The Exquisite Language of Emotional Eating

By Geneen Roth

A few years ago, I worked with a woman who had decided to stop her nighttime bingeing by locking her food in cabinets and giving her husband the key. “It sounded like a perfect plan,” she said, “until I spent the hours after my husband went to sleep searching through his pockets, his drawers, and his briefcase hunting for the key. When I couldn’t find it, I’d take safety pins and tiny screwdrivers and I’d work the lock until it opened. I felt like a thief with a pounding heart and sweaty hands, frantically trying to get to the stash of diamonds before the owners came home. When I finally got to the cookies and cakes, I’d eat most of them, put the locks back on, and, in the morning, pretend nothing had happened.”

I hear stories like this every day from people who tell me they are longing to feel better about themselves and that the extra weight they are carrying is ruining their lives. And then, like the Cookie Burglar, they spend most of their free time planning a binge, bingeing, and feeling awful afterward. (You probably have your own version of binge burglary.)

At some point, you have to ask yourself what’s going on when it seems as if you’d give your right arm to lose weight and then find yourself breaking locks at 3 in the morning to get to the coffee cake.

Clue: The answer is not that you are crazy, lacking in willpower, or forever doomed to having thunder thighs. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are always exquisitely good reasons why you turn to food when you’re not hungry.

Take a moment right now. Consider these three questions:

  • How is my apparently crazy eating benefiting me?
  • If I were eating for exquisitely good reasons, what would those reasons be?
  • And finally, if my weight/bingeing could talk, what would it say?

I realize that considering the benefits you get from bingeing and being overweight feels counterintuitive. I can hear you thinking the same things that the women in my workshops say the first time I ask these questions: There are no good reasons. Can’t you see that this is making me miserable? Don’t you understand how much better my life would be if I lost weight?

And my answer is: Yes, I do see how miserable you are, and yes, I also understand that many parts of your life would be better if you lost weight. But unfortunately, the parts that would be better are not the parts that are bingeing, and in order to stop the bingeing, we have to address how it is helping, not hurting you. Why? Because if it weren’t helping you in some fundamental way, you’d stop.

Regardless of how it may appear, what we do really does make sense. Our actions — especially with food — are inherently sane. In fact, they are expressions of our brilliance at getting our needs met.

Emotional eating is a language of its own, like hieroglyphics or braille. Instead of trying to understand it, we’re more likely to try to ignore it or shut it up. But we can’t rid ourselves of emotional eating until we listen to what it has to say. Our relationship with food is expressing a true need, so unless we learn what it’s trying to tell us, permanent weight loss will be impossible. Once we “get it” and understand the needs that food fulfills, emotional eating, having served its purpose, will stop.

When I was at my fattest, when I only had one dress to wear in mid-December (a summer dress with an elastic waist and a flouncy, expandable skirt), I realized that my apparently insane eating was trying to get my attention. It became clear that because it was so tenacious, it must have something to teach me that I wasn’t learning in other, more subtle ways. So I sat down and wrote what I called “A Fat Dialogue.”

It was like writing a play for two characters: Me and Fat. I started out by asking my fat what it wanted from me. It rambled on about wanting my attention, then ended up telling me something that forever changed my life: It told me that as long as I was thin, I would be flinging myself at someone who lived across the country, didn’t love me, or was otherwise unsuitable. When those words came unsuspectingly out of my pen, I was stunned. I was also nailed.

It turns out that ol’ Fat knew exactly what it was doing. I was single then, a penniless upstart who had the bad habit of getting involved with unavailable men and then making it my life’s work to convince them to love me. Not exactly a promising occupation. My fat seemed to have found the perfect way — being overweight — for me to concentrate on what I needed to be doing: writing, establishing a career, and supporting myself. When I was fat, I felt so unattractive that I kept to myself and concentrated on my work. Being fat was a brilliant, unconscious maneuver that allowed me to make enough money to pay the rent. I could have lost weight 900 times, but I would have gained it back 901 times until I understood the message I couldn’t seem to hear any other way.

Within a short time after writing that dialogue, I resolved to devote my attention to writing and teaching instead of flinging and convincing. I stopped needing the suffering of bingeing and extra weight to get my attention and I started losing weight. And buying clothes with real waists.

My friend, the Cookie Burglar, upon asking herself how her bingeing was helping her, discovered how bored she was in her life. Her kids had gone to college, she didn’t have a job. “I am like the Energizer Bunny without a direction,” she said. “At least breaking those locks is a challenge, and when I finally accomplish it, I feel victorious.” I asked her to name what she would do if she could do anything in the world. “I would sing,” she said. “I would get up onstage and belt out some Supremes songs.” I encouraged her to, at the very least, get a home karaoke machine, stand on a table, and croon at the top of her lungs. Take lessons, I said. Make a home CD. Check out local choirs or clubs or singing groups. I urged her to stop — bingeing — in the name of love and take the direct route to her heart’s desire.

