Mindless emotional eating.
You’ve been there – just eating, not caring about taste, hunger, guilt or shame.
You’re only trying to get away from the negativity. Eating something, especially if it tastes good, does work!
This is the heart of mindless emotional eating.
You start feeling better when you have a pleasurable experience.
Until the shame and guilt hit you like a ton of bricks and now you’re stuck right back with the uncomfortable feelings you were trying to soothe!
You already ate the food, so you either restrict your food intake, allow yourself to feel minimal guilt with the promise that next time you will resist and use more willpower, or just go ahead, back down the path of mindlessness, not really sure when it will end.
There are a lot of reasons this cycle repeats over and over.
You feel relief in the moment.
And we now know there’s a whole lot of brain chemical reasons why people feel a sense of control and relief, regardless of how long the relief lasts, by using emotional eating to get immediate relief from uncomfortable feelings. The need to create and maintain a calm state is a powerful drive for us humans and sometimes leads to mindless eating.
Over the past few decades the intersection of psychology, neuroscience and human biology have shown us that our emotions, how we as people feel, think, manage, and understand our emotional life, is in large part based in learning how to cope and manage different states of being.
This is a truly wonderful thing!
Most importantly it means that, we have the opportunity to learn new skills at any time in life.
It means that you can learn how to become a Conscious Eater even after years of dieting and struggle.
Mind, body and heart peace can be yours.
When emotions are vague, people tend to generalize them; think in broad brush strokes: “I feel bad or depressed, or sad, or mad, etc.”
This is a good start and we can develop an even more refined emotional vocabulary that helps even more.
Most people want to feel good as much as possible, so when uncomfortable feelings come around we want to get rid of them as quickly as possible.
Spending a lot of time pondering the subtleties of sadness isn’t something you tend to do without some sort of motivating factor to get you to do it.
Consciousness, though, requires you to be more specific.
Becoming a Conscious Eater helps you increase your emotional vocabulary, so that you have more possibilities, more options for calming and soothing yourself, without needing food to do the job for you.
While I can’t promise that this is an easy task, what I can tell you is that just like learning anything new, with intentional practice you become more skillful.
Vague feelings lead to no specific action plan and may lead to mindless eating.
So, why all this talk about the specifics of feelings? Getting specific about the feeling provides you with a broader range of options so you can feel better sooner.
Here’s an example:
Say you’re at work and there’s a project you’re leading, the deadline is near and it’s not going well. You’ve racked your brain to come up with solutions, but it’s just not happening. So, you decide to summon up courage and talk with your boss about it. You want to receive some guidance on how to move forward.
Bad news; she’s tense and busy with an emergency. Furthermore, she tells you that she expects you to handle it on your own and is confident that if you just spent a little more time on it you’ll figure out what you need to do. She wraps up by telling you she has a conference call in 2 minutes and, with a tone clearly sending the message, ‘don’t come back with this problem – just give me your best work in the morning.’
Has this ever happened to you? I imagine we all have experienced a version of this at some point in life!
Notice the feelings you might have felt as you read the example.
Frustration at your inability to get the project done without a fresh perspective.
Which can lead to anxiety about not knowing and needing to ask for help.
Which can lead to feeling vulnerable that your boss will judge your work performance as poor and you as not a valuable employee.
Your boss’s response can lead to anger.
You asked for help, she’s your boss, it’s part of her job and she’s not doing it!
The anger, if left without exploration, can get stuck there. You could become focused on your boss’s incompetence, her dislike of you, and her plan to set you up for failure, etc.
The mind can go to very dark places when we get stuck in fear!
Even if this all this negativity happens to be true—there are difficult bosses out there—you can still remain curious about the variety of feelings you experience and then influence whether the feelings become problematic for you.
The emotionally curious part of you, the part who desires to be more conscious and intentional in life, may have a conversation with yourself like this:
I made myself vulnerable and asked for help when I needed it. Now I feel dismissed that my work isn’t important, maybe even I am not important.
I’m disappointed because I really like my boss and look up to her as a role model and now, my heart is broken a little.
Maybe she’s not the superwoman I wanted her to be. I feel even less able to do my best work, maybe I’m not as invested and excited as I once was. Maybe I’ll just go to lunch early, have my favorite (food) to console myself.
