When we think of emotions, eating and weight loss, the first thought that comes to mind is “emotional eating.” It’s become a cliche excuse: why am I overweight? “Because I’m an emotional eater of course!” However, our emotions can get in the way of our weight loss in other ways.
Anger isn’t something we think about when we think of weight loss. Again, some of us have been known to eat out of anger, but it gets in our way especially when we choose to hang on to that anger rather than let it go. One example that comes to mind is eating out of spite or resentment. This was especially true for me when I was a kid. As an overweight child, I was constantly hounded by my parents about my size and whatever I happened to eat. (FYI: if you have an overweight child, this is NOT the way to handle it!) Potato chips, sandwiches, mac & cheese, even fruit: “Don’t eat too much!”; “Haven’t you had enough?” I hated the negative attention, hated being watched all the time and I was angry that ‘everyone else can eat what they want,’ so when I was alone, I ate whatever I wanted! It became reflex: there are cupcakes and no one to tell me no, so I ate them! I was out at a store and I had the money to buy junk food, so I bought it and ate it! While I knew this behavior wasn’t good for me, it was my way of demonstrating my anger at the way I was ‘persecuted’ by others. Did I want to lose weight? Yes and no. I wanted to be thinner but I also knew that my weight upset and embarrassed my parents, who in turn embarrassed me by constantly badgering me about my weight, so it was my way of getting back at them. Talk about dysfunctional!
Of course, I was a kid at the time and I was still very angry, hurt and humiliated by how I was treated. I remember being out at a restaurant with my family and every time I took a bite of food, my mom would chant “chew! chew! chew!” The fact that I recall this episode more than forty years later says a little bit about how much it hurt me, so yes, I think my anger was justified. Was it helpful? Oh hell no!
There are instances where anger can be motivating, but this anger was really spiteful and I held onto that anger way too long. I used it to get back at my mom mainly and there was some pride in there which also got in my way. I called it righteous indignation and told myself I was happy being overweight. It really didn’t bother me…. except I hated buying clothes because I had to go to the ‘fat girl’ stores. And I hated getting my hair cut because I had trouble fitting in the stylists’ chairs. And walking anywhere hurt. And standing hurt. And my shoes had to be special-ordered because my feet were so wide.
You get the picture: being angry and indignant was more important to me than doing anything about my health and my weight or the quality of my life! Aside from being an emotional eater, I was stubbornly refusing to try to lose weight because of how ‘persecuted’ I had always been. My pride was part of it too. We all know how hard it is to lose weight. What if I tried and I failed? How stupid would I look then? So in order not to look stupid, I refused to try at all! (Yeah….let’s look at being ‘stupid’ again….)
Sometimes we bury our emotional hurt so deep inside us that we don’t realize how much damage it’s actually doing to us. It’s like an infection spreading inside that we can’t see although we slap a band-aid on the cut on our hand. We think that band-aid took care of the wound and it’ll heal soon enough, but when it’s an emotional wound, the hurt festers inside us and doesn’t go away. We might acknowledge that “yeah, I eat my emotions,” but until you lance that emotional infection, it’s going to keep festering. You might learn to distract yourself with something other than food, but that hurt won’t go away until you let it out.
As I’ve mentioned before, Dr. Nowzaradan (My 600 lb Life, TLC) routinely sends his patients to therapy to deal with the emotions which drove them to compulsive eating. Some patients are resistant to going because they don’t see the connection between their compulsive eating and whatever happened to them in the past. In several instances, the therapist will encourage them to forgive those who’ve hurt them in the past. One patient flat out stated she wasn’t ready or able to forgive those who hurt her since she didn’t think they deserved it. The therapist, Lola Clay, pointed out what most of us know already: forgiving those who’ve hurt us is for our benefit, not the one who did the hurting. When we forgive, we let go of our anger and pain, so they lose their power over us. I remember being told that the flip side of Love isn’t Hate; it’s Apathy. Whether you love someone or hate them, they are the focus of your emotion. When you don’t care about someone (apathy), they obviously aren’t your focus! When you give up that emotional focus, whatever they do- or don’t do- to you is no big deal.
In my case, forgiving my parents, especially my mom, meant doing a whole lot of growing up! Once I started to let go of my anger and resentment, I realized that they were trying to help me, even if they didn’t exactly know how to do it. (Who does?) Yes, they made mistakes and God knows, I made some real whoppers too! More importantly, I was able to admit that I really needed the help! I didn’t know how to help myself but I let my anger, pride and resentment get in the way of asking for it and accepting it when it was offered.
If we truly want to heal and start making progress with weight loss, it means letting go of these old hurts and the negative behaviors that go along with them, such as refusing to keep an open mind because “I already know that!” or refusing help when someone offers out of wounded pride or doing things our way because “I know what works for me!” Do you really? Because if you knew what worked for you, it would have worked already, wouldn’t it? (That last one is a perennial pitfall for me!) We might think that we have no hurts or emotional wounds to let go of, but think about it. How about when a friend makes an offhand comment not intended to hurt, but still stings (“Are you on another diet?”) or when your spouse buys you a belt or a dress that’s way too big (“he thinks I’m a size 26?!) The embarrassment and the hurt can fester into resentment, which can come out as that emotional eating binge or get pushed down to mix with other hurts to become self-destructive hopelessness. In this instance, we really need to be the bigger person by forgiving others, whether they meant it or not. Even if they don’t deserve to be forgiven, we have to do. We’ve got enough to carry around without adding any more!