How many of you link your over eating and emotional eating to your parents? There must be some memory you have, sitting at the table, being forced to eat. Or you accomplished something they approved of, wanted to give you positive reinforcement, and rewarded with a cupcake or some other food of their choice. Or maybe you grew up in a large family like myself (9 siblings) and remember the scarcity of food and the frantic feeling when the dinner bell rang. As soon as the blessing was said we were hyenas, fending for ourselves. I was number 9 of ten children so eating dinner was pretty intense.
Today I’m 34, have three children and a mild mannered husband who eats methodically and slowly. There is no threat of hunger, and no panic over how much food we have to share, and no need to continue to eat so quickly. Then why do I continue to eat as if I’m an 8 year old girl competing for food with an 18 year old brother, and everyone in between? The more I observe other adults and their eating habits, much of their eating habits started when they lived at home with their parents, and they’ve never considered if those same habits would still apply today.
For example, one woman started eating excessively at 25. It all started after her parents forced her to get an abortion, which was extremely traumatic for her. She chose to go along with the abortion, not because she wanted to, but to avoid disappointment, criticism, rejection, and possible abandonment from her parents. Although when looking back, she realizes her parents would never have abandoned her if she had kept the baby. However she believed because of their intense opinion as to what she should do, that in order to please them she’d have to go through with the abortion. So she did. Not because she made the decision out of her choice, but out of a reactive emotion to please them. All along, feeling traumatized by their control and the incredible fear of their rejection. Immediately she started drinking alcohol and spent the next 5 years drunk. Once drinking became a problem she stopped, and immediately turned to food to replace what was hiding those traumatic emotions. She thought she was an alcoholic, and by letting go of her need to drink, she thought everything was fixed. But instead of drinking she turned to food-- without understanding the behavior that drove her need to hide her emotions. She would hide in her basement with large amounts of candy and she’d watch TV and movies for hours on end, to distract her from the trauma. The obvious result: obesity.
She sat in front of me 17 years later. She was happy, content with her life, and was in a loving marriage. We discussed her eating history, she became aware that her need to eat emotionally began after she stopped drinking. She’d never made that connection before. Once she realized that was an obvious behavioral and emotional lateral move, she began to cry. She recognized that the emotional trauma she thought was fixed when she stopped drinking, had continued, but instead of drinking she ate. She was once again being challenged to process the trauma that started when she felt emotionally forced to get an abortion.
I asked her, “Knowing what you know now, and how your life has turned out, would you go back in time and make the same decision? Would you choose to get the abortion, or would you take the risk of your parent’s disapproval, and keep the baby?” She sat and thought, and to her own amazement, she said, “I am content with my life today. I am deeplly in love with my husband, and if I was given the choice to go back? Robin, I would go through with the abortion again.” She was surprised by that thought, but I could see the calm and peace in her expression. I could feel and see the incredible emotional weight lifted off of her. I asked her, “Going back in your mind and making that decision regardless of your parents fears, does it still feel traumatizing?” She started to cry in relief. The trauma was over, simply by going back in her mind and processing the decision from a new place of self-worth.
From that moment forward, her need to eat emotionally began to diminish. She recognized that her behavior today, was continued based on the trauma she felt at 25, which didn’t make sense any more. If she could go back with the level of self-worth she values today, her choice would be the same, but her response to the situation would have been very different. The outcome: less trauma and need to emotionally compensate.
My point with this example is to show how many of us in adulthood continue to eat based on what was appropriate and defining in the past. But if you stop to evaluate those decisions and why they made sense to you in the past, would those reasons to eat still make sense today? Stop and think about why you eat and ask yourself if your relationship with food is still appropriate.