But wait, no, maybe the system crash she’s dealing with really is more important at this moment than the project due tomorrow. After all it is an emergency! I know that she doesn’t have time until the problem is fixed.
She put her faith in me and was trying to be encouraging, but didn’t have the time to devote. After all, getting the system hacked is a big deal!
Hmm, taking into account all of the feelings I’ve just processed, maybe what I can do is give her what I have, make notes on what needs to be refined and we can talk after the system is restored and after she catches her breath.
Maybe I can take a deep breath too, take a walk outside and get some fresh air. It’s a nice day and that will help.
I need to practice patience. Have a nourishing lunch, then get a game plan together, so that I’m prepared as much as I can be at this point in my work.
When you get more specific about your feelings you have more options.
With time and practice you can get to the heart of the matter more quickly.
There is a simplicity in directly addressing the nuance of feeling which helps guide you in how to care for the feeling.
What if part of the problem with emotional eating isn’t really the food, but rather not being clear about the feeling or what to do with it?
What if you separate out the food from the feeling in a way that gives you more information about the feelings and possibilities for taking care of yourself, without needing food to be the focus?
The assumption we’re working with is that your fuel-fullness-satiety needs have been met. Nobody can work very well with the feelings if your body needs fuel. Get something to eat and check in with yourself. Nourish your body at the beginning signs of hunger.
The two systems are interrelated; we can’t truly separate them altogether, but we can separate them enough to find some clarity. They require different questions and most often different answers.
Let food be food and emotions be emotions.
How to identify the nuance of feelings.
Feelings identification process.
There are three basic emotions that most people start from: anxiety, anger, and sadness.
If you think about the intensity of the emotion, like a little anticipatory anxiety when you’re at the fifth day of a new job. Just a little, enough to keep you on your toes, versus intense anxiety when you’re about to give a pitch to a venture capital team that you would like to give you several million dollars, so your new fabulous invention can take flight, and they start asking detailed questions which you really haven’t worked out yet.
If you lump these two experiences into one, as if they are the same, you short-change the relationship you have with yourself.
Lots of people do this every day.
In the attempt to get past difficult emotions, you may breeze by them as if they are nothing and in return you miss the possibility to care for yourself in a truly meaningful way.
How to apply “feelings identification” to curtailing emotional eating.
Depending on your comfort level or the amount of experience you have with a particular emotion, and the intensity of it, you need to have a variety of options to work your way through to the other side where you find contentment.
Think of it like any new skill you learn. Riding a bike at first is shaky and usually involves some amount of losing your balance and falling off.
These are necessary steps, which help you learn what not to do, so you can get to what works faster.
You may match a feeling and a solution and it doesn’t quiet work. That’s OK and to be expected. Try the next idea and it may be the one that works.
The SILK process, which I talked about here, can be a very helpful process to lead you to the clarity you need.
SILK – Stop
Be still and give yourself a few minutes to allow yourself to feel.
No worries if it’s difficult. This is time limited and it will pass in a few minutes.
You need to allow yourself a couple of minutes to find what you’re working with.
This is where your the Feelings Refinement List & Worksheet will be most handy.
Go through the list and consider the possibilities. Look up some of the words – add more of your own.
You may find that when you read the dictionary definition or browse the thesaurus it provides clarity confirming that, yes, that is in fact the feeling.
It may also lead you down the path of more exploration so that you do get a specific sense of what it is that you are responding to and needing for your well-being.
SILK – Listen
In your heart you know where and which feeling is resonating when you look at the feeling list.
Notice what hits you with, “yeah, that’s it.” The next step is to ask yourself “what will help me to feel taken care of by me?”
What will help me to move through the difficult part and get to the other side where growth resides?
SILK – Kindness
Work with a growth and kindness mindset.
This is the place where the golden rule applies to you.
Treat yourself well. It may take time to figure out what you need.
You will make mistakes along the way and that’s OK; you are learning.
You are getting to know yourself in a different way that leads to good things.
Getting unstuck is the best reward.
I hope that you find that developing your emotional vocabulary leads you down the path to Conscious Eating!