“Here’s the thing about stress though: I think we’ve all learned to use that word too loosely. We use it as a blanket term to cover a whole range of emotions that may actually require very different techniques and tools to deal with. We say “I’m so stressed!” when what we really mean is something like “I’m feeling overwhelmed by tasks at work”, “I’m angry at the way my family is acting”, “I’m scared that I won’t be able to pay my credit card this month”, or a combination of things like that.” (Sunny Sea Gold, Food: The Good Girls Drug, p.88-89)
If ever there was a paragraph that summed up what can be months of therapeutic work with a client who eats emotionally, this is it. For example, “I’m angry at the way my family is acting”. Let’s take a look:
You call your mom for a chat and end up having an argument with her over something, perhaps something you argue about regularly….:
You: I’m just feeling a bit down at the moment, work is really stressful, I just had to get my car fixed, and none of my girlfriends are around this weekend…
Mom: Well honey, I keep telling you if you don’t get out there you’ll never meet anyone! Why can’t you fix yourself up a little better, put a smile on your face and get out and try and meet a nice man?
You: Um, mom, I wasn’t talking about a man, I was just saying I was feeling a bit down, that’s all!
Mom: Oh honey, I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you…
You: Ok, I’ve heard enough, bye mom. (hang up)
What do you do next?
If you choose to ‘comfort’ yourself by eating, how are you solving the problem? In fact, do you even know what exactly the problem is? Or do you, as one of my clients put it, simply stuff your feelings down with food until they are buried under the binge?
Then what happens?
My clients tell me they then beat themselves up over having the binge, and that’s how they express their anger at (e.g.) their mom. Not to their mom, but back in at themselves.
Speaking of mom, (and toxic mothers are a significant topic of discussion in themselves, see previous blog post with that title), what happened during that conversation? You tried to tell your mom how you felt, but mom didn’t listen, didn’t hear what you said, didn’t validate your feelings.
When we learn from our parents that our feelings are not valid, or important enough to be attended to, we learn to hide them, ignore them, distrust them. Eventually we get so out of touch with our own feelings, that we don’t really recognise them any more for what they are – anger, resentment, disappointment, frustration, fear, anxiety, sadness. They can all get lumped in under one word, like in Sunny’s example – Stress. Another client of mine used the word ‘Lonely’ for everything. And lots of clients come to me initially because they are suffering from Anxiety, or Panic Attacks. None of these words are the real problem, they are a symptom of the real problem, which is that these clients are not connected to their feelings, and need help and support in learning how to correctly identify how they are feeling, and then learn how to deal with that feeling effectively.
If we don’t learn as children to attend to our feelings, and take the time to understand what we are feeling and why we are feeling that way, with the help of understanding, attentive parents, then we will not be able to resolve our problems. Instead, we learn to bury them under food, and the only time we let them out is against ourselves – because that’s safer than risking being rejected by someone else for daring to voice our negative feelings to them.
Having read Sunny’s book, I have no hesitation recommending it. It’s easy to read, Sunny recommends tools and strategies I regularly use with clients in therapy sessions, and I believe it will resonate strongly with anyone who uses food as a way of dealing with difficult emotions.
By Emma Murphy
“Food: The Good Girls Drug” by Sunny Sea Gold. Available on Amazon.com.