Food, weight loss and weight gain occupies the minds of millions of people every day and fuels a multi-billion pound industry. Eating and weight are linked to how we are feeling about our relationships with loved ones or early childhood experiences, and ourselves. We often turn to food as a comforter when our emotional centre is out of balance.
The weight goes up and our confidence and self-esteem goes down. We then blame our unhappiness on the weight and embark on a perpetual cycle of dieting and exercise. We try the latest miracle weight loss programme, join weight management groups and start an exercise regime that we can’t maintain. Because the underlying causes of the unhappiness are not addressed, the temptations to binge eat take hold and the diets and exercise fall by the wayside.
We become trapped in a cycle of comfort eating and unsuccessful weight loss programmes that lead to further emotional turmoil and more eating. None of it is sustainable unless we address the relationship issues or our early childhood experiences.
Occasionally the opposite happens – some people stop eating under stress and during emotional turmoil, and become too thin for their height and build.
Why do our emotions impact on our relationship with food?
As children you were most likely told what to eat and how to eat it. Depending on your family culture, you may have been made to eat everything given to you without questioning or rejecting it. At around the age of two a toddler begins to learn that they are independent and separate from their parents with a will of their own.
Mealtimes for a child can be a time of warmth, love and family togetherness or a battleground for arguments and control. If the child lives in a controlling or strict environment where the adult rules have to be followed, the child learns to either succumb and obey or resist and fight. Controlling what they eat and excrete are the only two areas a toddler is able to exert control over what happens to them. These early experiences are embedded in our sub-conscious and carried with us into adulthood, impacting our health and relationships.
|John & Trudy John and Trudy came to family therapy with their two daughters, Gwen (14) and Rachel (12). Gwen was a fussy eater, picking at her food and obsessing about exercising. Rachel liked everything her sister and parents didn’t eat and always wanted large helpings. Trudy prepared three meals everyday – one for her and John, one for Gwen and one for Rachel. The moment food was on the table tension increased and arguments ensued. The mealtime antics had been going on for 10 years. The parents claimed that they had tried different approaches to change their daughters’ behaviour and eating habits but felt lost as to what to do next. On exploring the family’s background, we revealed a history of scarcity and abuse. John was brought up in a modest, very strict family and violent household. His father was a ‘secret’ alcoholic. Food was scarce which John suspected was due to his father spending the housekeeping money on drink and yet nothing was said in fear of his father’s drunken rages. Trudy went from abundance of wealth in her early childhood to poverty when her father went bankrupt, loosing everything including the family home. She recalled there being no food in the house for days and having to wet an old piece of dried bread to soften it so she could eat it. As a couple John and Trudy related with each other like hurt children, constantly bickering and trying to gain attention, supremacy and control over the other, at times involving their daughters as if the girls were their siblings. They would frequently loose their sense of boundaries and responsibilities as parents and acted like children themselves. Their household was like a school playground when arguments flared, with everyone vying for attention. John and Trudy’s childhood experiences around family, food and security had an unconscious impact on how they related with each other and their daughters. Whilst they were trying to create a stable and secure family environment with an abundance of food, they also used food as a weapon for control and discipline. Food had become a source of threats and treats – if the girls misbehaved their punishment was either withdrawal of their favourite food or they were made to eat something they didn’t like; or they would be rewarded for good behaviour and personal achievements with sweets, cakes or chocolates. John was overweight, Trudy was obese, Gwen was anorexic and Rachel bulimic.|
Mental and emotional turmoil does not go away, no matter how hard you try to hide it, deny it or ignore it. You store it in your body and it leeks out, manifesting itself in a variety of ways, one of which is through food. Although you may have all the skills, knowledge and desire to eat a healthy, balanced diet, the psychological issues stored in your subconscious impact you and manifest in your behaviour towards food, which may have a detrimental affect on your relationships.
Food related issues often mask underlying unhappiness and fears. Being overweight or underweight may give you the perfect excuse to hide your true feelings and possibly a relationship that is not fulfilling at many levels. Focussing on battling with your weight may provide you with a shield of protection that distracts you from facing reality. Often people are afraid to look at the root causes of their battles with food as it may reveal many wounds they may not be ready to deal with. Instead it is easier to perpetuate the issues, avoid giving yourself the time to explore your eating habits and continue focussing on the battle with food.
Whilst you are busy dodging reality by snacking on unhealthy processed foods, eating on the run and watching your weight increase, you maintain the dream or hope that one day you will succeed and loose weight. Maybe you talk to your friends and colleagues about how you are desperately trying to shed those extra kilos/pounds, how you struggle with each diet, and talk about the lists of forbidden foods that you are so tempted to eat and cannot resist. You talk about the dress or suit you were once able to get into and is now hanging in your wardrobe. But the biscuits, chocolates and crisps beckon and you oblige, continuing your cycle of avoidance and sabotage, perpetuating the dream that one day it will change.
Sabotage comes in different guises and operates in a sneaky, stealth like way as a form of defence against our own deep-rooted fears.
- The denial sabotage – you are in denial about your needs and focus on the belief that you will never be able to loose the weight you want. This leads to the constant cycle of going on a diet, giving up part way through and putting the weight back on. It perpetuates your unhappiness and helps you avoid looking at the real underlying causes. So why do you do it? Why do you bother trying if you know you will fail?
- The procrastination sabotage – helps you avoid the reality of your situation and keeps you in your cycle of misery. It’s often backed up by words such as “I know what healthy foods to eat but…” If you know what to eat, what stops you?
- The secret sabotage – rooted in shame and guilt, as well as unhappiness. You eat reasonably well in front of other people but behind the scenes you overindulge in treats and naughty bits. This leads to further shame, guilt and possible depression as the weight piles on. If you feel miserable after a secret binge why continue?
Sabotage destroys your self-confidence leaving you feeling frustrated, discouraged, trapped and at times even depressed. It is easy to challenge you with questions such as – if it makes you unhappy why do you do it? However, the reality of the battles you may be having with food can be tough to end as they camouflage a number of underlying issues that may be perceived as too painful to explore.
Until you deal with the underlying issues, any solutions to your weight problems will remain short term and the battles with food will continue.
If you’ve been affected by what you’ve read and would like help, contact Carla Devereux on 0121 745 9044 to book an appointment.
We will look at how we use drink as a smoke screen to avoid dealing with an unhappy relationship.