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Is Your Eating an Act of Rebellion?

Shirley, a 37-year-old wife and mother, looks forward to her nightly binges.They are the only time she feels totally free and in control of her life. She resents the fact that her husband doesn’t earn more money and that she has to work full-time while raising their three-year old. She’d like to have another child before time runs out, but can’t see how they could ever afford it. She also feels very resentful that her parents didn’t encourage her to finish college. She feels stuck working long hours at a low-paying secretarial job. Shirley knows that it’s her responsibility to change the circumstances of her life, but she can’t seem to get past her resentments. Without realizing it, staying focused on her resentments keeps her from having to make uncomfortable forward movement. It’s much easier to blame her husband or her parents and distract herself with nightly binges, than to face her fears and feelings of inadequacy and push forward, taking night or weekend classes, finishing college and improving her skills.

Cathy, a single, 50-year-old mother of two teenage children finds herself constantly grabbing processed foods loaded with sugar, fat and salt, sabotaging her best intentions to eat healthfully. She shares with me an incident where a co-worker makes a request of her that she resents. The co-worker has no authority to make such requests, but Cathy finds it difficult to assert herself and clarify to her peer that the request is inappropriate. So she accommodates her co-worker, and then, in anger, goes to the break room and eats two pastries. She knows that she’s only punishing herself, but instead of working on her assertiveness skills, she focuses on ways she can “get back” at this co-worker.  Regularly accommodating this co-worker’s inappropriate demands sends the wrong message.  And eating rebelliously and planning revenge keeps Cathy stuck in a “child-like” role. As uncomfortable as it may seem, Cathy is quite used to stuffing down her feelings, resenting others, and eating over these types of situations.  She even feels a bit of power in the victim role.

Do you find that you sometimes grab food (and eat even though you’re not hungry) because you’re angry at someone or about something?  Or maybe because you’re resenting some situation and feeling powerless to change it? You’re mad or frustrated at these times and you certainly need something. In the moment, the food tastes good, calms you down and seems to take the pain away. But not really, and not for long. Usually, this kind of “eating to rebel” pattern starts early in life. You most likely had to deal with situations in your childhood where your needs weren’t considered or you felt misunderstood. You developed a pattern of stuffing down your feelings and disconnecting from them or acting them out in anger and defiance in the hope of being heard. These were your survival strategies–they were the only ways you knew to cope with the unfairness you experienced and the lack of rights. But now as an adult, these patterns are no longer serving you.

Your rebellious eating or angry acting out (which includes acting passive-aggressive) represents an attempt to get back at someone or something and to feel in control of your life. But it truth, it actually ends up making you feel more vulnerable and less in control because overeating or acting child-like doesn’t empower you or help you build adult self-care skills. It ultimately leads to shame and self-contempt and you risk pushing others away.

If you think you’re eating does represent an act of rebellion, stop for a moment and reflect: Who or what are you rebelling against?  Who or what do you resent?  What do you feel powerless to change?  Are there significant relationships in your life, at home or work, where you can’t get your needs met?  Are there situations where you feel stuck or out of control?  Is your rebellion related to events that happened long ago?  Take some time to write the answers to these questions in your journal.

The antidote to rebellious eating is self-empowerment. Self-empowerment begins with self-compassion. There were good reasons why you didn’t get that college degree, why you stayed in an unsatisfying marriage, or why you accepted poor treatment from family members.  Most likely, you were missing the skills you needed to make changes and take better care of yourself. Empowering yourself also means accepting where you are at in your life today. While you can’t change the past, you can change your attitude about it by making sense of what happened and how it led to where you are at today. Often, the first place to start is allowing yourself to grieve the losses and disappointments you have experienced.

For Shirley, self-empowerment might begin with grieving, the healing self-care skill. Before she is ready to push out and change the circumstances of her life, she may need to allow herself the time to mourn her  losses,  disappointments and missed opportunities. This will help her stop the blame game and feel ready to take charge of her life. As she moves through the grieving process, she may come to a level of forgiveness of herself and others. Forgiveness will lighten her load.

For Cathy, self-empowerment might begin with taking a class on assertiveness training. As she practices asserting herself , she will begin to experience  new and different emotions (like anxiety or guilt) that may surface when she takes better care of herself. This will be a new type of discomfort. If she’s willing to tolerate it and view it as growth, she will be on the road to developing skills that will help her take care of herself for life.

What steps do you need to take to begin to address your rebellious eating?  Are there resentments, hurts, losses or disappointments from the past that you’ve disconnected from and have never truly mourned?  Try writing about these in your journal, replaying events and allowing yourself to feel your “old pain.”  You’ll find that you feel lighter when you have a good cry or rant and that you are less likely to overeat and more inclined to make forward progress.  Maybe the time is right to process through your “old pain” in a non-blaming way with significant others.  Or perhaps it’s time to seek the assistance of a trained professional psychotherapist.

Perhaps you need to practice asserting yourself more often, and if so, can you tolerate the new, uncomfortable emotions that may surface?  Try recycling self-affirming thoughts like “I can tolerate the anxiety I feel when I assert myself.”  “I’m proud of myself for standing up for me.”  “It will get easier with practice.”

The simple act of writing down your resentments and who or what you’re rebelling against is a wonderful first step.  What are you weighting for?

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 https://overeatingrecovery.com.

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