Why You Really Eat

Blanche, my cat, was my role model. Not only because he swaggered through life as if he deserved treats every three minutes, but because he was endlessly curious about every little (and big) thing. He never assumed he knew what's behind the philodendron in the hall just because he's stalked it a thousand times. He never assumed the grocery bag is just a bag -- what if it suddenly grows wings and zips through the air like a dragon?

Remember when you used to be curious -- when it took half an hour to eat a saltine because you were so fascinated with the prickles of salt on the corner that you forgot to put the whole thing into your mouth? Okay, maybe you don't remember back that far, but look around at any child and see what I mean.

Somewhere along the line, as the stereotypic idea of what we should be and how we should look gets drilled into us, we stop being curious and decide we know all the answers. We know what's wrong with ourselves, and we know how to fix it. All we have to do is summon a little willpower and slap ourselves into place.

As long as I believed that, I struggled with emotional eating. Over 17 years, I gained and lost more than 1,000 pounds -- there was nothing I didn't do, try, take, throw up, binge on, or starve on -- all because I believed I was too fat. Now when people hear I've been at the same weight for years and that food is no longer a problem, they want me to give them "The Answer."

But to find out why you really eat, you have to ask questions. It's almost impossible to stop emotional eating if you aren't at least curious about the purpose it is serving. You have to assume that no matter how it appears, there are always good reasons why you do what you do.

To find out why you really eat, you have to ask questions. For example, have you ever said to yourself, "I eat because I am sad"? If you honestly examine this statement, you might find you believe that, even though you'd like to lose weight, eating cookies hurts less than feeling sad. But how do you know that? When was the last time you actually let yourself feel sad without turning to a plate of cookies?

Most of us use food for emotional and spiritual sustenance it can't possibly provide. Or we use it to keep ourselves from experiencing the full range of our feelings. But it ends up keeping us from feeling truly alive. What happens if you just let yourself feel sad, or stressed, or angry? You might say that feeling sad will rip you apart, and you can't afford to be ripped apart -- you have a job, kids, a life. Or you might say that you learned early on that feeling sad is self-indulgent and that no one likes sad people.

At a recent retreat, a student told me, "I love my job, love the new city I'm living in, and love the new man I'm with, but I've gained 10 pounds in the past few months, and it's driving me crazy. You'd think I'd want to lose weight because I'm so happy, but it's the opposite, and I can't seem to stop." I asked her to write down why being happy seemed to be connected with eating.

Afterward she said, "I realized that I believe everyone has a happiness quotient, and I've maxed out on mine. So rather than tempting fate by having so much of what I want -- and have something awful happen to my job or my new partner -- I figure I'll make the decision about what to give up. I'd rather be overweight than lose my relationship or my job."

Through being curious instead of judgmental, she began to understand the motives underlying her emotional eating. She was able to ask herself if the equation in her head was actually true -- are people only allowed a certain amount of happiness before tragedies start befalling them? Who told her that? Once she saw the whole picture, she realized she didn't really believe what she was telling herself. And her emotional eating began to shift because the unconscious reason for it fell away.

The next time you tell yourself that you eat because you are sad or frustrated or angry, stop. Instead, start writing an ongoing "Curiosity Dialogue." Open with simple, declarative statements. What do you believe will happen if you let yourself feel these feelings? Where did you learn that?

Emotional eating is not about lack of willpower, and it won't be solved by dieting. While overeating (as well as undereating) can become a life-threatening health concern, the roots of the problem are rarely physical. We eat when we are lonely. We eat when we are sad. We eat when we are bored, angry, grieving, frustrated, frightened. We eat because we don't know that our feelings won't destroy us--and because food is everywhere, as is the message that it will fix whatever's wrong.

Your job is to ask questions, not manufacture answers. The answers are already there, but since you haven't looked, you don't know that yet. Assume that you are extraordinarily wise and incredibly sane. Because you are.