October 02, 2007

Guest Post: Talia On Working With An Emotional Eater

We're very lucky to have, for our next Guest Post, a Case Study by author Talia Mana. Ever wondered how mental health clinicians work with people with eating disorders? Well, here's an example! You may know Talia from her helpful and informative blog at The Centre For Emotional Healing-- which has WAY more actual information than this blog does. Be sure to check out the blog and her books.

Anyway, so, here's Talia!

Through The Eyes of An Emotional Eater

Jennifer has tried just about everything. She's been to Overeaters' Anonymous, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers and counsellors. She has even tried fasting for long periods though this isn’t an approach I recommend. While Jennifer lost a lot of weight during her fast, not long afterwards her old eating habits took over, and she started bingeing.

We talked about her perceptions about herself. For most of us our identity is wrapped up in the 'labels' we give ourselves. These labels can be anything from the job we do, to our relationships with others, our goals, our passions, our strengths or our weaknesses.

Are you a career woman, a mom, an accountant, a politician? Are you a failure or a winner? Are you a "fat girl" or a "pretty girl?" Think about how you describe yourself to others and how you think of yourself. When I ask students in my workshops to write down the labels they attach to themselves, many will identify themselves with their size or their eating. This is especially true if they have an eating disorder. They will say, “I’m a compulsive overeater.”

With Jennifer, it soon became clear that her identity is wrapped up in her opinion of herself as a wife and mother. Any time that she perceives problems in this area, she reaches for food. For Jennifer the state of her house is a barometer of her internal health. When her house is spic and span she feels confident and in control of her life. When dirty dishes accumulate on the bench and washing piles up in the bath she feels like a failure as a wife, a mother and a person.

In short, Jennifer overgeneralises. When something goes wrong in the area of her life that she identifies with she personalises this, and judges herself as a failure in all areas of her life. So if she’s a failure, she might as well eat, right?

You guessed it. When she doesn’t feel like doing housework, or is confronted with a messy kitchen she eats.

Here are some of her comments:

"If my house is a mess and I can’t keep up with the housework or I can’t get motivated to get it done I feel like I’m not coping in life."

"If my house is tidy I feel like I’m coping."

"For me cleaning my bench is a big deal. Some days I look at it and I have no idea where to start. Yet my daughter can come along and in less than five minutes she sorts everything out, wipes down the bench and it’s done. I don’t know why I can’t be like that. So then I start telling myself that I’m lazy, or that I just didn’t get taught right by my mother. She did everything for me as a kid, and I find it hard to do all this stuff. I don’t enjoy it so I put it off."

"I start feeling dumb and inadequate and then I need food to make me feel better."

"Even when I do clean the bench I feel like I should treat myself because it’s such an effort. I feel exhausted, so I sit down with a big plate of unhealthy food or a packet of biscuits and scoff the lot."

That’s only part of the story. Jennifer also has very distorted ideas about her role as a perfect parent. So Jennifer's homework is to examine her distorted perceptions.

We started at the beginning, by challenging her assumption that an overindulgent parent who did everything for her has created a lazy monster who is incapable of doing housework. Jennifer is still having trouble convincing herself that she can break free of old beliefs. She is very attached to her family and is having trouble separating today's Jennifer from the Jennifer of her childhood. She accepts logically that she's not the same woman--but emotionally she's still letting go.

She's also promised as part of her homework to not immediately dismiss positive feedback. When her husband and friends tell her she is a good wife, a good parent and a good person, she's too quick to find fault with herself.

Finally, she's working on understanding that the state of her house is not a reflection on her as a person. We know this is going to take some time but Jennifer feels that knowing that people "get" her and understand where she is coming from will help.

I hope sharing Jennifer’s story will help illustrate the impact that your beliefs have on your eating and give you some pointers to change.


  1. OMG, are you sure Jennifer's name isn't Amy? It's like reading about myself...thank you very much for posting this.

  2. Thanks for the insight on this often generalized topic. It is one thing to know you are an emotional eater, quite another to have a clue about how to overcome the problem.

  3. It's easy to turn thoughts into self-fulfilling prophecies. But good thoughts can work that way too, if they're followed up with action.

    The thing that's hard to remember is that change requires patience and persistence. That's why I'm an advocate of starting small until new habits are formed.

    You want to set yourself up for success so you can build off that success and feel good about yourself, instead of setting unreachable goals and then punishing yourself for not meeting them.

    No matter how small your first baby step is, if you follow it up with another one and then another, you'll get where you're going!

  4. Overcoming emotional eating is a huge problem...forming new habits is hard...you fall of the wagon but as long as you get back on, it is possible. It's not easy, but it's possible!

  5. I think it is so important when you finally figure out that the eating isn't the problem. The eating is a symptom of all of the other issues she (and by that I mean we) is dealing with. To try to cure the eating issue will never work long term because it really isn't the problem. The problems are the insecurity, lack of self esteem, lack of self confidence, lack of motivation, etc. Even if she (we) were to get the eating issue under control, eventually the real problems would manifest themselves and probably in a more powerful way because they had been pent up so long while the eating was being controlled.

  6. Quite an interesting post, and it made me think about overeating in a way I really hadn't bothered considering before. Thanks for guest posting!

  7. Hi everyone
    Thanks for posting my guest article Crabby.

    Yes Emotional Eating is a complex issue. Unfortunately programs like The Biggest Loser advocate the quick fix, and there is no instant solution to habits that have evolved over several years or in some cases decades...

  8. After more than 40 years of emotional eating (now a mostly healthy 50 year-old athlete), I really see myself in Jennifer. I still occasionally reach for food-solace, especially when I'm feeling abandoned, but a word to everyone out there who struggles with emotional eating: Please keep trying to face the emotions, not eat them! The self-loathing is far more difficult to deal with than the other emotions.

  9. Jennifer has it hard. I don't eny anyone in that kind of circumstance.

    I wonder whether reaching out for food is for comfort or for punishment (or both, perhaps?)

  10. Thanks so much Talia!

    I thought this was really intriguing look into the way insecurities can lead to eating disorders. So often people talk about "emotional eating," but to really address it you've got to do some serious detective work to figure out the specifics of why someone is using food in ways that aren't healthy. You wouldn't necessarily think there was any connection between housework and overeating! But it's a powerful tool when you can address the specific roots of the problem and work to overcome them.

    Thanks to all the commenters for their insights!

  11. Wow, what a great post Talia!

    I have to agree with Holly
    "To try to cure the eating issue will never work long term because it really isn't the problem." So true!

  12. Eating wrong for any reason (or not eating enough) is just another form of "addictive" personality traits many of us have. I've always had a problem with food, and spent my childhood and many years of my adulthood battling with my weight. Various "chemicals" have been substituted for food at different stages in my life hoping for that miracle weight loss, but everything is just temporary, and some even make everything worse by creating a new "addiction". I believe exercising is an addiction to gazillions out there, and people like me wish we had that one instead, since it seems to get you out of the house and at least appear to be less anti-sociable or obviously depressed. It's not always easy to figure out why any of us "need" any of the things we think we do, and that, in my opinion, is exactly what it takes to kick all addictions along with a sincere desire to want to . Without seriously wanting something, its all just a bunch of babble and denial.

  13. Excellent post Talia, and I agree with your comment re: there just isn't a quick fix....many think that diet and exercise are the quick route for weight loss, but if you don't examine the reasons that you overate in the first place, what caused your overweight won't change. Diet and exercise only takes care of the symptom (overweight), not the motivation for overeating (limiting, negative beliefs, emotional trauma, unhealthy habits, negative self-image, etc.).

    Thanks for sharing this story!


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