What’s Eating You?

Overeaters Anonymous is a voluntary organisation that seeks to help and support women and men who over-eat; it also offers physical, emotional and spiritual recovery for those who undereat, even though the organisation’s name does not suggest this.  In the days of Monday 11th to l5th October there will be a Public Information Week culminating in a Meeting on Friday, 15th October, 8pm at the Metropole Hotel, Cork.  

Our response to individuals who either overeat or under-eat is determined by our understanding of these behaviours.  Susie Orbach in her book On Eating (Penguin 2002) addresses the issue of overeating and encourages the person to try and discover why she (or he) eats when she isn’t hungry.  However, I believe, that she misses the creativity and intelligence of the overeating when she states: “if you are lonely when you eat, you won’t have addressed your loneliness, rather you will have taken a step away from solving it and have given yourself an extra problem”.  Interestingly, she does see that momentarily the overeating will quiet the emotional hungers, but gives no credit to the individual for finding this substitute way of attending to her feelings of loneliness.  One wonders what would happen if the person didn’t create a way of quelling the rising tide of inner anguish?  A substitute response is developed at a point in time because the real response that is required – in the example given, a resolving of loneliness by a reaching into self and out to others – is too risky to take for the very real fear of experiencing rejection once again.

The sources of overeating can either be unconscious or conscious. Clearly, when the person has a consciousness of the events that have brought her to using food as a substitute for love or nurturance or expression of anger, then finding the support to directly address those heretofore hidden issues is more likely to emerge than when the reasons lie below consciousness.  The nature of the support found is critical to the person’s progress.  Certainly, any hint that her eating is the problem will create emotional unsafety for openness to looking at the deeper issues.  Acknowledging the person’s overeating as a creative response to the threats she has and is currently experiencing in her life empowers the person to dig deeper and uncover the real responses that will, slowly but surely, resolve the deeper emotional hurts that are crying out for resolution.  Most of all there needs to be the presence of unconditional love, for it is that relationship that provides the emotional, social and behavioural safeties for the person to progress down the road less travelled of embracing her wholeness – no strings attached!

 Whatever is the particular source of overeating or under-eating, there have been serious failures in love in the person’s story to date, failures that are likely to be still ongoing.  When a lack of loving or the presence of harsh rejection and ‘never feeling good enough’ or ‘beautiful enough’ are protectively internalised, the consequence is the person hates self or her body, so that she softens the emotional blows she experiences from others.  Typically, health care professionals would view such internal responses as the person having low self-esteem, but, sadly, they miss the fact that the person is actually guarding the pearl of great price – her unique and sacred self.  There is such an intelligence in viewing yourself as ‘worthless’ or ‘invisible’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘unlovable’ or ‘gross’ because you will not then risk reaching out to anybody for love, friendship, companionship and recognition.  It can be seen for this person to come out from behind her protective walls – her comfort zone – and hence ‘comfort eating’ – she will require the ongoing security of unconditional acceptance from another.  When support groups offer this kind of relationship they can be the source of the healing of a lot of human misery.  It is crucial that such groups be not prescriptive; on the contrary, they need to trust that the person, who has so creatively protected herself to date, will also create the ways for her to express fearlessly her fullness.

Whilst there are several other matters I would like to address – most particularly, what are the possible hidden hungers that are being fed when you eat when you’re not hungry or don’t eat when you are hungry – there is one obvious matter: why food?  In my clinical experience the manifestations of inner conflicts are best understood metaphorically and food is the metaphor for love.  The questions that abeg in the face of overeating or under-eating are: what in the past and currently have you been starved of and how is it that it has not been safe for you to express what you most hunger for?

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author and National and International Speaker.

Book relevant to today’s column is Whose Life Are You Living?