I once heard the anecdote that if you eat something and eating more of it makes you even more hungry, it is probably mouth hunger. In eating disorder recovery, the terms “mouth” vs “stomach” hunger are often used, mouth hunger referring to hunger that is more about emotions and stomach hunger referring to hunger that is more about physical hunger. I remember in my eating disorder 16 years ago, I would eat an entire pint of ice-cream and be even more hungry afterward. In clinical research and practice, emotional eating is often defined as eating is response to negative affect (depression, anger, anxiety) and gets correlated with binge eating. For those of us recovered, recovering, or wanting to recover from disordered eating, we know all to well what emotional eating is. Or do we? Emotional eating is not necessarily a pathological symptom to “get rid of,” nor is it limited to those struggling with eating disorder recovery. I tell my recovering clients if eating were devoid of emotional connections, then people would eat food pellets at every meal. Almost all eating has an emotional component to it. Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian, Family Therapist, and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding writes:
“Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good…It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.” 1
What is the difference between normal eating, emotional eating, and disordered eating?
That is the 10 million dollar question! I remember early in my eating disorder recovery, I needed to have some guidelines around meals in order to know what “normal” eating was- I had been so dis-connected from normal eating and it had been so long since I had felt able to trust myself. A “meal” in my eating disorder could be ice-cream with a bag of cookies or a bowl of broth. Neither of those took into account my stomach hunger, my body, or frankly, my emotions. I was either bingeing or starving not only my body but my emotions. It was like I was letting the fearful, angry toddler inside of me prepare all of my meals. In my recovery, I needed to have some guidelines around eating that helped me include my physical and emotional needs. These included guidelines such as: eating every 4-5 hours, eating a variety (at least 3 food groups) of foods at each meal, not eating the same thing every day (variety), and allowing dessert. It also helped me to establish some food recovery “bottom lines” that included: no bingeing, no restricting (skipping meals, avoiding food groups), no isolating while eating, and no purging.
Being a mom of a toddler myself now, I can see firsthand how toddler food preferences don’t necessarily veer toward vegetables and prefer sweet tastes such as cookies or ice-cream. There is a reason for this! As one Nurse Health-educator points out, “newborns are born with innate taste preference for sweet, rich, and fatty flavors and naturally reject sour or bitter flavors. This is mother nature’s way of ensuring that a newborn will accept the sweet and rich flavor of breast milk.” 2 So how does a parent deal with a toddler wanting to eat only cookies? Interestingly, guidelines to eating disorder recovery are similar to those presented to parents feeding picky childhood eaters: eat together, serve three foods, don’t force cleaning one’s plate or eating vegetables in order to get dessert, allow choice while pairing trying new foods with familiar foods. 2
But what about the emotions that I’ve been starving or bingeing?
That is where the good news and the bad news is it’s not about food. That is where no food can attend to the anger, sadness or fear that is crying for your attention. As Geneen Roth’s sign on her refrigerator states “It’s not in there.” That is where moving toward rather than away from those feelings, with tenderness rather than avoidance or aggression, is the only way out. That is where I call in the principle of what in yoga is called “ahimsa,” or non-violence toward the self. In medicine and therapy, it is referred to the principle of do no harm. It is what being a good parent, one that is emotionally aware, does with grace. Geneen Roth, asks the following questions:
“Can you imagine how your life would have been different if each time you were feeling sad or angry as a kid, an adult said to you, ‘Come here, sweetheart, tell me all about it?’ If when you were overcome with grief at your best friend’s rejection, someone said to you, ‘Oh, darling, tell me more. Tell me where you feel those feelings. Tell me how your belly feels, your chest. I want to know every little thing. I’m here to listen to you, hold you, be with you.’ All any feeling wants is to be welcomed with tenderness. It wants room to unfold. It wants to relax and tell its story. It wants to dissolve like a thousand writhing snakes that with a flick of kindness become harmless strands of rope.” 3
As you are considering emotional eating or disordered eating, I invite you to go deeper with these questions. What would it be like to bring even a tiny bit of kindness and some fiercely advocating compassion to yourself? Even for a moment? Even one moment of kindness can make a timeless amount of difference…Before my very last binge 16 years ago, I stopped before I went into the corner store to buy ice-cream. I thought of all the women struggling with the same feelings of sadness, overwhelm, and fear that I was struggling with in that very moment. I had the visceral experience of compassion. I held my own hand and I said “Honey, it’s not in there.” The tears started flowing, and I finally turned a corner.
