The Emotional Food Cycle
Guest post by Chris Warren-Dickins BACP Registered Counsellor
Are there times when food feels like your worst enemy? You try to resist, and for a while you believe that you know how to manage it, but it lures you in with the promise of comfort, and all willpower is lost. What seemed like a harmless ‘slip’ leads you crashing back down as the food turns on you, making you feel bloated full of regret. But it does not have to be like this. With awareness of this emotional food cycle comes control, and with control comes choices.
To take the first step towards awareness, we need to be honest about the following questions –
1. What does food mean to you? Is it a substitute for something, perhaps filling an emotional void that we find hard to admit to others. Unfortunately, food can never fill an emotional void. It may offer a temporary distraction, but you are still left with the same emotional needs as before. Sometimes, by using food to fill that void, you have increased that need, and ultimately increased that void.
2. What self-talk do we experience before, during and after we have eaten?
- Try and take a step back and listen to your self-talk for signs of ‘catastrophizing’ or ‘black and white thinking’. For example, do we think that we have failed entirely if we have just one chocolate bar? In addition, do we view the consumption of chocolate as the behaviour of a ‘devil’, when we are frantically trying to become a ‘saint’? A more realistic perspective is that we are somewhere in between this black and white perspective. None of us are devils or saints!
- Part of this self-talk might include a number of ‘should’ statements, whether that is ‘I should have this chocolate bar because I have worked hard’ or ‘I should never eat any chocolate’. The trouble with should statements is that they are condemnatory in nature, banishing any choice and leaving us feeling powerless. Instead, we could replace these should statements with an ‘I would like…’ statement such as ‘I would like to eat less chocolate, but I am aware I may eat some now and again’. This seems less powerful than a should statement, and it might mean that we feel less anxious or depressed if we do not live up to this expectation.
- For some, the mere contemplation of food (or certain foods) can involve quite an animated exchange between different parts of our inner self. For example, our inner critical parent might already be chastising our inner child for wanting to indulge in that chocolate bar. The inner child might crave the chocolate bar to indulge in the pleasure that he remembers from last time he ate one, and he might even respond with an attempt at a justification, claiming that he ‘deserves’ it as a reward for being good. The inner parent might dismiss this, and, after the inner child rebels and eats not one but three chocolate bars (with a ‘to hell with it’ attitude), the parent may criticise the inner child, pointing to his body and shaming him. Where is the inner adult in all of this? Is there a more reasoned response where we can respond to the present moment with awareness that we are making a choice one way or the other?
- Linked to the devil/saint black and white thinking is the tendency for us to interact with others in terms of a ‘drama triangle’ (Karpman). In a social interaction, one person might be viewed as a ‘persecutor’ and, as a result, another person in that interaction might view himself as the ‘victim’. Perhaps the comfort food is the ‘rescuer’ in this situation, temporarily rescuing the person who believes that they are the ‘victim’. Of course, the reality is that no one is simply a persecutor, victim, rescuer, devil or saint. We all have the ability to feel persecuted, and we all have the ability to persecute, but we also have the ability to rescue ourselves in more constructive ways than a binge on comfort food.
3. Once we have awareness of what food means to us, and what self-talk we might experience before, during and after food, what can we do about problematic aspects of this behaviour?
- Challenge the self-talk: We have already seen (above) how we can change some of the self-talk. For example, we can replace ‘should statements’ with ‘I would like’ statements.
- Writing things down can help us see our thoughts and feelings in a more concrete way than simply thinking or talking about them. You might like to keep a ‘food diary’ where you make a note of what you are thinking and feeling before, during and after you eat something. Some clients are shocked by the reality that sits before them in black and white!
- A mindful approach to food: Mindfulness includes an awareness of the present moment. Sometimes we eat simply to function, and if our approach to food feels automatic, it is easier to lose control of food. To challenge this, we could focus our attention on every moment of the food experience. This would include the preparation of food, the consumption, and the clearing up afterwards. Some clients have reported a heightened appreciation of the food they consume, because they suddenly notice the colours, shapes, smells and even the sounds that certain food makes. A key aspect of mindfulness is to simply notice the present without trying to change anything. If negative thoughts or feelings arise, just notice these. It might be important to explore these with your counsellor or psychotherapist.
If you feel that any of this is something that you would like to try, do let me know how you get on. I would love to hear from you.