Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: What If I Don’t Know What’s Making Me Eat My Feelings?

Q&A Wednesday: What If I Don’t Know What’s Making Me Eat My Feelings?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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!

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Tamara January 23, 2013 - 12:33 PM

I know for a FACT that I’m an emotional eater. Here’s an example….yesterday, I had an interview, I thought it went well, so well that on my way back to work, I decided I’d treat myself to some McDonald’s (yeah I know)….on my way there I knew within myself that I didn’t need it, I even said it in my head that I only wanted it because I was excite about my interview…..but something pushed me towards it anyway. Though I’ve never done drugs, I liken it to being addicted to drugs. It’s that high I seek….my issue is, I don’t know how to stop myself from desiring that high. How do you resist when on every corner you see the golden arches?

This is just one scenario, if I’m upset, I eat, if I’m scared, I eat…eating just helps me get over the hump of whatever I am dealing with at the time. I think the sad part is, is that I know what I’m doing, but I’m not strong enough to put a stop to it. Does that make any sense?

Erika Nicole Kendall January 23, 2013 - 1:05 PM

It definitely makes sense.

I do, personally, believe there’s a point where it starts to feel untenable, the point where you create an opportunity to make a choice, and in that one point, you make the healthier choice. That feels like a gross oversimplification, but sometimes – especially when you don’t know WHAT the trigger may be, as in this question – you HAVE to simplify it, because complicating it while you’re newly-exploring those waters may result in you justifying the behavior. This is a muscle that gets stronger over time, and you have to give yourself the opportunity to strengthen it. I CAN tell you, however, that acknowledging the behavior at ALL as being what it is is a huge deal. Eventually, you’ll acknowledge the behavior when you’re in the drive thru, and eventually you’ll acknowledge the behavior while you’re on the street on the way TO the fast food joint… and you’ll give yourself the opportunity to drive past it and go home, instead. It’s progressive.

I also have to admit that this is why I’m an advocate for throwing food away. People HATE that and call it disordered eating, but emotional eating is already inherently disordered, and actually EATING the food is far worse than acknowledging the fact that it was wrong to buy in the first place. To ME, actually eating it would be tantamount to contributing to an actual eating disorder.

Landree January 23, 2013 - 3:57 PM

Yes, I’ve also been known to throw food away when I’m in the throes of an emotional eating episode (throw it away + put dish soap on it etc to ruin it). I know it’s “wasteful” but I think it’s MORE wasteful to put that junk in my body and make myself feel worse.

Phoebe January 23, 2013 - 6:38 PM

I thought I would never break my emotional eating habit but I have. Getting conscious is the key – notice you’re in the fridge, how did I get here? What am I feeling? Like you, it was any and every emotion that drove me foodwards, boredom, happiness, anger, sadness. I had to learn what these actually felt like, I had buried most of my feelings under food. I ate in order not to feel. I truly believe that learning to identify and tolerate/cope with our feelings is the key to good mental health (and how to break emotional eating patterns).

I know as a female growing up it was unacceptable for me to display certain feelings, especially anger or frustration. Girls weren’t allowed to shout or break things, neither did we have the physical outlets boys did – no football, punching, letting off steam. I was told to be nice, so I kept quiet and trapped the anger under a whole load of cake. My fat is my feelings.

Now I can notice I have the urge to eat, ask myself if I’m hungry or am I feeling something and then I have the choice of what to do. I can eat over the feeling or sit with the feeling or act out on the feeling in a better way – calling a friend, punching a cushion, whatever. I still crave the sensation of “fullness” from food, but now I recognise what I’m really seeking is emotional fulfilment in some other way and it’s up to me to work out what that is.

Lorrie January 23, 2013 - 4:37 PM

Great post Erika! I have also had a problem identifying my triggers. Much like Tamara above, I want to reward myself when I am excited or have accomplished someting great as if I earned the right to be “unhealthy” or something. I also eat unhealthy when I am stressed or emotionally overwhelmed. I have multiple experiences like yours Erika with traumatic relationship experiences. I would be in shock and then jumpstart my journey back to reality with my favorite salty sweets. Like you, I did not think I could afford to be depressed or hurting too long for the sake of my young boys at the time – I had to cope and I had to be tough, but I paid for it later in my life, but I had no tools or resources to turn to then – except Mr. Simmons and I did NOT identify with the public display of crying, slobering and self pity!…lol You are right about one thing, we do not have to know everything in order to do something about it. We can learn about ourselves as we go. this is a great conversation and I hope it continues. Self awareness is key to great mental health. Thanks for being transparent, open and honest about your painful experiences.

Mon January 23, 2013 - 10:24 PM

Wow!! This post is right on time!! I realized today that this is an issue for me. I read a couple of your other posts about this and didn’t think it applied to me. But then today was the day after coming home from work I felt crappy, I ate 6 cookies because they were there. Despite being on this healthy journey for the last few weeks, I was derailed by stress. So I guess now that I know this is a problem, what do I use to replace food to de-stress?

Kasey January 24, 2013 - 12:30 AM

This is one of the reasons I love this site.

Erica – you have this way of being able to put these feelings and though processes where it makes perfect sense (more so than the jumbled thoughts in my head). It’s exactly what I needed to be reminded again after dealing with a small bout of situational depression. While I normally am able to process my emotions, last week I just couldn’t. Talk about mental blocks.

And I agree, knowing is half the battle and if you can catch yourself before you eat the [insert food here] then by all means get rid of it. Better to lose a little money then put junk in your body then will only give you a temporary peace.

Kate January 24, 2013 - 6:21 AM

This post is awesome. I have also had tendencies to emotionally eat, though I am not very overweight – eating for me can feel like a meditation of sorts – like smoking, or something else where there is a routine kind of action, chewing for example, and you can just drift away, and ‘take a break’ from the world while you are doing it. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this post – this white chick hears you, all the way over here in Sydney, Australia. Great writing Erika!

