Photo by Alina Karpenko

Food as Comfort

“Wisdom is nothing more than healed pain.” --Robert Gary Lee

Public Submission

- By Gwen Randall-Young

September 30, 2023

Many who struggle with weight are sabotaged by emotional eating. They eat when they are happy, they eat when they are sad, and sometimes they just eat because eating feels good. It can be terribly difficult to break this habit because it is usually quite deep-rooted.

It goes back to childhood when eating "fun" food was associated with birthday parties, holidays, and family get-togethers. In happy families, mealtimes had positive associations; mom and dad were there, and the time may have included humour and affection.

These are not, however, the main things that cause emotional eating to persist. The real culprit is food that was used to comfort an upset child. If you hurt yourself, you got a treat. If someone was mean to you and you were upset, it was into the kitchen for a treat.

Why does this result in adult emotional eating? It is because food was used to distract the child from the pain, and the pain itself was never dealt with. As a result, the child never learned how to think about or process painful events.

Where parents took the time to really explore the child's feelings about what happened, they could help the child reframe the event, learn not to take it personally, and know how to deal with similar events in the future. It is comforting for the child to hear these things, and over time, they learn to think things through this way. They learn to self-comfort.

The adult who never learned this then distracts her/himself with food, and simply buries the pain. Over the years the well of pain becomes deeper and deeper. Every painful experience brings forth the vulnerable child who does not know what to do, so the automatic, often unconscious response is to reach for comfort food.

How does one get past this? It is important to first recognize our pattern, and to re-visit the painful experiences of childhood. This can be difficult, which is why it is often done with a trusted therapist. Sometimes the pain is so blocked or buried that the individual has no idea what is behind the emotional eating. The adult must learn to nurture and support the painful inner child, and then how to process the adult experiences which trigger the old pattern.

Of course, the impetus can be current stresses in life, which may or may not be connected to the past. Anxiety and worry, or feeling unloved, or not understood, may cause one to seek comfort in food. Current stresses may also be triggers for past pain, so inevitably we have to explore the past.

This can be a complex process, but it has taken a lifetime to develop and take hold. Healing the pain of the past is an essential step in moving forward.

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