How Do You Soothe Yourself Without Food?

Trigger warning: binge eating.

Back in my binge eating days, I’d often hear a soothing little voice in my ear.

If I was having a tough day at work, the voice would whisper: “it’s OK, pick up some food on your way home”. Like co-conspirators, the little voice and I would plan the binge I’d have later.

Planning was part of the bingeing ritual and looking forward to it helped me get through the day. I’d feel excited as I imagined all the food I was going to eat. All those “bad” and “naughty” things I felt I wasn’t allowed because I was firmly entrenched in a diet mindset.

But the little voice gave me permission. After all, it told me I was having a difficult day and food would make me feel better.

As I shopped for my considerable stash on the way home, I’d pretend to the person at the checkout I was having a party because, naturally, I assumed they were judging me and thinking I was greedy. I’d feel happy as I went home. I couldn’t wait to get in the door.

Then it was shoes off, TV on, hit the sofa and get stuck in.

I’d eat until I got to the point where all I could feel was extreme physical discomfort, shame and regret.

Perhaps you have a similar voice in your head.

I call that little voice The Comforter.

We develop this side of us when we’re experiencing challenging feelings but don’t know how to deal with them, often when we’re children. If we’ve been emotionally neglected and shamed for our needs, we have to find some way to cope.

Once established, The Comforter becomes such a part of our lives we don’t think to question it. We’re so used to following its instructions, we don’t stop to consider if it’s helping us.

And it really isn’t helping us.

When we’re feeling something, those feelings need our attention. But the Comforter doesn’t believe we can handle our feelings, so it steps in to offer us a way out. “Just eat something and you’ll feel better” is The Comforter’s soothing motto.

So we binge. Then, not only do our original feelings remain unacknowledged, we have a whole new set of feelings to contend with because our Inner Bully doesn’t hesitate to give us a good kicking after the binge, calling us “fat, disgusting, weak, pathetic”.

We then feel so ashamed and worthless, it’s only a matter of time before The Comforter steps in again and tells us to turn to food to feel better.

That’s how we get stuck in a binge eating shame cycle.

So how do you soothe yourself without food?

If you have a Comforter, call it out
You don’t have to call it The Comforter – you can find a name that fits best with you. For example, The Numbing Side or The Soother. Increase your awareness of its presence. When and where are you aware of it most? When you’re alone? Late at night? Notice how often it urges you to eat, then ask it to step back so you get on with learning to handle your feelings.

Permission to feel? Absolutely granted
There’s nothing shameful about feelings – they’re an essential part of being human, so give yourself permission to experience them. Say it out loud if you need to: “I have the right to experience my feelings and take care of my emotional needs”. The more you stay with yourself emotionally, the more you dispel the idea that feelings are shameful. Give yourself the words of comfort and reassurance you didn’t get as a child.

Breathe into it, lean into it
Instead of escaping from your feelings, try leaning into them – feel them peak in intensity and then wane. If I’m experiencing a really challenging feeling, I like to sit in an arm chair, grip the arms, take a deep breath in and out, and lean into it, reassuring myself I can deal with it. After years of avoiding your feelings, it’s empowering to purposefully do the opposite and it’s a good opportunity to find that place of stillness within you.

Focus on building emotional resilience, not resisting the urge to eat
We’re often told to focus on resisting the urge to eat when we binge (usually by distracting ourselves), but I prefer to focus on building emotional resilience. This gives a purpose to our discomfort and each new experience builds on the last as we learn to regulate our feelings without food.

Explore other ways to soothe yourself
Imagine if food weren’t available – you’d have to do something to soothe yourself, so what would it be? I definitely comfort myself with music, a soft blanket or a hot drink (or all three). I often write down what I’m feeling or return to books whose words console me. Sometimes I’ll reach out to someone I trust. Allowing ourselves to be in touch with our feelings helps us work out what genuinely soothes us.

If you’re really struggling with binge eating recovery, it’s often because you’re still looking for a way to bypass your feelings and avoid a relationship with yourself. You’re still searching for that “quick fix” to make you stop bingeing.

But how long have you been looking?

Instead, try dismissing The Comforter and practise really being with your feelings. Then explore what truly soothes you. It’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be perfect – perfection has no place in recovery from disordered eating.

I binged for 30-odd years but haven’t now for a very, very long time. I can assure you it’s possible to look after yourself emotionally without turning to food.

Believe you can.

Believe in your ability to resolve your issues.

Believe in your capacity for change.

And believe you can soothe yourself without food.

©️ Julie de Rohan 2020.

24 thoughts on “How Do You Soothe Yourself Without Food?

