People who struggle with compulsive eating or bingeing often ask why they eat when they’re upset. One woman lamented, “Why can’t I just work out or do crossword puzzles when I’m upset? Why is it always doughnuts that I turn to for comfort?”
An excellent question. Why food?
Our first experience of love is being fed as a newborn. If you watch a parent feeding a baby, you usually see a safe, warm connection between them. For babies, being held in loving arms, feeling loved, feeling safe, is bound up with the experience of feeding. For babies, food is love, food is connection, food is comfort and ultimately, food and relationship are felt as one.
Babies grow up to be adults who naturally hope to love and be loved. If that love is not readily available, or isn’t consistent, it can be humiliating. It’s painful to want something you can’t have, or something that is not immediately available.
If you’re lonely, you may not have someone immediately available to keep you company. When you lack a fulfilling relationship, you may eat to symbolically fill the internal emptiness and the loneliness.
Even if someone is there, they may not respond the way you want, or may disappoint you, hurt you, or just not be there for you consistently or in the way you’d wish.
The reality is that people can sometimes be unpredictable, unavailable or unreliable. When relationships become unsafe, it is common to turn to food, which on a deep level represents not just comfort, but the experience of being comforted by another person.
Even if you’re in a relationship, and have a partner, spouse or family, you might find food easier than people. Lots of people have meals with their husbands, wives, partners or families, and then wait for everyone to go to bed so that they can sneak into the kitchen and eat in secret.
This behavior with food is connected to the ideas, thoughts, fears and perceptions about relationships. Recognizing your relationship style, or attachment style, can help you better understand what’s going on with food. And when you understand something, it’s easier to challenge and change your behavior.
There are four basic relationship/attachment styles in adults:
1) Secure attachment: “Relationships feel safe and secure. I know I am loved and lovable.”
2) Anxious-preoccupied attachment: “Stay close, because if I let you go, you’ll leave me” view of connection.
3) Dismissive-avoidant attachment: “I don’t need to be close, I don’t want to be close, so I’ll keep my distance.”
4) Fearful-avoidant attachment, “I desperately want connection, but if I get it, I will lose interest.”
Securely attached people are comfortable with intimacy. They tend to have positive views of themselves and others, and trust that closeness with another person can be a warm, positive, and mutually satisfying experience. They are less likely to develop problems with food.
People who feel safe and secure are not “starving for love” because they trust that connections to other people can be loving, positive, and fulfilling. Because they feel satisfied in this area of their lives, they don’t use food as a substitute for love. In contrast:
Anxious-Preoccupied people find it difficult to trust that those they love or care about will be consistently available. They don’t like separation and are afraid that “out of sight” leads to “out of mind.” They often seek reassurance that their partner is still there for them.
If this sounds familiar, you may be “hungry” for love but turn to food instead, because you may be afraid you’ll never get enough, never be satisfied in your relationships, or that if you allow yourself to connect, you’ll eventually lose that love.
Even if you are in a relationship, you might feel as if you can never get enough of your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or significant other.
You may sometimes worry that you’re “too much” for the other person or worry that they’ll pull away or leave you. If that’s the case, you might live in a state of constant anxiety about your relationship and use food for comfort.
Dismissive-Avoidant people keep their distance and are uncomfortable with closeness. They prize independence, telling themselves and others that they don’t need anyone else to be happy.
Underlying this outward disinterest in relationships is the fear that intimacy will lead to rejection, pain or loss of self. On some level, the belief is that “if you don’t get too close, you won’t get hurt.”
If you turn away from people, you may be left feeling too disconnected or lonely, which leaves you vulnerable to using food to fill the void.
Fearful-avoidant adults are in a bind; they simultaneously wish for closeness, yet fear intimacy. They often yearn for someone who is unavailable, and pursue that person, think about the person all the time. If the object of their affection returns their feelings, they often lose interest, finding distance safer – until the pattern repeats.
Do you find yourself falling for someone who’s already in a relationship with someone else? Someone who lives too far away to see on a regular basis? Or maybe the person you’re with is a workaholic or has hobbies that take up a lot of time so they don’t have time for you.
If this is familiar, you may be comfortable with the idea of love but terrified of what will happen if you allow yourself to truly bond and connect with another person. You might be afraid you’ll lose yourself in a relationship. You might be afraid you’ll be powerless in a relationship.
Bingeing is a symbolic way to fill up on food as a replacement for love, an unconscious substitute for the love and fulfillment that comes from loving and being loved by someone else.
Here are some things to consider:
Are you more comfortable with distance, or closeness?
What are your hopes and fears about intimacy?
Where did you learn to mistrust relationships?
How did your parents and others respond to your needs?
How do you respond to your own needs, wishes, and emotions?
It is important to identify and process the ideas that negatively impact your relationships and leave you hungry for love and connection.
When you can meet your underlying need for love, for attention, for connection, you won’t need food to express those needs and wants, or to distract from them. You will be less likely to fill up on food when you’re in fulfilling relationships with other people.
About the author:
Nina Savelle-Rocklin, Psy.D. is a Los Angeles-based psychoanalyst who specializes in emotional eating. Her personal experience gives her a unique understanding of what it’s like to struggle and she knows that change is possible. She brings insight and hope to men and women who struggle with weight, food & body image issues.
Dr. Nina is a recognized expert on binge eating, interviewed for her expertise by the Los Angeles Times, Prevention, Real Simple, and other publications.
She is passionate about sharing a fresh perspective to the understanding and treatment of disordered eating, educating people about “why” they turn to food instead of focusing on the behavior itself.
Her award-winning blog, Make Peace With Food, has been named a “Best Eating Disorder Blog” by Healthline for three years in a row. Dr. Nina’s podcast, Win The Diet War with Dr. Nina, was named “New & Noteworthy” by iTunes and she recently launched The Dr. Nina Show, a video series on YouTube. She is currently writing a book about how to stop bingeing for good.
For more information, please visit www.winthedietwar.com.