How to curb compulsive eating, transform habitual cravings, and fill your “self” up, for lasting satisfaction.
You’ve been working all day, in the office or at home attending to family. It's now 10 o'clock at night, you’ve just put the kids to bed, and finally, you have time for yourself…. yet their lunches need to be made before tomorrow, the floor needs vacuuming, the dishwasher still needs to be emptied and on and on. All of a sudden, the leftover pie in the refrigerator calls your name.
You've had a healthy dinner so you're not physically hungry, but you find yourself motoring over to the refrigerator, reaching for that pie. Before you know it, you are plunging your fork into that soft crust and sugary apple filling. The taste of sweetness bursts into your mouth, a moment of bliss, lighting up the pleasure centers of the brain…giving you a moment of pleasure, a moment of reprise, a break from the endless to-do list. In this moment of trance, you forget for now that you struggled all day to be good, to eat healthily, to do it right. Now you just deserve a reward.
You need a moment where the rest of the world fades away, when all your obligations, all the things left undone disappear. You say: It's finally my time. Time to give to me directly, me first. The pie beckons, enticing you, promising release and relief. The pie doesn't talk back, doesn't demand your energy, and doesn't pull at your skirts. It's not one more thing on your overflowing to-do list that is not yet done. The food is always there, reliable, easy, delightful, and tastes good. A treat, a reward, an attempt to feel better…. a plunge into oblivion.
All the while, in the back of your mind there is a warning voice, “You shouldn't be eating this. You know that the evening is the worst time to eat sweets… What's wrong with you? You're going to gain weight...” But you don't care, you just push these thoughts away. You find yourself drawn to the next bite, and the next. Surely satisfaction will be found in the next bite, or maybe the one after that…the promise of satisfaction always in the next bite. Even though you know that the sweetness only lasts for one minute, then turns to self-flagellation.
You do deserve a treat. You do deserve to treat yourself with respect and kindness. You're so tired of the struggle! There is something in you that is hungry, restless, and continually dissatisfied, always looking for more, but not knowing exactly what that is. Just a restlessness that is so uncomfortable you want to cover it over as quickly as possible. There is a quiet desperation behind this energy.
You may be depleted or overextended putting everyone else's needs first. You may be tired or worried that you will not to be able to fall asleep because there are so many thoughts in your mind. So much is undone, there is not enough time, not enough energy, not enough money and you are never enough. No amount of pie will fill this emptiness of never enough.
The night is a time to wind down, to finally kick back. In this quiet, you notice feelings arise that are covered over by the busyness of the day… loneliness, boredom, maybe a vague sense of underlying restless anxiety. It is this anxiety that drives your urge to eat.
So what to do?
To break the cycle, here are three steps: Break, breathe, befriend.
Break the pattern
Entering the kitchen is a cue to go into a well-worn groove in the brain that is instant and automatic. To shift this habit pattern, you need to put a space between the stimulus and the response. Creating a pause, no matter how tiny, opens a space for something new to arise — an opportunity to do something different — anything different will do.
Start by getting out of the kitchen!
• Put a reminder on your refrigerator: What you are looking for is not in here
• Take your food to the bathroom and eat in front of the mirror
• Splash cold water on your face
• Talk to yourself out loud, or better yet, start singing
• Run up and down the stairs – shake your body, wiggle, move in any way that feels right
• Drink a glass of water or a cup of tea
• Pet your dog, snuggle into soft fur or curl up with your cat in your lap as you feel her purr
• Have an emergency basket close by with fun supplies like coloring books, knitting, fun magazine or frivolous book that doesn’t take a lot of mental power when you need to unwind. Be creative!
Now that you are out of the kitchen, go to a space that's relaxing for you, a sacred space where you can unwind to be yourself without interruption. You can say to yourself, "I will take a 10 minute pause and after that 10 minutes if I still want to have the pie, I can. In the meantime I'm going to just sit and breathe deeply and check in with myself with kindness."
To interrupt the pattern of mindless eating, take a deep breath. Breathe deeply, fully like a charging bull, so you can hear your breath like the ocean waves. The breath is your best friend because it's always available. It’s free, and it doesn't have any calories and can help you feel full and shift your energy immediately. Breath creates space and space gives you choice.
Next, ask the questions:
• Am I hungry?
• If I'm not hungry, what is it I'm really wanting?
• What do I feel and what do I need?