  1. I always found a hot drink helps. Even green tea which has zero calories subsides the desire to eat. But taking a mindful pause and thinking what eating at that time is going to do to your body helps too.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I suppose I find it more useful to learn to stay with ourselves emotionally and to explore what the urge to eat is attempting to take us away from, rather than simply attempting to suppress. Many thanks for your comment, Sadje.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just think that if people’s binge eating causes them distress then taking the opportunity to explore what drives them to food has to be better in the long run. If your eating doesn’t cause you distress, then perhaps it’s another matter. I hope that makes sense, Sadje – many thanks for your comment.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Superb post Julie. Thank you. Your honesty, solid examples, and encouragement to believe in all that’s possible when we “lean in”, will give such hope, to so many. X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, my friend. I’ve felt a little wobbly since I published the post (probably because it contains personal experience) so I very much appreciate your feedback – my hope it that it’s helpful for anyone struggling with these issues.


  3. I’m getting better at sitting with feelings, breathing into them (though my favourite chair doesn’t have arms to grip!), and it does work wonders … at least it does when I catch myself early, notice what I’m doing before I actually start the binge. I’ve been working on a post about self-soothing and self-care and this all fits in so well – and helps me notice what I’m feeling and make happier choices about what I need 🙂 Thanks Julie!

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    1. I really like your phrase “make happier choices about what I need”, Karen. Often I hear people say they need to make “better” or “healthier” choices especially when it comes to food which always sounds to me like their Inner Bully is giving them a hard time and telling them they’re not good enough. “Happier choices” sounds much more caring and in tune with yourself. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts – I look forward to reading your post!

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  4. I understand that binging is not good for you and merely works as a bandaid to superficially soothe the pain; however, I love food as a reward too much give it up altogether. If I have a bad day or even a good day, I like to have something delicious to look forward to; it excites and motivates me. Instead of denying myself, which makes me want it even more, I have instead turned to moderation. Over time, the rewards of scaling back and savoring smaller portions, have made eating so much more enjoyable.

    I realize you weren’t advocating not eating at all, but I’ve learned that denying myself the pleasures of life is like telling myself I either have no self-control or that I’m not worthy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Chris, I’m so grateful to you for sharing your experience. You describe so well what happens when you give yourself full permission to eat exactly what you want. Rather than feel deprived, you get to really enjoy food and, in doing so, you notice that you eat less than before. I wholeheartedly agree with this – my experience is the same is yours – now that I’ve normalised my relationship with food I, too, like to have something delicious to look forward to and I get to really enjoy food, without any stress or guilt. My belief is that food is a pleasure and it should be savoured and enjoyed.

      This post is talking about those times when people turn to food as a way of coping with feelings, which leads to binge eating. Binge eating takes the pleasure out of food because we’re eating so quickly we’re not even tasting it and we’re eating so far beyond the point of satisfaction that we’re left feeling sick and in physical and emotional pain.

      As you say, I wasn’t advocating not eating at all, but continually turning to food to handle your feelings doesn’t feel good and only perpetuates the idea that feelings are shameful and should be avoided. There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to food – it tastes best when we’re hungry for it and it’s exactly what we feel like. That way we get to truly enjoy it. That’s what I like and try to help clients to work towards.

      Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. I hope anyone reading this will feel encouraged and inspired by your experience.


      1. Thank you for responding Julie. I definitely knew we were on the same page. Funny, the blog I’m writing this week is entitled, “My Last Meal.” I’ll publish it Sunday. Some very different thoughts on the foods I love.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. In my experience, there’s always a purpose to binge eating, it’s not simply a random, senseless act. As you say, it’s about getting to what’s going on underneath the eating behaviour. Many thanks, Sam.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Melinda. Sometimes attempting to make ourselves eat “healthily”, rather than listening to what we really want, can feel like restriction and spark a return to binge eating. I hope you can get to the bottom of what’s triggered your bingeing – I know how distressing it can be.


  5. Thank you for sharing!!.. Well, my hear tells my mind that not healthy creates problems, not solve any so I concentrate on my dreams… also, I have a journal started on my little tablet and instead of reaching for something to eat, I sit down with a cup of green tea and let my fingers to the walking (typing) and my heart do the talking, like talking to a friend… 🙂

    “Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow them.” Louisa May Alcott

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  6. Thank you Madam for raising the awareness against binge eating, for any reason whatsoever. I can relate to this to some extent, although I don’t resort to binge eating if I am having a bad day. Being present with yourself emotionally can help prevent that urge. I wish that’s not needed, but shall try taking that advice.. 😊
    Thank you for sharing..!!

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