them so you can apologise and make things right…
On the whole, people with emotion-driven overeating issues are a sensitive bunch. We tend to be very empathic and highly attuned to the feelings of others which is fine. Except when we confuse empathy with taking responsibility for other people’s feelings.
Thinking you’re responsible for others’ feelings goes beyond taking into account how something you say or do might be perceived. It’s a terrible burden that means you live your life hypervigilant of saying or doing the wrong thing. If someone is upset or angry it never occurs to you that it might be nothing to do with you. Instead, you immediately assume responsibility and try to make amends.
But where does this come from?
Beliefs such as these usually begin in childhood. Perhaps there was a family member that you felt you had to tread on eggshells around. Perhaps they often flew off the handle or gave you the silent treatment, leaving you bewildered as to what you’d done “wrong”.
Likewise, warnings such as “don’t make your father angry” or “don’t upset your mother” send the message that the adult isn’t accountable for their feelings and the child must be cautious not to set them off. Repeated experiences such as these can lead you to believe “other people’s feelings are my responsibility”.
While it’s understandable that you formed this belief in childhood, it doesn’t serve you to hang on to it today. The cost of constantly trying to anticipate, understand and placate other people’s feelings is that yours go unnoticed.
And if your feelings are going unnoticed then so are your emotional needs.
You can’t afford for that to happen if you want to resolve your issues with food because understanding your emotional needs is key to understanding emotion-driven overeating.
Let’s say the work colleague that I mentioned is still being off with you. It’s triggered your belief that you’re responsible for their feelings so you instantly feel guilty. You keep asking them if they’re OK but all they say is “I’m fine” in that passive-aggressive way that means “I’m anything but fine but I’m not going to tell YOU why, thank you very much”.
You spend the day ruminating about what you might have done wrong while simultaneously stuffing sweets from your desk drawer into your mouth. Meanwhile, you’re getting behind with your work which is only adding to your stress. By the time you go home, you’re ordering a large take-away that you don’t really want or are stopping off for a drive-through binge.
Let’s rewind and try that again.
You’ve asked your colleague if they’re OK, they reply “I’m fine”, nothing more. You begin to feel guilty until you remind yourself that you’re not responsible for other people’s feelings and you haven’t done anything deliberately to upset them. Being the empathic person you are, you say to your friend warmly “I can see that you’re not yourself today. I’m happy to listen if you want to talk about what’s bothering you. You know where I am”.
With that, you reassure yourself you’re not to blame, draw a line under it and get on with your work, happy in the knowledge that you’ve left a channel open to your friend if they want to communicate with you. At the end of the day, you go home to prepare a delicious meal that you thoroughly enjoy, accompanied by unicorns and fluffy kittens (I got carried away with the last bit, but you get the idea).
There’s another important upside to handling it this way. If you continue to take responsibility for your colleague’s feelings they’ll just keep doing what they’ve always done. They won’t learn to speak up and ask for help if they’re unhappy or struggling. If you stop taking responsibility for their feelings, there’s a chance they might.
The burden of responsibility for other people’s feelings makes human interaction stressful and complicated. I feel it’s one of the reasons why many people whose eating is emotion-driven often dream of living on their own in some remote location – what I call “The Hermit Fantasy”. It’s very understandable that you want to withdraw entirely from the human race if your self-esteem collapses every time someone reacts badly to something you said that was perfectly innocuous.
So take a deep breath and repeat several times:
“I am not responsible for other people’s feelings”.
It requires practice but it’s worth it, because if you let others take ownership of their feelings, you can set about the much more important task of understanding and owning your own.