Ask yourself now what your weight might want you to know that you have been ignoring. Write a fat dialogue. Discover how your fat is helping you. Learn the language your body has been speaking for years. Take a chance that you are more brilliant than you’ve ever imagined in designing this thing you call your weight problem. You have nothing to lose except your suffering. Every last ounce of it.


We invite you to leave a comment below.

18 responses to “The Exquisite Language of Emotional Eating

  1. Once again I am totally humbled by your writing and Realism, Geneen! I am 31 years old and live quite a distance from you ( Come to Atlantic Canada please!) but yet I feel so close and connected to you and to those who share their Journey. I have always been a believer of “strength in numbers” and I am totally blessed that I found you in my life and also those magnificent others who portray courage that instills hope in someone like myself. I struggle now as my life has cracked open due to many early childhood misery’s but I am hopeful and will remain open minded to “why” I binge until I am physically sick. When you change the perspective you seem to be more gentle on yourself. Once I thought of my double life as a binger as a sort of “failed Suicide attempt” now I will be mindfully to keep my mind and soul open to actually listen to my body. Thanks again Geneen, and I say again, Please come for a visit in Atlantic Canada ( Summer or Fall) there are many here that can learn so much from your approach and insight!
    Humbled in Atlantic Canada

  2. I have begun to write a short essay each morning about how I feel, if I overindulged the night before, etc. I have come to realize that being overweight is my excuse that keeps me in limbo. I do not fail and I do not succeed because I do not take risks anymore. I am too tired, too sluggish, too fat, to get up and get going.

    1. Kim, your words really nailed me. I think I’ve been backing away from risks all my life. “I do not fail and I do not succeed.” I can’t think of a major decision I’ve ever made that wasn’t determined by my overweight – choice of school, marriage, work . . . I’m just exactly “too tired, too sluggish, too fat” to reach for anything that I might not be able to grasp. And I think Geneen is exactly right when she points out that this is self-protective behavior.

    2. Kim – this is exactly it for me, too! When i am eating well and feeling great, i tend to become manic and now i see, afraid of my power. Overeating keeps me sluggish and i do not need to fear what i could do or be because i can’t do anything but lay around. Fear of the power within, that is it. thanks for your comments!

  3. Food has been a source of comfort for me throughout my life. And while I am not what would be considered ‘overweight’, there are times when I am aware of the times I turn to food for comfort. As if it could buoy me up when I do not feel ‘enough’, at least there is that momentary ‘fill’. After reading this article, it dawns on me how food has been a distraction if not substitute for what I have been afraid to make conscious. I love the way you articulate with unflinching honesty & humor, having read & listened to all your books as well.

  4. I know I get short term happiness when I’m eating something I really enjoy. And that food may not be a healthy choice. I never stopped to ask what my fat might really be trying to tell me. I’m thinking it might want me to take ownership of my power. Take responsibility for my happiness

  5. Hi Geneen,
    I continue to become aware of how I have used food to cover up feelings and for substitutions for unmet needs. I feel my feelings more than most but it amazes me sometimes the amount of buried feelings I have and have tried to keep submerged by using whatever I could , first and foremost food to assuage those feelings. I now am moving toward a more meaningful , fulfilling life with food not being the primary focus. After having a history of non-meaningful relationships with men , after a long hiatus am entertining and actually believing that it could be different this time if I were to try it again. I am 64 years old and am looking to the next chapter of my life with exciement. I have resonated with your books and have especially appreciated your candor and honesty. Thank you for all you contribute to the planet.

  6. I am 45 year old obese smoker that stays in bad relationships. SO….I asked the smoke…what are you doing for me? Oh, I am diverting you from the food!!! SO…I asked the food…what are you doing for me? Oh, I am diverting you from the sex with unavailable men! SO…I asked the sex with unavailable men…what are you doing for me? Oh…yea…I am diverting you from have a true, loving, safe relationship with yourself and with a man! WOW….is all I can say………..Lord, I am almost mad I even asked the questions….denial can be bliss!!! LOL 😉

  7. I have hit the 60 lbs lost mark and people are starting to comment. Every remark fills me with angst. I have made an appointment with a therapist whose 1st opening is weeks away. I am regaining the weight as I’ve done every single time before in this 50 year battle with food. At least I have not gained it all, and have an appointment. I will try writing the dialogue. I can’t stop thinking about food. I feel like I’m beyond help.

    1. I too experienced the same thing. I lost 68 pounds the last time I went on a diet and people were giving me all kinds of compliments and I could not take them in and be appreciative. I felt nervous and self conscious about the attention. I wish you well with your therapist and hope you find some answers.

