Start with your relationship with the problem itself

When people want to resolve their “food issues” it’s usually only one part of themselves that wants to stop overeating (or: eating sweets, junk food or anything deemed “forbidden”). If we take into consideration solely that part of the self, the likelihood of creating stable change diminishes.

Usually, the part that wants to solve the “problem” is the one that perpetuates the problem itself. The more it wants the “wrong kind” of eating to stop, the more restrictive it becomes, the more guilt trips it creates – the more inner tension is created. That tension is often resolved with eating and we’re stuck in a vicious circle.

The real problem is that more often than not, the person is not aware of what kind of needs are being realised by eating. Saying it’s “emotional eating” or “stress related” is usually an oversimplification that doesn’t get deep enough. It’s also easy to use such “diagnoses” to build up shame — “emotional eating” being seen as a weakness to beat and not an unmet need that calls for attention.

The wider social and cultural context is an important factor to consider. Popular culture currently promotes fitness and healthy eating which in itself can be a good thing, however it usually lacks understanding why some people struggle in these areas.

Body shaming, unrealistic body images, obsession with diets and workouts – all this creates an atmosphere of repression and criticism. It’s everywhere we look, hard to escape and stand up against and such attitudes become part of the inner dialogue. When the society tells us to adhere to a certain model and a strong voice inside our heads repeats that it’s not an easy fight.

Thus, an attitude of kindness and openness to every aspect of our psyche is crucial if we really want to understand what is happening. Let’s ask then, what does “the one that eats too much or the wrong food” want?

There are as many answers as there are people. We probably could roughly name some categories such as “freedom”, “self-love” or “deep connection”, but it is the experience of the individual that carries the answer for that individual.

Trying to figure it out intellectually rarely leads to real understanding. That’s why in process work approach we try to bring awareness to the process of “forbidden eating” instead of controlling it. It usually turns out that there is a specific moment of the “eating procedure” (such as the preparation, the first bite or the context in which it happens) that brings a desired psychological state. This is what the part that eats is after. This is what the person really needs.

Let me illustrate this with some examples.

Stop for a while

Andrew was a hard working man, who would spend most of his days doing physical work and running his construction company. When back home from work he would do one of the three things: do some work around the house (“there’s always something to do”), eat or sleep.

The problem was that he ate too much even taking into account the amount of physical labour. He couldn’t understand why he was overeating and couldn’t stop it. I have asked him to observe the “procedure” the next time he prepares his food and try to find out which part of it is the most gratifying. What is so special about eating?

It turned out that the moment the food is on the plate Andrew allows himself to stop for the first (and usually the only) time in the day. Only when he discovered that did he realise how much he is controlled by the inner pressure to always do, always work, always be useful. What he needed was not the food itself, but the freedom from that pressure.

Since it was always temporary, the problem was never fully solved, because the need to relax, slow down and not be under pressure was much bigger than what sitting for half an hour eating could have provided. That realisation helped him to change his habits, make more breaks and relax at home. Huge plates of food were not needed anymore.

Be gentle with yourself

Anna could not stop eating cakes. It was a problem because eating sugar was damaging in the course of an illness she was suffering from. Her self-esteem also suffered, because she felt weak and lacking self-control. There were rational reasons why she should stop eating cakes, so she asked me how to develop her will-power. I had invited her to do a small investigation into the nature of the cake-eating process.

The usual scenario was that on the way back from work she would stop at her favourite confectionery and spend at least 10 minutes just looking at what was available. She realised that the process of browsing and deciding what she would have this time was the most exciting. Why? Because it felt as if she was doing something only for herself and could choose something pleasurable. Of course only up to the moment when the inner critic kicked in with a horrendous guilt trip. Despite that, the following day she would come back and give herself some more “sweetness”. Seems like it was worth it.

As a single mother with quite harsh inner criticism, she was in dire need for goodness and sweetness. Next step was to find new ways of being good and kind to herself and reducing the impact of whatever was restricting that. It was not an immediate solution. Working with “how to be better to yourself” took some time and was related to a number of topics in her life. But this approach helped her identify and realise her true needs by treating the “problem” as an important information and not something that needs to be eradicated.

Feel yourself deeper

John, a man in his thirties, would say that it feels like there are two versions of himself. The “morning” John is highly motivated to eat healthily and exercise. He feels powerful and in control. The “evening” John comes back from work and the only thing he wants is to have a beer and “stuff” himself with food. The evening one is quite clever in his ways of getting what he wants, usually by somehow turning off the awareness in the decisive moment. He doesn’t want to listen to the morning one, who in turn induces great amounts of guilt.

John asked me to help him get rid of the evening guy and make the morning one more powerful… I suggested that we looked at the process of “stuffing himself” instead to find out what drives that part of John’s psyche. To do that, we had to put the criticism of eating too much aside.

This client’s first feeling associated with the “stuffing” was of doing something very intimate, personal, almost sacred. We explored this further, letting John experience that state in a conscious way. That led him to a moment of deep connection with himself and feeling “full”.

John then realised that the amount of work, financial strain, and family responsibilities made him forget about his deeper, spiritual needs. He needed to feel “full”, to “fulfil” himself. And to get out of the cycle of eating and feeling guilty, it required more awareness and finding a “fuller” way of being in close connection with his own self.

Overeating is often a symptom of a deep need not being met

As we can see, finding the meaning of overeating is usually only a beginning of a journey towards a resolution. As much as it requires time, energy and effort, it is a way for finding long-term solutions. It also helps to ease overall tension and reduce internal conflict by treating all inner parts as equally important.

What usually happens, is that the part that wants to fight the one indulging in eating becomes oppressive and abusive. Its intentions may sound really good (be healthy, be fit), but using force and restrictions evokes resistance. In this case, strengthening self-control creates even more tension. Being inclusive towards the part that eats too much doesn’t mean eating junk food or sweets with no limits nor regrets. It means finding the hidden message and putting that knowledge to good use.