emotional eating: don’t know what i want

As soon as I experience that restlessness, that sense of jitteriness, that need to get up and pace and sit back down and fret, as soon as I start to flip through books and set them down, page through channels and then drop the remote, walk from room to room and not find a place to settle, as soon as I realize that I want something, but I have no idea what it is, that I want something but I can’t think of a single thing that will satisfy this very non-specific, maddeningly unlabeled desire, wish, want, I automatically assume that what I want is food.

I immediately assume that whatever is making me restless and slightly irritated, a little angry and a lot dissatisfied with my entire environment, with my life and the way I’m living it, with the way my lungs process oxygen and the schedule upon which I blink, I find myself in front of the fridge, poking through the shelves, waiting for the epiphany to hit me. I consider each individual food item, I run over it in my head, I consider how it will taste and how it will make me feel, I ponder the implications of its saltiness, the results of its sweetness, the overall consequences of its richness and potential deliciousness. I weigh my impatience and irritability against the need to perform a task or even a series of them in order to enjoy the end result, and from there, have to decide if it is worth it.

It’s never worth it, because I’m not sure that it is really what I
want, a bowl of penne with salt and olive oil and some parmesan cheese.
And if it’s not what I really want, should I go through all the trouble
of making it, only to toss it? So I eat a granola bar, instead. And
that is definitely not what I wanted. Who ever wants a granola bar? I
mean, really. So I’ve still got the gnawing, gaping black hole from
which peevishness is emanating like radiation and in which a granola
bar is sitting like an undigestible lump.

This can go on for hours. That didn’t work. Maybe what I really want
is…macaroni and cheese! That’s so much work, so I’ll just boil a
hotdog. I didn’t want that hot dog. Maybe what I really want is…a
burrito! But I’d have to go out and get a burrito. So I’ll just order a
pizza and cinnamon sticks. I did not want pizza or cinnamon sticks.
What do I want? I bet it is more cinnamon sticks. I didn’t want more
cinnamon sticks, or this bagel I just toasted, or another granola bar,
or a package of animal cookies I found in the back of the cupboard, and
now I feel sick and probably, I am going to die.

I can spend whole days making myself sick, trying to figure out what it
is I want and what I need and never quite figuring out what the hell is
going on and what I’m really looking for.

So here’s an idea: If I am not finding any foodstuff to plug up all my
holes, both physically and emotionally, maybe it is time to cop to the
fact that there may be such a thing as emotional eating, as trying to
fill the void with food, as trying to comfort yourself with eating, and
it may be time to cop to the fact that that is not a healthy way to
deal with unhappiness and restlessness and boredom and insecurity. I
bet I just totally made that up!

I bet I have heard that before, but never really listened. Because I
was too busy deciding if this unhappiness would best be satisfied by
baking a cake from a mix and frosting it with butter, or eating two
pounds of cherries on the stem or a sack full of hamburgers. Here’s
where weight-loss surgery comes in–I cannot eat the way I used to, when
I’d be hit with this deep-down gnawing need. But the fact that I
can’t doesn’t make this grazing kind of long, drawn out binge behavior
any more reasonable, does it?

Sometimes I get angry that being thin hasn’t solved all my problems–not
the larger social issues, not my insecurity issues and psychological
damage, and especially, and most frustratingly, not my food issues,
which come from all of those things. I think what I used to look for
was a way to forget that I was fat, and unhappy in my body. I’m not
fat, anymore. What am I looking for now? Can I just have it, please?
I’m tired.

11 Replies to “emotional eating: don’t know what i want”

  1. Ah, this sounds like what goes on in my head shortly after a therapy session.
    Food seems like the quick, easy, tasty fix. Why wouldn’t it? We’d only choose foods that taste good to us. But like you mentioned, shortly after the granola bar, etc, the need is back.
    I would imagine though, after going through everything you have, you are leaps and bounds ahead of where you used to be in regards to eating habits. It’s amazing how much we can learn about ourselves once you pry the food out of our hands and mouths. But even though the emotional/mental aspects of our lives can sometimes be harder to understand and change than the outward ones, the outcomes can be so much more rewarding in the long run.

