When I recently figured out that my desire to eat when I’m not hungry is a way of trying to satisfy unmet needs in other areas of my life, I was surprised but I also felt a “click”. It was the click of a puzzle piece finally sliding into its proper place. For decades I have been focusing on controlling my food intake, with only partial success. All along, it hasn’t been the food!
Food is comforting, and we humans use it for comfort. As Anita A. Johnston says in her book Eating By The Light of the Moon, it makes sense that we associate food with comfort since some of our first experiences in life are being held by our mother while eating. Somewhere along the line, the wires got crossed and I began using food as a solution to every problem. Food is just the tool. Some people using dieting as the solution to every hidden problem. Some people starve themselves. Others exercise too much. Still others plan secret food binges and then throw it all up afterward. All of these issues have food in common, and can be considered “siblings” in the eating disorder realm.
I eat when I am not hungry, but I have not understood why until now. That is why it has been such a problem. It’s the same for people with other types of eating problems – they don’t know why they feel compelled to exercise for hours every day, for example. They believe it is because exercise is good for them, so the more the better. Or they believe they must maintain a perfect body.
Johnston says that eating disorders cannot be solved without learning assertiveness. I have unmet needs because I stay silent instead of expressing my feelings and letting other people know in a calm, reasonable way what I need. And then, unconsciously, I turn to food to meet those needs. Not only that, but eventually the emotions and feelings I’ve been “stuffing” because of my lack of assertiveness come out in a destructive way, causing problems in my relationships.
It’s important to express feelings and emotions. They are there to tell us things we need to know. Assertiveness is essential to putting food in its proper place.
I have everything I “need” in life: a loving and supportive husband, a home, clothing, food…. but I have unmet emotional needs because I do not express those needs to myself or anyone else, so they remain hidden. They manifest themselves as a form of unidentified hunger. I get confused and so I eat.
The solution is to begin identifying my feelings and assertively expressing those feelings in the context of my relationships. Johnston uses the example of a friend borrowing a book and returning it late so that I am inconvenienced in a research project. Do I shrug it off and tell my friend it’s no big deal? Then if it happens again because I told her it was no big deal will I withdraw from the relationship because of my hidden resentment? Or, do I attack with sarcasm and anger? Both of these responses leave a void inside me because I am hiding my true feelings. An assertive response allows me to express my need in a peaceful but direct way. It was frustrating not having that book when I needed it. Next time you borrow something please return it on time.
Expressing my feelings correctly is a release valve for emotions and it provides me with a healthy way to get my needs met, rather than feeling a vague emptiness and filling it with food.
I highly recommend the book Eating In The Light Of The Moon. Johnston uses folktale metaphors and provides concrete, simple ways to learn assertiveness. Her guidance feels personal and is enlightening. If you struggle with your weight, consider the possibility that you may be trying to meet your emotional needs with food, and take time to read this book.