Someone asked me a great question about what to do if you can’t figure out what’s making you eat emotionally, and now I can’t find it.
I’m pretty annoyed by that, but anyway.
When I first came to the conclusion that I was an emotional eater, it didn’t happen in the way I’d expected. I was having a talk with a sorority sister of mine who’s a psychiatrist, and I was telling her something about how I worried about how I was parenting my child. As a single mother at the time, I worried about how my inability to control my temper was going to rub off on her. She was still an infant at the time, and even though I was at a disadvantage, I still wanted to give her everything I could work for. My sorority sister laughed and said to me, “Aw, girl… you just need better coping mechanisms. Not everyone handles anger with a temper tantrum and an angry fit or some other self-destructive shit.”
I was actually annoyed when she said it but, in hindsight, I was probably much more frustrated by the “Ouch!” I felt.
It didn’t make sense to me until almost a year later, on the night that my boyfriend and I had broken up. It was a nasty breakup – so nasty, mind you, that I didn’t even cry immediately when it happened. I spent days in shock first. When he was breaking up with me, I was actually baking chocolate chip muffins with my daughter… and right at the moment while he was delivering the news, I calmly got up, walked over to the kitchen, and yanked the muffins – half done – out of the stove. (I did, however, put them back in the stove in case I wanted them later… or something.) I couldn’t understand what I was feeling, what was going on, and why I’d felt so… muted… but I knew the last thing I’d needed to be doing right then and there, was baking muffins.
I’d spent the rest of the day unable to speak. One of my other sorority sisters brought my daughter dinner, and came and gave me a shoulder to, in essence, not cry on. I just kept breathing. Deeply. I didn’t want the muffins. To be quite honest, on that day, I didn’t want anything. I just wanted… silence. Peace. My head still felt cloudy… and I had a baby to raise. Whatever I was feeling, I just didn’t want to take it out on her.
Meanwhile, a third sorority sister of mine was “concerned” about me. She spent hours, through the night, on the phone with me to make sure both I and my daughter were okay. She knew me, knew our relationship, and knew I was crushed. She’d also known that, throughout all this, I hadn’t eaten yet. When she asked me why, I said “I just don’t know that I can stomach it right now.” She, again, stayed on the phone with me for a few more hours, and begged me to walk my daughter to the nearest store to get some cucumbers and carrots. If I couldn’t stomach anything like a meal, I could at least get some energy in me.
And, on that day, I obliged her. After Kyli had woken up and had her breakfast, we walked together to the grocery and I’d picked up exactly what Mally asked me to grab.
Here, is where I had my epiphany. Once we returned home, I’d reached to put the veggies back in the refrigerator, and that’s where I saw these half-baked muffins. I calmly grabbed them out of the fridge, set them on the bar, and stared at them. The split second before I wanted to lunge towards that tin and shove it in my face, I asked myself “Why?”
And, the split second before I would’ve usually decided to ignore myself and swallow them up, I answered myself, instead: “Because they’d make me feel better.”
This, is when my therapist friend’s words came back to haunt me. Is this how I cope with pain? Is this how I cope with anger? Sadness? I eat? How do I cope? How can I cope in a sensible fashion?
It wasn’t until a couple of years had passed when I’d realized the number of things that served as triggers for me – things like perceived threats against my safety, uncertainty of my surroundings, unwanted sexual advances – and were sending me off into food to feel better and experience pleasure, satisfaction, or just… peace. Peace away from my own fearful uncertainty, peace from heartbreak, peace from it all. It’s even hard to write that.
I hope you see what I’m getting at, here.
The reality of it all is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what your triggers are. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what sends you nose first into the muffin tin. What’s far more important, in my mind, is that you acknowledge that you do have an emotional eating issue, and that you take steps toward making your eating much more mindful. Though it can be comforting to know what, in the annals of your mind, may be pushing you towards – or over – the edge, “knowing” isn’t the only way to stop it. I had to work backwards and troubleshoot it – I had to watch the times that I’d reached for a cookie or cupcake, and stop myself mid-reach. “Why do I want this? What’s going on?” If I couldn’t be honest with myself about why, I would stop myself and move on to the next topic. It took me quite a long time – almost two full years, total – to figure out what I’ve figured out thus far, but I also have to accept the fact that I may still not know everything. I may still not know every trigger I have, but I’m okay with that. As long as I stop myself before I eat anything and ask myself why I’m doing it, I can at least work my way backwards to what may have triggered the episode, and that can get me closer every time.
In short, you may not know and you may never know, but it’s certainly okay – at least, in my view – to work your way backwards towards it. Just like G.I. Joe used to say “knowing is half the battle,” here, the other half is just as important, and maybe even more so. Be comfortable working on the behavior, and use it to troubleshoot the trigger. Your body will thank you for it!