  8. Thanks, Geneen, for this description of the “fat dialogue”. This is the most comprehensible explanation I’ve read so far of what it means to explore the purpose fat might be serving on one’s life. Thank you for speaking of women’s binges as meaningful and purpose-serving. I will have a go at starting my own. Thanks again.

  9. it is no different, perhaps, than physical aches & pains…i had to stop & ask my hipFleXor & missPsoas why they were causing me to much pain; that i was unable to walk everywhere at a rapid fire pace…

    my Soul needed me to slow down & take in life & breathe in a fresh stance…& reconsider what i was not doing with my life, while always so busy Being distracted…xOo

    thank you, geneen…i have learned soOo much from your books…reRead when food is Love 2o years after having read it…what growth i saw…like reading it for the first time ever…xOo peacePerfectPeace ox

  10. I think it is all about denial. When I am binging I am purposely ignoring the consequences, i.e. calories. Or I am procrastinating starting my real diet, new lifestyle until “Monday” so I can give myself a license to pig-out one more time.

  11. Very interesting article and very interesting comments. But what about those of us who are not binge eaters (by that I mean there are no times between overeating when one eats like a normal person). I eat constantly–there are never times when I’m not eating. And I hate it. I hate eating until my stomach hurts but then continue eating because I am not “satisfied but still hungry.” I chatted with one lady with this same problem and she defined it as “sitting down to an eight-course Thanksgiving-type meal and then leaving the table still hungry enough to eat a horse.” Nothing turns off the appetite. Nothing. And, usually, as I’m putting more food in my mouth, I’m crying, because there is nothing I can do to stop it. I almost wish I were a “binge eater” because then I would know that there would at least be some normal days.

    1. Barbara D. I feel your pain coming right through your words. When I read your post I felt so sad. I’m a classic binge eater & have been all my life. Sounds like you have some very deep painful past events..I understand only all too well. But because of Geneen I finally have hope at 49 years old..hang in there 🙂

  12. I had lost a lot of weight years ago now, and was enjoying the positive comments from others, but then came comments from a couple women whom I apparently made uncomfortable by losing weight. They urged me to be careful to not lose too much (I was down to 178 for the first time in 20 years and still hoping to lose another 20-30 lbs for a good but not skinny weight). Honestly…with the comments of these two women I felt this thing happen inside me as I went into a kind of defense and I knew instantly that it was over and I immediately began sliding down the slippery slide, feeling like I was grabbing at anything I could, trying to hold on, but still regaining 40+ of the 64 pounds I’d lost. It’s been almost 4 years of going up ‘n up ‘n up some more till now, and I still feel I’m dealing with whatever happened back then because of their comments. Is it that I can’t risk displeasing anyone even if it kills me??? I even relost some lbs a number of times in efforts to try to get back down but regained them every time in the end anyway.

    I got rid of my scales almost a year ago when I started reading Geneen’s books, and I’ve refused to diet all this while too, though I continued to regain still. I don’t know what kind of ground I’ve gained as regards my relationship with myself, but I know that I have in fact gained some ground. I spin off in other directions at times ie gut rebuilding and detoxing…which have helped with certain health issues, to be sure…but I’m still clinging to the weight and it to me. Time to dialog more, plus just listened to Geneen’s April free call and made lots of notes and had the brilliant idea that perhaps I’m still being chased by The Voice into other programs when what I really need to do is make the commitment to stick with just the Breaking Free principles for at least one full year. I can’t afford a retreat but I CAN afford her online course soon.

    I have to say too that there’s a big difference in the way I’m able to hear and understand the same things I’m reading and listening to from Geneen now, compared to a year ago. It surprises me and I am appreciating that I’m working down through layers and layers of stuff as the months go by and I just don’t quit going in the direction I started off in a year ago. I’m even dismissing The Voice repeatedly as I write this, more effortlessly than ever, because I get it better after the call I just listened to about The Voice, not realizing till today I didn’t really get it before what it was!

    And now I’m seeing that those two women were surrogates of The Voice because my personal one also has programming for when I’m doing too well too. Wow…

  13. This is so incredibly powerful. I am a health coach, and sometimes still struggle with food when I’m unhappy about something in my life, or even when I’m happy. I realize that food is kind of a god to me, rather than simply being nourishment. I work hard to eat only healthy but I know it is still the center of my world at times. When I am pursuing my dreams and enjoying life it finally fades into the background.

    Geneen, I learned about you in my IIN training, and now send my clients your articles and recommend your books all the time. I love the part of this article “Because if it weren’t helping you in some fundamental way, you’d stop.” Thanks for the continuing inspiration!

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