• Will this food really make me feel better?
You may believe that the pie will make you feel better… but only for the few moments that it rests in your mouth. And you already know that one bite is never enough and will lead to a cascade of craving followed by a crash, depletion, guilt, weight gain, and misery. If you give into this urge to eat, as you have done so many times before, you will only be reinforcing the cycle of suffering.
Will eating this fix what I'm worried about?
After eating you are still worried about finances, but now you are also worried about weight gain. Also, if you start eating when you are not hungry, there is no physical signal to begin so there is no physical signal to stop. You haven't fixed anything, but you feel totally and uncomfortably stuffed. This is not pleasure but misery.
Now here, in the quiet of the evening, you are alone at last. You have become aware of how depleted you feel. Your first thoughts turned to the pie in anticipation of the mouthful of juicy pleasure that could instantly wash away all that exhaustion, all the days worries, and cover over the underlying restless agitation you feel now.
However, now that you know the pie is not the solution, you can ask yourself this question: "What if I could give myself the sweetness, the comfort I am hoping to get from the pie? Can I give the sweetness of my own kind attention right now when I need it the most… "
In your moment of need, the pie calls your name from the refrigerator… saying, "I know how you feel, I see your need... You do deserve to be comforted." The enticing call of the pie reaches you where you are most tender. What if you could reach into that place yourself? Call to yourself in the same way? You can begin to speak your own name… softly, inwardly at first and then perhaps out loud…
Put your hand on your heart and say: "Dear one, I'm here for you. Call yourself back home to your body. Give yourself compassion for your own suffering, your struggles with food. Notice the bitter, mean things you say to yourself. You would probably never let another person talk to you in this critical, shaming way. But don't start berating your inner critic. That only leads to more feelings of unworthiness and emptiness, which leads to even more eating. Instead, give yourself the compassion you deserve. No matter how many times you have given into this craving or ignored your deeper need in the past, you can have a fresh start right here, right now. In this moment, you can create a new future.
In an atmosphere of true compassion, you can begin to explore more deeply your underlying needs and feelings. Become curious about this energy, the restless agitation that drives the urge to eat. Gently ask: "I want to eat and I don't know why, I wonder what's going on?" If this energy had a color, what color would it be? What is its temperature, texture? Maybe it has a vibration or sound…. where in your body does this energy reside?
To go towards discomfort rather than stuffing it down with food is a skill that takes guidance and persistence. As you learn to ride the wave of emotion — e-motion is energy in motion — you will discover parts of yourself that have been starving to be heard. Now is the time to draw upon whatever spiritual connection you have cultivated, to use as an anchor in the storm. Tumultuous feelings will arise, become intense and then subside, leaving you feeling more connected to your tender side, calm and whole. As you welcome disconnected parts of yourself back in to wholeness, you feel deeply soothed on the inside. You become no longer afraid of your own energy. This process of discovery, made possible by your kind attention, will open new doors to deeper wisdom.
Also, as you ride the wave and surf this discomfort, you breathe in the knowledge that all beings everywhere feel the same restless agitation. You are not alone. In this understanding, you feel compassion for all those who suffer. As you practice soothing your own agitation, the kindness you generate extends loving kindness to all beings.
But what if you don't make it through this process? What if you are not able to break the cycle and you end up eating the pie anyway. Still, it's not too late. At first you may be compelled to act out this urge to eat many times. Even after you've eaten the pie, you can replay the scene to practice in your imagination what you would choose to do instead. Later, you will be able to have a touch of mindfulness when you are in the middle of a binge, and eventually you will be able to catch yourself beforehand and not be swept up in the urge to eat. If you pause for just one second more than before, that is huge shift!
So break, breathe and befriend yourself in the evening. When you experience an urge to eat, practice refraining even for just a moment. As you move towards the energy that drives your habit, you welcome disconnected parts of yourself back in. All the energy you project into that pie is then freed up to transform into aliveness and reconnection with your precious, dear self. Your challenge with food is potentially a gift. It can teach you to stay awake to difficulties and deepen your compassion for all life. Your habits of negativity and distraction are human. With patience and loving kindness, they can be released, and your fundamental goodness will emerge, fresh, new, and vibrantly alive.
Robin Maynard-Dobbs CHt is a hypnotherapist, personal coach, and certified counselor specializing in helping women to end their struggle with food, body size, and compulsive eating. www.awareeating.com