Renee' January 24, 2013 - 9:00 AM

I love this website! I started my clean journey in November 2012 and have lost 16 lbs as of today! I discovered your website in December and have followed you daily. I enjoy the information! I don’t think I am an emotional eater. I am the opposite because if I am upset, I actually don’t have an appetite. So therefore, the weight gain was mostly because of boredom. I guess you can say boredom is an emotion. I also had cravings that seem to override my common sense. I watched the documentary called Food, Inc and I realized that I was addicted to processed foods. I think I was so disgusted by how our food was made that I literally couldn’t eat for a few days. I lost 5 lbs that same week I watched the film. For me, I needed a stronger emotional addiction in order to break my addiction to food. I realized that what I was doing to my body was going to be costly in the long run. My son deserved a mother who was active and participated in his life. I only remember my mom sitting on her bed most days becaus she was overweight. My lesson is that you have to find that “thing” that forces you to face whatever is the issue that makes you love food more than you love yourself. Once again…great site!!!

Jeff R. January 24, 2013 - 11:32 AM

Hey Erika I’ve got a question about this. I usually eat without being affected by “emotions”, but I figured out something strange about this. I tend to eat more when I’m bored, could it be? Or am I thinking non-sense? If it’s yes, could it be considered “emotional eating”?

Erika Nicole Kendall January 24, 2013 - 3:28 PM

Honestly, I think “bored eating” is an entirely different phenomenon. Y’all better find a book or something somewhere. Get your bored selves out of the pantry!

Olivia January 24, 2013 - 12:34 PM

All of last year while reading your blog I continued to tell myself that I am not an emotional eater because I don’t eat when I am sad. When I read the comments from someone above I admitted it-emotions are emotions whether sad or happy and I eat when I feel an emotion-happiness. Weird right? When I feel happy or proud of myself-I want to eat junk food. It’s like…I’m already high on happiness and I want to eat food that reflects that so I think of the unhealthiest foods that I rarely eat-ice cream, hot cheetos (OMG I used to LOVE those things), candy, etc. Or if I feel like a chill day…I want to chill with food, especially candy, cookies or chips. Or worse-I feel proud that I lost weight that week and on the weekend I feel like celebrating with all of the above! Which of course RUINS my hard work for the week. Now that I figured out what I am doing I reach for healthy foods such as lime flavored popcorn, small ice cream bars, pomegranates or mandarin oranges. Question-is this helping or feeding into my emotional eating? Should I just NOT eat anything or continue substituting with healthy foods?

Jamie Miller January 24, 2013 - 9:44 PM

Oh…my….gosh…I had been eating really well for several weeks then the other day, I lost it. I ate everything in sight until I was physically in pain. I continued to eat after I was already in pain. The next day, I could not figure out what made that happen and for some reason, your article just hit be like a ton of bricks. Duh, I had a “conversation” with my parents that upset me a lot. I thought I was okay with it but apparently not because I ate 6000 calories after that. New to your blog….I think I love it!

Melissa February 16, 2013 - 9:58 PM

This scene that you’ve described sounds very familiar to me, so I share your pain and bewilderment. I eat my emotions and my stress, especially my feelings of anger, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, indignation, fear, and uncertainty. Any upheaval in life or change (positive or negative) sends me running for a meal or a dessert. Consuming several thousands of calories in a relatively short amount of time after an emotionally altering episode is as natural for me as breathing. I’ve been doing this all of my life. Things jar and jolt me; I look calm and placid on the outside. However on the inside, I’m a volcano of feelings. In order to stymie an eruption (which would be socially unacceptable), I rush to cram comfort food into my mouth. I know that I have my work cut out for me to change this deeply entrenched behavior. I’m still seeking a positive way to vent and to cope. I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone. What we’re going through is very real, but I’ve not given up on the hope that emotional/stress eating can be conquered and controlled.

Sarisa March 20, 2013 - 12:26 PM

Thanks so much for posting this! I’m a HUGE emotional eater. It’s like, when I’m under emotional diress ALL I WANT to do is eat a whole pizza, or basically dive head first into bad food. I know that I’m self-destructing and I kinda want to. It’s very hard to admit this, and embarrassing. Thank you for having the courage to let others know we aren’t the only ones doing it and we don’t have to be a slave to it! I LOVE THIS SITE!

Mike March 29, 2013 - 7:10 AM

Due to my job I don’t always have the time to eat correctly. I used to use this as an excuse and am starting to do a lot of research into healthier eating and bad eating habits.

I guess “emotions” or “moods” have a greater impact on our eating habits than we think and this article raises some good points in regards to this.

I would be interested to know your comments on lifestyle and any low impact changes that can have reasonable expectations of results.

Thank You.

Stefanie April 24, 2013 - 11:05 PM

Someone else may have mentioned this, but I will share my experiences in a nutshell. I know am an emotional eater among others. AND I’ve become mindful. Now, I’ve become mindful as to WHY I am an emotional eater – because food, my mind says, stuffs the anxiety. Now, why don’t I take that anxiety/depression or whatever and go run or do some art work? That does it just as well, if not better, and I feel better afterwards. I’ll tell you why: because eating a hell of a lot more convenient. It’s easier and it requires little work, LOL. Wow!!! Eating helps us feel good, we get to taste, we get to FILL our empty space in our minds/souls and forget that the stomach has NOTHING to do with that. I find that when I get busy with my hands, it helps so much better in some odd kind of way.
Now, as far as happy eating, well…..well…..LOL…I’ll work on one thing at a time. Eat drink, and be merry!

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