I’ve already had the great opportunity to speak with two women about their eating disorder recovery (you can find the interviews here and here). I hope to regularly feature Q&As with individuals who’ve recovered from eating disorders, binge eating, negative body image or any kind of disordered eating. If you’d like to share your story of recovery, I’d love to hear from you! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever eaten to numb the pain? Ever overeaten because you were anxious or excited? Because you felt out of control, because you couldn’t make sense of things?
Many of us have engaged in some kind of emotional overeating, some of us on a regular basis. Feeling powerless, overwhelmed by one’s emotions can be terrifying. But you do have control, and you can overcome your emotional overeating, even if it’s something you’ve done for years or your entire life.
I’m thrilled to present today’s Q&A with Stephanie Vincent of the wonderful blog Radical Hateloss (how clever is the title!), who was gracious enough to talk with me about her experiences with emotional overeating and what she’s done to overcome it.
1. How did your emotional overeating start?
I believe I have been emotionally overeating for pretty much all of my life. I remember my first diet. I was put on it by the school nurse in fourth grade. It has taken a long time for me to understand my eating was emotional. I thought when I was a teenager, emotional eating was “eating a quart of ice cream, after you get a bad grade.” I figured I overate all the time, so it wasn’t “emotional eating.” I thought my problem was not having “will power.” It has taken me until my recent history to understand what emotional eating really is all about.
2. What do you think caused your overeating?
I have been doing “inner work” since I was 17 and one of the first questions I explored was “why?” Why was I fat? Why did I eat so much? The story I discovered was that as an empathetic kid, I had taken responsibility for my parent’s emotional pain. Because I took responsibility, that pain became mine. Food was my salvation from that pain.
3. How did you feel when your emotional overeating caused you to gain weight?
Being the fat kid was hard. Elementary through middle school I got made fun of every single day. I felt out of control, afraid, depressed, desperate and not good enough. I thought, “If only I were skinny, I could be happy.”
4. What has helped you overcome your emotional overeating? Any books and/or websites that you found helpful?
The answer to that question could be answered in a description of a process that spans the last 13 years. I truly believe each step, each stumble, each insight has led me to the place I am today. Most recently, I experienced some shifts in thinking that I credit for my ability to stop emotionally overeating. After reading Elkhart Tolle’s A New Earth, I discovered my life’s purpose. I decided that the utmost purpose in my life was to live in the present moment. Discovering this set wheels in motion in my life.
More and more, I learned to be conscious of the thoughts in my head, my emotions and my ego. By becoming conscious of this, I became less attached and identified with those things and better at staying present. It soon became clear to me that my relationship with food and the issues around it were a huge challenge to this purpose. I began working on old issues, with a new frame of reference, primarily with my Life Coach (I highly recommend life coaching!).
Through the work, I discovered some beliefs I had about myself. I realized how much time I spent hating myself and also realized that I believed I was not my real self, not whole as an overweight person. After bringing these things to light, I was able to see how false they were. For the first time in my life, I decided to truly love and accept myself, as I was in the moment. I made a decision to love me, and started to change my life to be in alignment with that fact.
Everything just started to fall into place. I found an eating style that liberated me (no grains, no sugar, and lots of whole foods – check out the Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson). For me, abstinence from the foods that are the most addictive brings a freedom I never knew. I found an exercise philosophy called CrossFit (crossfit.com) that has given me a relationship with my body I never thought I could have. I stopped weighing myself, because the number didn’t matter. I wasn’t eating better or exercising to “lose weight,” I was doing it because I loved myself. Staying present in that fact brought joy in things I never thought were possible.
5. Do you consider yourself completely recovered?
I could easily lose my focus on the present moment if I ask myself “is this going to last?” I am deciding instead to embrace where I am at, instead of clinging to it in fear that it will not last. I am a work in progress. There are many layers to the issues around my emotional eating. I am committed to working through them, with self-love and presence as my focus.
6. Do you still struggle with the urge to overeat?
A couple of weeks ago there were a few days that I really felt down. One morning as I drove to work, all I could think about was going through the McDonald’s drive-through for a breakfast sandwich. It was so apparent to me that this urge was because I wanted the comfort from the food because of the way I was feeling. It was so enlightening to watch this process within myself. I did not go through that drive through; instead I went through my emotions and came out on the other side.
7. What strategies have you used to replace food when you’re feeling the same emotions that used to fuel your overeating?
First off, it’s important that I don’t just replace food with something else when I feel those emotions. I am fully committed to “feel all emotions to their depths and exaltations” (A women’s book of strength by Karen Andes). I don’t wish to escape anymore. I see working through pain and emotions like going through a tunnel. Most people get to the middle, to the darkest part and run right back out the way they came. My running out was eating. For other people, it’s a whole slew of other escapist behaviors. Problem is when you keep running back out, you are stuck forever with that same tunnel. What I now do is hit the scary dark place and keep going! Guess what? All this time if I would have just kept going, I would have gotten through!
8. What has been the toughest part about overcoming overeating?
I think one of the toughest parts is the society we live in. First off, the norm for eating in our society is processed foods, full of sugar and out-of-control portions. We have a culture of self-hate, hardly anyone is truly happy with themselves. Most people think that happiness lies at some future destination (a smaller size, a lesser weight, a more toned physique). Self-hate is not exclusive to overweight people, the “skinny” girls hate themselves just as much. Our society promotes that anything less than “thin” is not good enough. Most programs and diets focus on losing weight, deprivation and sacrifice, not a peep about self acceptance! No wonder they don’t work! We are truly set-up for failure. Thank goodness there are people like you, Margarita, trying to change things! [Margarita: And you, Stephanie! 🙂]
9. What are some misconceptions about emotional overeating?
I know many people think, “What’s so hard? just stop eating.” Those same people have plenty of their own issues, which are not as apparent on the outside as someone who is overweight. Also, I used to think emotional overeating, was when, for example, someone sat down and ate a gallon of ice cream after they failed a test. I have come to realize that it is more complex than that. Emotional overeating, for me, was something I did all day, every day.
10. What can families do to help a loved one who’s struggling with emotional overeating?
A person has to work through their own process; it’s hard to get someone to understand how their eating is emotion-driven when they are not ready to accept that. Nor is it an easy shift from self-loathing to self-loving. So I guess the most important thing is to completely, unconditionally love that person. Sometimes family members have their own issues with emotions, eating or body image that come into the relationship. Ask yourself, “Am I supporting this person from a place of love, or from a place of fear?”
11. Anything else you’d like readers to know?
You are perfect and whole, just as you are today. Start there….and the possibilities are endless!
Thanks so much, Stephanie, for sharing your story! You’re truly an inspiration.
Also, today, Sunny of Healthy Girl, has a great post on binge eating that asks if you’re aware of the signs before a binge. Be sure to check it out!