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Are You Hungry or Empty? How To Know The Difference

Do you have food issues? The hard reality is that most people struggle with their eating habits in some way.

Lets face it. We are surrounded by food options, and inundated by offers of food, often in overlarge portions, every day, everywhere we go.

Society’s excessive focus on appearance and thinness, body image dissatisfaction, the over-availability of fast-food, and oversized portions are all talked about and studied as reasons for the prevalence of obesity (36.5% according to the CDC) and eating disorders (30 million people according to the National Eating Disorders Association).

But those numbers don’t even take into account the millions more who struggle with their food intake, but never meet the criteria for a diagnosable problem.

As a psychologist, I can say that food issues often come up in my work with people who come to see me for other issues. I find that this is true especially among those who grew up with their feelings ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN).

This, of course, does not surprise me at all, because I know that there is a direct link between emotions and eating. And I can see that when your relationship with your own emotions is disrupted (the primary result of CEN), it is logical that your relationship with food will also be thrown off.

4 Ways CEN Causes Food Issues

  1. Emptiness: Feelings of emptiness are a natural result of pushing your emotions away, and this is exactly what children do when they sense that their feelings aren’t welcome in their childhood home. As I have said before, for many people, emptiness is more painful than pain itself. It feels like something is missing inside of you, and it is your automatic human impulse to try to fill it. Enter food, easily accessible and instantly gratifying. Eating when you feel empty is an impulse that happens outside of your awareness, making you virtually defenseless against it. But its instant gratification quickly wears off, leaving you feeling empty again.
  2. Self-discipline: Growing up with CEN, you learn 2 things that work together to give you food issues: first, that you do not deserve good self-care; and second, how to be hard on yourself. These, of course, set you up to be vulnerable to struggling with things that require your personal attention to yourself, like getting exercise, enough sleep, and of course, healthy eating. People with CEN often know how to eat healthy, but end up in an epic struggle with themselves to make it happen.
  3. Self-soothing: When your parents are unaware of your feelings, they fail to step in and sooth you when you need it. Then you fail to learn a vital life skill: how to sooth yourself. In adulthood, you then lack tools to manage painful feelings when they arise. Once again, enter food. Unaware of what you are doing, you grab what’s easiest and closest to distract you from your anger, hurt or sadness. You feel better for a few moments as you do it, but out-of-control and hurt again after.
  4. Lack of self-awareness: The message of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is, “Don’t pay attention to what you are feeling.” And that is the essence of poor self-awareness. Self-awareness is a key to healthy eating, since to do so you must be paying attention to yourself. Otherwise, you are not well aware of your hunger cues, what you have already eaten that day, or how different foods affect your body. And you may not be able to tell when you are hungry or full.

If you’re thinking, “Hm, this could be me,” I want to let you know that there are answers. As you heal your CEN, you will naturally improve your food issues as well.

The Solution

  • Begin to focus more on yourself. Pay attention, in a way you never have, to your own emotions. Consider that your feelings are your friends, and welcome them into your life instead of avoiding them. Welcoming your feelings, and learning how to sit with them, listen to them and manage them, will fill your empty space far better than any food ever could.
  • Learn what soothes you, and use it. Make a list of healthy things that you find are soothing to you. It may be things like taking a hot bath or shower, taking a walk, cuddling with your pet, drinking hot tea or talking with a friend. When you’re upset or have a painful feeling, use your list. It is good practice, and it will help you feel more comfortable tolerating your feelings instead of eating to try to escape them.
  • Learn meditation / mindfulness. A 2016 study by van de Veer found that people who have learned mindfulness make better, healthier food choices. Now, after reading this article, I think you probably know why.

When your childhood teaches you that your feelings are irrelevant, you are set up to struggle with a particular group of challenges. All of those challenges are caused by the simple fact that you do not know how to feel your feelings or how to use them to enrich, connect and guide you.

Now that you understand what’s really wrong, you can work to heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect. You can repair your relationship with food. You can stop feeling guilty and weak, stop ignoring yourself, stop reaching for instant gratification, and begin to offer yourself meaningful, healthy forms of soothing instead.

You can eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full. And know, deep down, that you are worth it.

CEN can be difficult to identify. To learn if CEN is at work in your life, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Photo by daniellehelm

Are You Hungry or Empty? How To Know The Difference

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2017). Are You Hungry or Empty? How To Know The Difference. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 15, 2019, from


Last updated: 20 Aug 2017
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