“Don’t forget you’re human. It’s okay to have a meltdown, just don’t unpack and live there.” ~Unknown
For the longest time, I wanted to lose weight. I wasn’t terribly overweight but it seemed to me that if I could just have the perfect body, life would be amazing.
So, I threw everything but the kitchen sink at my food and exercise habits.
Never one to settle for small wins, I pushed myself to have the perfect diet—I prepped meals at home, didn’t eat out very much, and worked out as often as I could. Yes, the kind where I would run myself ragged and feel exhausted for the next two days.
My day until 7 p.m. would go according to plan. I’d use all of my willpower to eat right. The moment I finished work, though, life would go downhill. I would self-sabotage, stuffing myself at dinner and snacking until midnight to feel better.
I would fall asleep feeling guilty, sick, and ashamed of what I was doing. I would berate myself for not having the self-control and the discipline—this was just a pack of cookies and I couldn’t even say no to it?
I hated myself while I walked to the convenience store at midnight to sneakily buy another pack of chips. It seemed like I was compelled to eat against my will. My life felt out of control and there was nothing I could do about it. More than anything, it was this feeling of helplessness that really hurt.
At the same time, I had a career in Fortune 50—by all outward means a great job at an amazing company—yet I was sad, disenchanted, and felt like I didn’t belong in my first couple of years there.
In hindsight, I can see how I turned to food for comfort; it was why I always overate at night when I was drained out after a long day. It was the time when I needed soothing to make myself feel better, to numb the voices in my head that told me I didn’t belong, and to quieten my mind, which was always searching for answers to existentialist questions of “what is my purpose in life?”
The more and more I ate to soothe myself, the more and more my body craved food. I felt restless if I wasn’t stuffed. Instead of stopping to deal with the pain rationally, I tried to use diet, exercise, and willpower to exert some semblance of control over my otherwise clueless life.
Soon, I realized that I was in a deep hole and that all conventional attempts to get myself out of it weren’t working. I couldn’t go on feeling like this day in and day out, so I began to make a series of mindset and behavioral shifts to start feeling happy again.
As a bonus, I also lost twenty pounds in six months, stopped having cravings, and finally felt in control of my life again.
My biggest mindset shift was being compassionate with myself.
Where previously I judged myself harshly, now I try to do my best without criticism.
Where previously I would look for perfection, now I accept that I am dealing with a difficult period in my life and it’s okay to fail sometimes.
Where previously I would try to numb my emotions, now I accept that I can’t fix them immediately.
Where previously I would expect myself to overcome challenges in a jiffy, now I realize that these things take time.
My biggest behavioral shift was noticing and facing my emotions.
1. I began to notice and realize for the first time when I actually overate.
For me, it was at night after work, and no degree of willpower or keeping trigger foods out of reach seemed to help. Just noticing this pattern, however, helped me anticipate what was coming so I wasn’t caught off guard. Automatically, this made me feel more in control of what was going on with my eating.
2. I started noticing my feelings during the urge.
What was that emotion, raw and murky, that I sub-consciously didn’t want to face? Was it tiredness or sadness? Exhaustion or a pick-me-up? Often, the reality of a purposeless existence hit me hard once I was back home and all alone. The last thing I wanted to do at that point was deal with it, so I ate to forget it instead.
3. I honed it on what I actually wanted to feel—what was it that food would give me?
Did I want to be warm and comforted? In control? Alert? I was always seeking comfort, so I made myself some hot tea and sipped it mindfully, feeling the tea warming my entire body. I always eventually took a deep breath at the end of it and I felt much better.
Sometimes this relief was only temporary; I would be fine for a few hours, but by midnight I would be reaching out for food again. That’s when I realized that I also needed to face my emotions.
4. I had to take the hard step and allow myself to feel my emotions.
For me, it was sadness and hopelessness. I didn’t try to forget it. I didn’t try to distract myself from it. I just accepted the feeling.
Sometimes, it would wash over me like a tide and I’d feel like crying. At other times, I felt numb and empty. All of these feelings were only natural and perfectly normal. My body and mind were just seeking some acknowledgement and I would feel a sense of relief that the knot of emotion that was so tied up inside me was finally out.
5. On some days, allowing myself to feel my emotions was enough. On other days I had to address my feelings head on even if they made me uncomfortable.
I asked myself why I kept feeling this way. Was I just tired and overworked? Was I unhappy at where I was in life? I kept asking myself why again and again until I found a reason that resonated with me, that wasn’t just another justification to myself. I was experiencing a quarter-life crisis, it was affecting me every day and that was okay, because now I could deal with it rationally.
6. Lastly, I always gave myself the choice to eat at the end of this exercise.
If I still wanted to eat, that was fine. If I didn’t, that was fine too. It was important to me that I controlled my actions, and wasn’t a victim to my feelings.
In hindsight, I realize that at the end of the day, it’s not our conscious habits or behaviors that determine our happiness. It’s our unconscious desires, fears, and emotions that go unaddressed that eat us up from within, literally in this case.
If you want to stop emotional eating, recognize that it started as a symptom of something much larger—perhaps dissatisfaction with your career, finances, or relationships—something you didn’t want to face head on.
As the eating habit evolves, it gets more and more compulsive so there is a combination of mental, behavioral, and emotional hacks that all need to work together to heal. That is why conventional dieting and fitness advice doesn’t work. That is why relying on willpower doesn’t work. It’s normal that these things don’t help, and you’re normal for feeling this way.
Remember that how you respond to an emotion or a craving is your choice, always.
However hopeless you may be feeling now, know that you have the power to make changes that can transform your life. You just have to start again, even if you fail sometimes—but this time, start differently. Use your emotional awareness to beat comfort eating at its own game.