Are You Eating Over Unmet Expectations?

Jackie baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies after spending Saturday afternoon with her close friend Carol. The time spent with Carol did not feel nourishing.  The two dishes of ice cream and the plate of hot, freshly baked cookies did. Just baking the cookies felt more nurturing than spending time with Carol. Jackie was well aware that an afternoon with Carol meant listening to Carol’s long-winded stories about her job and ex-husband and poor listening of anything Jackie might share. But because Jackie has few friends, she feels that time with Carol provides at least some connection in a long, lonely weekend and that  something is better than nothing. Every time she gets together with Carol, she hopes that their time together will be fulfilling, but it rarely is.

After a very large dinner with her husband, Marissa retreats to the den to watch her nightly television programs.  Her husband Ted heads off to bed since he starts work much earlier than Marissa.  An hour after dinner, Marissa is foraging for food–looking for something sweet.  Generally, ice cream, cake, or a bowl or of her favorite cereal does the trick.  She knows she isn’t hungry. She wishes Ted didn’t have to go to bed so early; she finds her evenings somewhat boring and empty. Even though she consumes a lot of food each night, she  still feels unsatisfied. She hopes one day that Ted will have more time to spend with her in the evenings.

Sarah has been unduly annoyed with her husband lately. For the past few years, she has tried to get him to agree to remodel a bathroom riddled with mold and peeling paint. Every summer, he says he’ll look into it, and every fall, it remains the same.  After twenty years of marriage, she has to fight with him to get anything done. He rarely remembers to take the trash out. Most days, Sarah takes it out because she can’t stand smelling it or watching it pile up. While she’s given up on the trash, she hopes that her husband will finally agree to the remodel.  She feels powerless to effect change in her marriage. Frustrated, she grabs food all day at work, even when she isn’t hungry, and she overeats at dinner. Even though she feels very disconnected from her husband and unsatisfied in the marriage, Sarah hopes something will change.

Heather still lives at home with her parents at age thirty-nine. The income she earns on her job isn’t enough for her to afford her own apartment. Her mother tends to be critical and judgmental and Heather regularly feels depressed about their relationship. She tries to talk to her mother about their relationship, but to no avail.  Her mother is not interested in working through their issues and routinely blames Heather for their problems. Every evening, Heather takes seconds at the dinner table. When she finally heads off to her room, she hopes not to eat any more. Most nights however, she heads back to the kitchen many times for snacks.  Heather feels she can’t get on with her life or reign in her out-of-control eating until she gets more emotional support from her parents. She hopes that at some point in time she will get through to her mother and finally get the validation she deserves and needs.

Jackie, Marissa, Sarah and Heather are emotional eaters.  They use food for comfort, soothing, pleasure, distraction and excitement.  All four ladies feel powerless over the circumstances of their lives and they are hoping that friends or significant others in their life will change.  Their lives are on hold and they are chronically frustrated and unsatisfied. 

Perhaps you can relate to these women.  Does it feel like your life is on hold? Are you waiting for someone else to change for your life to improve?  In situations like these, generally your expectations of others are too high and your expectations of yourself are too low. Whichever way you look at it, your expectations are unrealistic.

It’s easy to see why we fall into these patterns.  If we hold on to our high expectations of others, we don’t have to take responsibility for our own happiness and we don’t have to make any uncomfortable changes.  We can blame our friends, significant others and parents for our misery. We don’t have to work on the difficult task of accepting others or ourselves. That’s the upside. The downside is that our lives remain stagnant and unfulfilled. We feel victimized by our circumstances and paralyzed by our perceived inadequacies.

We humans are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Holding on to our magical thinking that circumstances or other people will change is more pleasurable than looking at the hard cold reality of our lives and the people we’re closest to.  Yet, the truth is, magical thinking isn’t really about pleasure; it’s about avoidance. And the consequences of a life filled with avoidance aren’t very pleasurable.

Most of us rarely check in and explore what we expect from our selves or others. It’s generally when we feel a sense of disappointment, anger, frustration, hurt, resentment or sadness that our unstated or unconscious expectations come to the foreground. This is the time to get clear on our expectations and adjust them if necessary.