To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart. –Phyllis Theroux
Yesterday, after sitting in beginning circle time with my preschooler, I attempted to say goodbye to my little love and go to work. I had a training scheduled, and, as I was the trainer, I had to be there. The first time I tried to leave, my son said in his little newly articulate voice, “I’m not ready, Mama.” The second time I tried to say goodbye, he clung to me saying “I don’t want you to leave,” while starting to cry. I tried to engage him in the play dough with his new friends, remind him of his safe attachment figures right nearby that could rock him (teacher, Grandmother helper) and hand him over. He continued to cry and cling. I had to go to work, so I handed over my crying child to the Grandmother helper while seeing him wail and reach for me. This pretty much ripped out my heart, which I left there as I went to go give a training at work, all the while teacher assuring me that she would call if the crying lasted more than 10 minutes. No call was received and so I was able to compartmentalize and show up for the training. Three hours later I returned. My boy was happily playing in the yard and I received this letter in my school mailbox, which his teacher had taken dictation from him to write:
(He dictated the words and how many kisses to put at the bottom. He also put the tape on 😉 and attached the picture)
Heather Shumaker in her new book, It’s Ok Not To Share and Other Renegade Rules, writes about the power of the letter and “taking dictation from your tot:”
“Letter writing with young children is a powerful tool for harnessing intense feelings. It’s a tried and true method that captures their exact feelings and helps kids move on…Letters sum up and validate the emotional moment. The very act of dictation helps kids get out their mad-lonely-scared feelings. Letters also make feelings tangible, your child can learn to touch and hold the paper, knowing his feelings are summed up right there.”
I remember starting preschool myself. I kicked the teacher in the face. As you can imagine, this was not received well. I was angry, and, under that, hurt, scared, and afraid of my Mom leaving, but did not yet have the ability to, as all adults are encouraging of toddlers and preschoolers “use my words.” Since I was in Piaget’s Preoperational stage, I most certainly did not have the capacity to see another’s perspective (for example: Mom has to go but it is not your fault; the teacher is not thrilled about having her face kicked, so her ability to be compassionate with you at the moment is challenged, you are feeling angry right now, but you will probably feel happy in a couple of minutes).
(For a summary of Piaget’s Preoperational developmental stage, click here:
I am grateful, as a parent, that the play-based emotional-awareness preschool my son is in encourages (appropriate, non face-kicking) expression of feelings. I don’t hold the illusion that my son will not suffer and that I will not fail him as a parent in some ways. However, if I can help him learn that all feelings are ok and Mama comes back (therefore on some fundamental level the world is safe), I hope that I am providing him with a “good enough” base.
I am hoping, when he approaches adulthood, he won’t need drug, alcohol, or eating disorder treatment to learn how to identifying and tolerate feelings without medicating them. That is the work I do as a therapist. It is also the work I did in MY early recovery from an eating disorder. It is repairing that early child place that my son still inhabits- when he runs in and out of the ocean waves and yells “I happy Mama!;” when he looks at a solitary dinosaur in his book and says “He’s lonely;” when he throws his blocks on the floor and says “Stop it bocks!” (We’re still working on the “I’m angry” one). But you know, if he does need treatment later, he does. I don’t get to control his future. I get to be present now. And today, just for today, I am taking off work so I can be with him at preschool. So I can build the experience of just for today Mama doesn’t leave. Then we’re going to make a transition object for him to bring to school to remember this: All feelings are ok, you can write about them in a letter, it will be seen and validated, and when Mama leaves, she always comes back.
If your child is having separation anxiety with school, Dr Laura Markham has just written a great blog on ideas to help: http://www.ahaparenting.com/Ages-stages/school-age/Help-kids-adjust-school