At some point or other many of us question our eating habits. For some, the concern arises due to overeating and subsequent illnesses (i.e., diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease) that arise in combination with genetic histories and preexisting chemical imbalances. For others, the concern arises due to set restrictions around eating and food intake that may also prompt subsequent illnesses (i.e., osteoporosis, anemia, chronic fatigue). Contemporary culture has become increasingly aware and sensitive to what foods enter our bodies and the development of a “health-conscious” relationship with food. The foods and eating patterns that embody our relationships with food can speak to a deeper set of psychological wounds if experienced out of proportion to normative eating styles. Some of these patterns are echoes of starvation or fullness that not only symbolizes the state of our stomachs, but also the state of our minds.
Patterns of overeating and/or the overconsumption of foods/sweets may be an outward display of the internal quieting of turmoil. Our first experience of being soothed as humans when intolerable feelings emerge is by way of the mouth and the bottle/breast. Consistently and early on a song and dance emerges whereby heightened emotions are magically soothed by a soft/sweet entity that leaves us feeling bloated, full, restful, and “all fuzzy inside.” It is a parallel perhaps promulgated in later life when some adults endure intolerable feelings which wreck internal havoc; yet have no safe space for recognition or embrace in the external (i.e., social) world. Asthana (2012) found that persons with obesity endure higher levels of depression, fears of negative evaluation, depleted self-esteem, and social avoidance distress than non-obese persons. The level of internal distress by persons with a pattern of overeating may herein be momentarily soothed during the intake of soft/sweet foods that provide a sensation of being whole or full, despite the absence of true emotional/social nourishment. Another finding that parallels this theme of internal turmoil avoidance are among those with binge eating patterns. These patterns may be the frantic avoidance of a painful sense of abandonment, shame or rejection that is soothed by the lulling, restful aftermath of overeating. Herein, the unconscious fear of abandonment and the accompanying feelings of shame, rejection, worthlessness, deficiency, and unlovability are momentarily escaped when consuming abundant amounts of sweet foods and delicacies (Patton, 1992).
There are shared emotional concerns among those with food restrictive eating patterns. Feelings of being starved for care or affection, longing to be protected or cherished, feelings of failure, emptiness or shame, feeling unworthy, fearing of abandonment or withdrawals of love, and a fear of loss of control unless emotional expression is contained are most frequent (Mundo & O’Neil, 2017). What is striking about these internal patterns and the external restrictions on food is a thread of fear and/or psychological turbulence in the face of emotional expression, vulnerability and the breakdown of more perfectionistic tendencies. The chase for perfectionism is as much a race towards perfection as it is a frantic avoidance of inadequacy, devaluation, disinterest, incompetence, or being unlovable simply as one is. In other words, if early relationships with attachment figures are painted by strains to embrace and adore the child unless conditions of purity, politeness, cleanliness, attractiveness, desirableness, and overall pleasantness are distinctly evident, the child may learn to cipher their relationships with food in similar fashions. It is common for the cognitive, relational, and emotional lives of persons with food restrictive eating patterns to also be muted, blunted, superficial, or restricted, perhaps as an attempt to sustain the adoration of an attachment figure who demands conformity in the quest towards purity or polished existence (Mundo & O’Neil, 2017). One example may be the pervasive sense of hunger or physical emptiness that may mask an inner sense of an empty, depleted self. It is possible that these feelings of internal and unspoken anguish may find easier expression in more overt displays of suffering such as bulimia, starvation, hyperactivity, or bingeing. A point that is particularly sobering when considering the patterns of alexithymia (the inability to express emotions) in those with eating disorders and their experience of raw emotion as bewildering and unable to be distinguished/categorized with ease (Robinson & Skårderud, 2019).
Our relationships with food are worth exploring. In the context of a therapy relationship one can gain awareness of and recalibrate relational patterns that trigger unhealthy eating patterns. Further, you and your clinician can work on developing healthier relationships with food that may enable you to obtain greater fulfillment and nourishment without the expense of bodily integrity. If you or a loved one struggles with problematic eating patterns please consider consulting with the clinicians at Town Center Psychology. You are not alone!
Asthana, H. S. (2012). Psycho-social correlates of obesity: An empirical study. Social Science International, 28(2), 233-251. https://www-proquest-com.portal.lib.fit.edu/scholarly-journals/psycho-social-correlates-obesity-empirical-study/docview/1095604280/se-2?accountid=27313
Mundo, E. & O’Neil, J. A. (2017). Symptom patterns: The subjective experience – S axis (V. Lingiardi & N. McWilliams, Eds.). Guilford.
Patton, C. J. (1992). Fear of abandonment and binge eating. A subliminal psychodynamic activation investigation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 180(8), 484-490. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1500929
Robinson, P. & Skarderud, F. (2019). Eating disorders. (A. Bateman & P. Fonagy, Eds.). American Psychiatric Association.