Filling the Void: Emotional Eating

I used to have a really bad habit.

After most of my meals, I would sit down in front of my computer, surf the Internet for random things, and eat chocolate. What would start with a couple of pieces would turn into half a bag. I tried to stop, but I couldn’t.

I ate alone to make sure no one would see me. I would mentally check out, read pointless news stories, and shove down a half day’s worth of calories. I would rationalize my behavior, telling myself that I “deserved” to eat to “reward” myself after working out so hard, after having such a tough day, after getting some bad news — whatever excuse I could find.

I tried to quit doing this so many times. I would vow not to eat any chocolate, and then late in the day I would cave. I even tried not buying it, but then I just went rummaging through my kids’ snack drawer and ate whatever was in there.

When I sat there, eating Oreos — not something I particularly like — it dawned on me that this behavior wasn’t about chocolate. It was an urge to binge to fill an emotional void — and it was something I had trained myself to do.

How can you tell if you’re eating emotionally?

If you are completely zoned out when you eat, if you eat past the point of fullness, if you feel like you can’t stop eating, or if you feel embarrassed about how much you eat — you are probably eating to fill an emotional void.

My chocolate binges helped me forget about my problems, the busyness of my day, or the responsibilities that were weighing on me. Surfing the Internet while I was bingeing on chocolate was twice as satisfying because I could block out even more what I didn’t want to deal with — including the fact that I was bingeing.

After a binge, you feel physically uncomfortable, out of control, and ashamed. So you justify your behavior by telling yourself that you deserve to eat. Then you reward yourself with food, which leads to bingeing more often, perpetuating the shame, and then eating to neutralize the shame. It’s a vicious cycle.

Once I was able to see how I started at a young age to use food to deal with the pain I experienced, I was able to stop binge eating. Understanding why I was eating this way helped eliminate the shame I felt, which helped break the cycle.

Most people assume they binge eat because they just can’t control themselves — but that’s not true. There is a reason you eat to fill an inner void. You started eating this way to cope with the pain you experienced at some point in your life. There is nothing shameful about it. And it’s a lot easier to change it when you don’t feel ashamed of it.

You can’t change what you are doing until you figure out why you are doing it. Understanding yourself and why you are using food to fill an emotional void is the groundwork on which your future success is built.

Change How You Think This Week

Try and remember when you first started binge eating. Was there anything going on in your life at the time that was stressful or painful? Think about how these two things are connected. Figuring out why you began using food to avoid pain helps you understand that it was necessary for your emotional survival, which allows you to get rid of the shame you feel at being “out of control.”

Change What You Do This Week

The next time you feel like binge eating, don’t try and stop yourself. Instead, move somewhere where there are no TVs, computers, or phones. Notice whether this changes how much you eat, how fast you eat, or what you think about while you’re eating. Using this info, list five small changes you could make to gradually move away from zoning out while you eat. Start with one or two this week.

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