The Food and Feelings Workbook

A Full Course Meal on Emotional Health

by Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed

The Seven Most Difficult Feelings for Disordered Eaters
(More Like Seven Hundred!)

Excerpt from The Food and Feelings Workbook

The seven emotions I've chosen may or may not resonate with you and that's fine. If you've been working on emotional healing for a long time, you may find only one or two feelings truly vexing. However, if you're a novice, don't despair. You'll find a chapter devoted exclusively to each emotion I've chosen, but for now, let me briefly explain my selections.

I chose Guilt because it's so pervasive in our society and even more so in the lives of the people I counsel and teach. Practically every dysfunctional eater I've come across is other-oriented, a caretaker, a do-gooder, has an overly developed sense of responsibility, and rarely (if ever) believes she is doing enough. Every failed relationship is her fault, every situation that needs fixing is her job, every person with a problem becomes her pet project. Many clients live in a constant state of guilt, as if they can never get things right or do as much as they believe they should. They have such incredibly high standards for themselves that they're doomed to fall short. Because they're often people-pleasers and feel naughty and selfish when they do things for themselves, their self-care is only fair to poor. The major way they take care of themselves is—you guessed it—through food.

Shame was a natural choice because disordered eaters live so far outside a state of grace. Most of my clients are convinced that their behavior is sinful and disgusting but, nevertheless, are unable or unwilling to stop. This makes me wonder whether shame isn't part of the unconscious attraction of having an eating problem. Nine out of ten times, these clients often come from shame-based families and the feeling is strongly familiar to them. One of the ways they express this feeling is through food addiction and obsession, and attaining a weight that is grossly below or above the norm. Disordered eating may be a way to maintain the shame they unconsciously think they ought to feel or are used to feeling.

At the rock bottom of all of our emotional suffering is Helplessness, which occurs when there's nothing we can do. It underlies many feelings—frustration, impatience, anger, and anxiety. We can't help but feel its reverberations from infancy and childhood. Although we may not recall lying powerless in the crib, our bodies hold the memories. In the later years of childhood and adulthood, feeling helpless is often associated with fear that something bad will happen, a double whammy—something terrible is going to happen and I can't do a damned thing about it. Many disordered eaters combat their helplessness by taking action, usually in the form of micromanaging their food intake or consuming every morsel in sight.

I chose Anxiety because a significant number of my clients eat to soothe their nerves. Many have a family history of depression or anxiety and may lack the proper balance of neurotransmitters to help them relax. These individuals are anxious about what they did yesterday and about what they're going to do tomorrow. It's hard for them to stay in the moment and shut off shoulda-woulda-coulda judgments. The activities that often soothe them, though only temporarily, revolve around food or involve control over their appetite. Of course, eating and weight may then become additional things about which to be anxious.

Disappointment lends itself so easily to acting out with food that it's surprising that everyone doesn't turn do it when they feel let down. Chronic disappointment can lead people to believe that they don't deserve to have positive expectations and outcomes in life. Wanting causes them to feel needy and so they deny their genuine desires. Because it's too scary to have expectations of themselves or of other people, they turn to something that's predictable and always in good supply—food. When an emotional eater suffers the letdown of disappointment, food picks them up, at least for a while. The restrictive eater often deals with disappointment by actually raising their expectations of themselves by obsessive calorie counting and fixating on thinness as if to say, "Others might disappoint me, but I have high standards. Thin will never disappointment me."

Confusionis often overlooked as a troubling emotion because it's considered one of the "smaller" feelings, not a giant like fear or shame. But it runs rampant in a population of eaters who are out of touch with their physical needs and wants. They're not sure whether they're really hungry or deserve to eat, what they should eat, when they're full, what they ought to look like, and what they should weigh. Most of their confusion is about the concept of enough in numerous areas of their lives. What drives their confusion is the desperate urge to find out what's right so they won't fail or make mistakes. Because it's difficult to tolerate the tension created by vague, mixed or conflicting feelings, they often give up and instead take a stroll down a supermarket aisle or focus on numbers, which are sharp and clear—on a scale or food package.

Loneliness is such a soul killer that I'm not surprised that lonely people seek solace in food. To feel lonely harkens back to childhood fears of being abandoned, rejected, dismissed, ignored, unseen, and unheard. In our untutored young minds, when we weren't reflected in someone's eyes, we felt disconnected, invisible, and annihilated, as if we didn't exist. When disordered eaters feel this depth of loneliness, they're desperate to bond with something, anything—to merely feel alive. For some, eating reminds them of the comfort of being held and fed, connected to someone, and to a time when they were loved and valued. Others quell the emptiness and aloneness with obsessing about things they can control such as their food intake or weight and proving how little they need.