If you want to put an end to the emotional eating that’s driven by unrealistic expectations, you’ll need to set aside some time and get clear on your expectations. You’ll need to make them conscious. I suggest you write them down and ask yourself if they are realistic. Of course, realistic is a subjective and relative term.  Expectations can be reasonable, but in actuality, not realistic. Look at the results of your expectations to determine if they are realistic. Your best guide, over time, as to how realistic they are, will be how emotionally balanced you feel.  If an expectation is met without much struggle or strain, it’s probably realistic. If however, an expectation is rarely met or only met with lots of effort or heartache, it is probably not realistic.

The following steps can be useful in helping you adjust your expectations:

Step #1: Start with any situation where you feel disappointed, hurt, angry, frustrated, resentful or sad and try to identify your unstated expectations, about others and/or  yourself.  In the case examples above, Jackie might write down that she expects her friend Carol to take more of an interest in her without having to ask her to do so. Marissa might write that she expects Ted to know how important it is to her that he stay up late and share some quality time with her, without having to tell him. Sarah might write that she also expects her husband to know how important particular issues are to her and to want to please her by taking the trash out and taking care of the bathroom remodel without having to remind him. And Heather might write that she expects her mother to truly see her for the caring daughter she is and to be willing to work through their problems.

Step #2: Ask yourself how realistic, not reasonable, your expectation is. It is certainly reasonable for Jackie to want good listening from her friend Carol.  It is not realistic to expect that Carol knows what Jackie needs. Carol may assume that Jackie is quiet, doesn’t have much to share and prefers to listen rather than talk.

It is certainly reasonable for Marissa to want her husband Ted to stay up late with her once in awhile.  It is not realistic for her to expect him to read her mind or know how often she needs this.

It is definitely reasonable for Sarah to expect that her husband will take care of his responsibilities around the house. It is also reasonable to expect that a husband would want to please his wife. It is not realistic to expect that doing his chores for him will get him to do them himself. And it may not be realistic to expect that he will spearhead a remodeling project that he has little interest in.

It is definitely reasonable for Heather to want to improve communication with her mother and have her mother see her in a favorable light.  It is not realistic for Heather to try to process emotional issues with a woman who has little access to her emotions and who finds such an intimate process exhausting and overly invasive.

Step#3:  Ask yourself what change you need to make in order to adjust your expectations and get your needs met. Jackie needs to assert herself with Carol, articulate her needs and ask for them to be met.  She also must consider the possibility that Carol may not be able, or willing, to change.  Jackie might consider lessening the time they spend talking and catching up and instead, suggest something she finds more nourishing  such as a movie or visit to a museum. This might curb the desire to emotionally eat when she gets home.

Marissa needs to communicate with Ted regarding her need for intimacy and companionship in the evening. If she is able to do this in a non-blaming, non-shaming way, she may be able to negotiate some special time with Ted one or two nights per week.  Marissa will also need to explore the emptiness she feels at the end of the day. This is most likely not just about intimacy with Ted; it may reflect a lack of a nourishing connection with herself and perhaps a passive approach to pursuing creative hobbies.

Sarah must stop doing her husbands chores and start setting consequences for his failing to do them. For example, she could refuse to do his laundry if he fails to take out the trash. With regard to the bathroom remodel, she may need to inform her husband that she will take charge of it by a certain date if he fails to do so. Sarah may want to bring up the idea of couples counseling with her husband to see if they can improve communication.

And finally, Heather must stop, for now, trying to get understanding and validation from her mother. Her need and yearning for this is keeping her from separating and growing up. The constant fighting with her mother is keeping her depressed.  She may want to consider psychotherapy to help her emotionally, and perhaps physically separate from her parents.  She will be able to get some of her needs met by a caring and empathic trained professional who can help her work through and resolve her childhood pain and move forward with her life.

Step #4: Commit to an action plan. It’s time to set your intentions and take action.  It’s best to choose an action that you will have some success with–nothing grandiose, just something do-able. Pick something you can easily say yes to doing. Jackie might suggest a day at the museum with Carol.  Marissa might share with Ted her desire for a week-night date.  Sarah might stop doing her husband’s laundry for one week.  And Heather might look for an affordable therapist in her area.

Now it’s your turn: which unrealistic expectations are fueling your emotional eating?

Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://overeatingrecovery.com.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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