  2. Recovering emotional eater, here. Thanks for this post, Anne. I think many of us have experienced this. Even people who aren’t habitual emo eaters.
    A book that really helped me and my mom (who BTW also had WL surgery), and which I recommend to all emotional eaters, is Shrink Yourself by Roger Gould. He outlines several basic reasons people eat emotionally. Feelings of emptyness is sure enough one of them. But the grandaddy of them is feelings of powerlessness. Not actual powerlessness, but belief that we’re powerless.
    I’ve gone through the book twice now and it’s helped me both times in different ways, and I anticipate revisiting it every couple of months. Give it a shot — your library probably has it if you don’t want to buy it (though once you’ve read it, you might find that you want to buy it!).
    Maybe this could be an EW book club book in the future?

  3. You just described how I was feeling all weekend to a tee. It is really such a weird kind of feeling, isn’t it?
    I almost wonder if part of it doesn’t come from the fact that food is just the simple fix, we usually have it around and available so why not try and see if it fixes the problem? Also, a lot of the time when our bodies WANT something, in the for real, we need this to survive way, it’s usually food or sleep. So it does make sense when you are hit with a deep, unignorable want, even if you don’t know what it is to maybe try food first. Just in case, you know?
    I think the problem develops when we start doing what you talk about, just eating something that’s there, and when that doesn’t work, moving on to different food to see if that works. If it really was the survival drive just slightly off kilter, then any food would have worked, it might not have thrilled me, but it would have worked. If that’s not the case it means that something else a little less obvious is wrong, but those things are much harder to deal with and figure out, and sometimes it’s impossible to fix right away, so the pizza, or the burrito, or the granola bar, the easy things are there to fall back on, even if you know it’s not really the right thing. Then I’m left feeling sick, and still unfulfilled, and kinda mad at myself.
    Sometimes I figure it out and sometimes I don’t. It isn’t easy, but thanks for at least talking about it so frankly so I don’t feel alone. :)

  4. This post describes my behavior perfectly. I never thought of it as “emotional eating”, which I thought of in the realm of eating a pint of ice cream in bed after your boyfriend dumps you behavior. But that aimless wandering feeling of trying different foods is precisely what I do! It’s often when my husband isn’t home or is occupied in his own activities. I’m going to check out the book sonce mentioned. Maybe that will help me better understand this.

  5. Usually I think of myself as a pretty articulate person. But you’ve just managed to articulate something I didn’t even know I was trying to explain — I know I’m an emotional eater, of course, but I didn’t know I wanted a name for where it starts. Now I can point to this and say, “Look, see. Here.” And the experience of reading this has left me without the words to adequately explain what it really means, so instead I will just say: thank you so much.

  6. Me, too. My dad (also an emotional eater) points out, too, that all the salts and (especially) sugars in the food we crave and eat on emotional binges (ie, not granola bars!) actually physiologically does give us a small high and really *does* leave us feeling better for just a little while, even if that little while is only the time during which we’re actually stuffing our faces! ::sigh:: When you come up with the magical key to stop emotional eating forever, you’ll be sure to let us know? ;-)

  7. I hear you, sister. I just got out of a bad relationship that gave me 20 lbs. I went from a small enough size to a still small size so I can’t complain, but the end was when he was arguing with me after we’d just had Mc Donalds, and I go, “Hey, pull into that Dunkin Donuts – I want fifty chocolate munchkins!” And I realized I wasn’t hungry, but I could at least pop munchkins into my mouth while he was arguing at….well, apparently me, but my mouth was stuffed so it was one sided…and tasty. Emotional eater? Yep. So, I dumped him, and my pants are fitting better and better. Its better than cardio, – its freedom from feeling that nagging feeling I need something (which was apparently a need to either bulk up or to punch that guy in the face.) ;)

  8. It’s a fact of life that our bodies react with feelings of reward when fed certain substances. Think of how alcohol depresses the central nervous system, the respiratory rate, and the heart rate and in the process relieves anxiety and reduces inhibitions. Or how chocolate triggers the release of mood-brightening opiates. Or how eating sugary, high-fat foods actually signals our stress-fighting hormones to settle down.
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  9. Wooowwwww…
    Like looking in a mirror, except hitting the weed usually helps me b/c then I fall asleep and don’t overeat or even THINK, for that matter..

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