Blame. Binge. Shame. Repeat. Part 2: The inner child
This is part of an ongoing series about what you need to know to overcome comfort eating. If you are not sure whether your overeating is comfort or ‘emotional’ eating, you may wish to read my introductory article Are you a comfort eater?
In part one of this four-part series about managing overeating, I talked about what the habit of overeating is, the real reasons why you might want to stop, and the self-critic behind binge eating. If you haven't read the first instalment, take a look at Blame. Binge. Shame. Repeat - part 1.
Part 2 – Understanding and nurturing the inner child
In this part of the series, we will travel deeper into understanding more about what’s behind your overeating.
The inner child
Emotional eating, comfort eating, or stress eating comes from somewhere, and it usually deserves human compassion. So, you need to understand the response you have to your inner critic, or the part of you that needs comfort.
For the sake of having a label for this part, I’m calling it the inner child. But you may have your own idea of which part of you this is. It’s the irrational, instinctive, unconscious, or reactive response. This might come after the voice of the critic, or appear in any stressful situation as a reaction.
It's so important to get to know this part because it is actually the child (or this part of you) that's running the show with comfort eating. Because the child is saying, "I want this, I want this, I want this."
Can you hear some version of that voice inside you? It's just a really instinctive experience.
The child is our emotional side. It's our inner child, and it really needs taking care of, no matter what age we are. It needs listening to, understanding, and tons of compassion. Because it’s not junk food that it really needs. It needs something more sophisticated, that you could possibly provide.
So, see if you can locate that childish voice inside you. Now that you know how you're giving yourself a hard time, notice what your natural response is. Notice all the times when your child feels bad-tempered, throws a tantrum, gets upset, sad about something, or frightened. Notice the times when this part of you turns to the fridge because of these emotions. See if you can spot them.
The main language of the inner child is feeling and emotion. This is something that comfort eaters aren’t generally much in touch with but is a normal part of human experience and existence.
With overeating, you learn to dissociate from feeling. Eating junk food gives uncomfortable feelings a quick fix. Of course, it wears off. But, accumulatively, this means that people who overeat much of the time, are quite disengaged from feeling and being able to express feelings. This means you also might not be able to recognise your needs, never mind meet them. You might feel a general dissatisfaction, but not know what it’s for.
So, being able to widen your feeling vocabulary, is a place to start. You might be surprised by how many emotional words there are. See if you can jot down any emotion words that come to mind. Any words for feelings, like ‘happy’, or ‘sad’. Then see how many you've got by the end of about a minute. For an extensive list of feelings, check out this feelings inventory.
Now picture an iceberg. This is a classic representation of the unconscious. Often what you see on the surface is much smaller than the size of the iceberg, underneath the water. This is like our brains. A huge part of our experience is unconscious. Our feelings are often very much in our unconscious. Particularly if we stuff food on top of them.
Being able to name our feelings – just being able to name what's in the unconscious, what's going on for us – can actually help to liberate that feeling and to feel a bit better.
Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to go deeper to find out how we're feeling and what we need.
For instance, what if what your inner child really needed was a hug and someone to listen to how upset she felt when your boss said that your work needed to be faster? Or what if you just needed to work out that your friends were actually really stressed out, tired and worried about things in their own lives when you wondered if they were bored with your story?
You miss out on your own inner wisdom and joy when you stuff your feelings down or dissociate.
What you need to start to learn is, instead of seeing your body as something to be ashamed of, see your body as home. Gradually you need to learn that discomfort, or difficult feelings, are safe to feel and part of being human. Knowing what your feelings are is essential for meeting your needs.
Often, what happens when you start exploring the reasons for overeating, you find that the way you now treat yourself is a direct continuation of how you learned to treat yourself early on. It’s also an interpretation of how you were treated as a child.
So, the self-critic you now have in your own head is a learned response to, and a reflection of, the criticism you perceived from a previous time in your life. In a nutshell, you internalised what you thought others thought of you. This comes to the surface again when you feel people are thinking badly of you in the present.
So, how were you spoken to as a child or teenager? What was the general attitude of your primary caregivers towards you and each other? What kind of phrases or sayings did they repeat? What did they do when something went wrong?
All of this needs gentle unpacking with compassion and understanding, in order to relearn how to be kinder to yourself and to uncover your natural resources and ways to feel better. None of this is about ‘blaming your parents’. All of us can only do our best with the tools that we are given.
Binge-eating disorder is known to often stem from a traumatic history. So, binge-eating disorder treatment may not be complete without healing from trauma. Here is where shame in the body may have begun. So, extra care and professional support is often needed, in order to overcome binge eating.
Summary and homework
- Notice your inner child. What reactions are you having?
- Start to learn names for feelings. Notice and name yours.
- Begin to be curious about how your inner critic might echo your past.
In part three of this series, I’ll talk about what you can do with this information, to guide you towards choosing to treat yourself better.
Find a therapist dealing with eating disorders
All therapists are verified professionals.