The other day, I had a vile commute to work.
I should have known better: I’d timed everything down to the minute, and Murphy’s Law was going to intervene to show me!
For those who live in NYC, the capricious nature of subway travel is a phenomenon that we have no choice but to accept.
I swear, the only time it works perfectly and you actually get to your destination early is when you don’t want to be the first to arrive (like for a first date, 😂).
Otherwise, you can expect to be late.
But the other day was just cruel–not unusual–but cruel!
I got on the train at my stop, only to sit at the station for nearly ten minutes. At the next station, the same thing happened. And again. And again.
After about a half an hour, I was only 3 or 4 stops from home, so I made the executive decision to take action. I got off and started walking to the next nearest station, about 5 blocks away.
Grumbling, I began walking. It didn’t help that I was wearing heels…(grrr)!
I was annoyed that I would be delayed arriving at my destination, and as I happened to look up, I noticed a Dominican bakery.
Now, if you’re like me, the idea of sweets is usually more enticing than the actual eating of sweets. It always looks better in my mind than it tastes in reality.
However, the idea is sometimes enough such that I find myself ordering something before I give it a second thought (The mind’s powers of persuasion are undeniable)!
As I looked up and into the store and all the delicious delicacies stared back at me, I said to myself:
“You deserve a pastry; you’ve been majorly inconvenienced and it will make you feel better.”
Before I could act, my better judgment took over and reminded me that what I was feeling in the moment–annoyance, frustration–was not something that a pastry would alleviate!
In fact, a pastry would have only made things worse.
It would have made things worse because the decision to eat it would have been emotional, not rational. It would have been spur-of-the-moment, and not planned out.
I would have regretted it, and if I’d let that mindset fester, it could have potentially poisoned my perspective for the rest of the day, making it harder for me to make good choices and easier to justify the ones that don’t align with my values.
Food is a tool many of us use to not feel emotion, but what I realized in this moment of clarity outside the bakery is that our emotions tell us something very important about food:
When we are feeling them, food is never the answer!
Take that in for a second. When we are feeling emotions–I’m talking’ any visceral, emotional response, good or bad!–food is never the answer.
Yes, food is wonderful and delicious and nurturing and good. But when it’s the first thing that comes to mind when experiencing a strong emotional response to something, we must know that we have some work to do.
IMO, we eat for all kinds of emotional reasons, and many of them would be considered good. In fact, there’s a strong, cultural expectation to eat to celebrate…
But there’s a difference between celebrating with food and using food to celebrate.
The way we internalize these two situations is different because in the former, food is an accessory to the experience. In the latter, it’s the primary focus.
Think about how common it is to use food as a reward. When I used to get cravings, I would tell myself that I could have the item I was craving…as long as I worked out to “earn” it.
There’s no end to the creative ways out brains work to justify indulgences, and there’s actually a name for it:
The Licensing Effect (which I read about in this book)
The virtuous feeling that we get after a sweat session or after having achieved something is all our brains need to give us the “license” to debauch!
So whether the emotional trigger to eat is positive or negative, to respond with food typically acts against our best self interests because it reinforces that any time is a good time to eat–whether we’re hungry or not.
Hunger is not an emotion; it’s a physical sensation. It’s something that we experience first in our stomachs, and then in our minds…
Whereas on the other hand, emotional triggers to eat are typically experienced in our minds only–there’s no physical component.
This doesn’t, however, make emotional triggers any less real. I know how strong these sensations come on, and therefore how hard they are to overcome in a charged and vulnerable moment.
It’s taken me a lot of practice–and more than a few failures!–to get the point where I can call out and label my emotions for what they are, thereby distinguishing them from real hunger.
This is a process, so my first piece of advice is to be patient.
Show yourself some compassion. Show yourself some grace.
If you find that hard to do, I encourage you to reach out to someone who can hold space for you to be vulnerable.
Trust me: there is someone else out there who understands how a giant piece of German chocolate cake can, in an emotionally-charged moment, feel like the only thing in the world that will make it better…
How do I know this? Because I understand.
Having someone to talk to that you trust and who understands helps shine light on that which seems so isolating and therefore so impossible to overcome.
Connecting on these issues around which there is much shame can only help.
When we’re in it together, we can–and will!–succeed!
My next piece of advice is to get good at identifying your emotions.
Those of us who struggle with emotional eating all have specific trigger emotions. Some people may be triggered by negative emotions, while others may be triggered by positive ones.
Some–like yours truly–may even be triggered by a combination of both.
For example, mine are frustration, relief, elation, envy, vulnerability, and insecurity.
To define these feelings is a crucial step towards removing their power.
We fear what we don’t know. What we don’t know, we can’t possibly understand, and what we don’t understand, we have a natural inclination to ignore…
Not a good strategy if we want to overcome emotional eating!
This is uncomfortable at first! Taking time to sit and go back in our minds to the times that we mindlessly ate in order to decipher what was going on in our heads? Sounds like torture, but is easier in practice.
It may feel counter-intuitive at first–“Why do I want to relive that horrible experience?!” we may ask ourselves. But the more we play detective, the more patterns we notice.
In my experience,
the more patterns I noticed, the more I could see the link between the onset of a particular emotion and the desire to eat.
And the more that was revealed, the more I realized that, once defined, my feelings about those emotions is less scary and more…neutral.
Like food is neither good nor bad, emotions are neither good nor bad: they are simply clues.
But like any clue, they are useless until they’re found and pieced together to reveal a larger picture…
and that’s what 1) being patient; 2) seeking out someone who understands what you’re going through; and 3) identifying your emotions will help you to do!
I would love to know what you thought about this post! Please leave me a comment, or shoot my an email.
And if you feel the need to share your struggle, come find me over at my *FREE* Facebook community, The Health-usiastic Life with Hilary!
We have an awesome group of women who are conquering their fears, sharing their vulnerable sides, and getting and giving tons of support to one another!
It’s a great, positive space to talk about all things nutrition, mindset, fitness, and the deeper stuff, too!