Almost all of us eat, at times, out of the need for comfort. And those of us who raise children probably also feed to comfort them. Bad day? Are you upset? Sad? You’re troubled but don’t know exactly why? Food! Nipple, bottle, cookie, chocolate, pizza night, or maybe let’s go out and eat! And food, well, let’s be fair –really does act, for a few moments at least, as something that resembles comfort, like a gentle caress in loving hands.
Food ‘comforts’ us (i.e. provides a nice feeling in general) in a variety of ways, of which one is related to our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is a state of being we don’t want to move away from, because, well… it’s comforting there. It’s familiar, we feel safe and confident there, and the comfort derives from the ability to anticipate the results of our actions.
Emotional eating is a choice that resides deep within our comfort zone. We are used to emotional eating from infancy. Few things are more familiar, and so it is easily accessible, socially accepted and even advanced, and for most – the physical cost is not too overwhelming. Indeed, very comfortable. And when something is comfortable, well, it comforts…
When dealing with an emotional challenge, however small, the last thing that we feel like doing is to leave our comfort zone and to add difficulties. This seems like precisely the right time to withdraw to the familiar, the acceptable, the accepted, which will deliver a known outcome (if only briefly).
The above list of benefits for emotional eating (that it’s familiar, acceptable, accepted and delivers known outcomes) suggests that the true feeling of comfort is actually only a small component within the decision to turn to food when times are rough.
And yet, in our story of emotional eating, comfort is the most heavily noted, and thus – the most familiar.
One of my favourite tools when working with people involves deconstructing stories that we tell ourselves, and suggesting the construction of new ones in their stead. The work involves an abundance of love and great sensitivity, since there’s always a good reason as to why we had a need for the story that we held on to, for so long, and these are ships that should not be carelessly rocked on stormy tides.
Based on what you’ve read, I would suggest checking with yourself whether there’s an alternative story to your emotional eating. It does not always have to be a perfect fit. Even if it only allows us to consider its relevance, now and again, and to check if and how it serves us to ignite change – that will be enough.
When we consume comfort food, we tell ourselves that we needed comfort, but that is only rarely the case. On most occasions, ‘comfort’ is simply the shorthand, and the least painful way to refer to our real need, replacing things such as the need for appreciation, love, recognition, touch, meaning, and more.
Often, we don’t have the time, patience or tools to deal with our deep and unsatisfied needs. Our ‘comfort’ hides them for us, and we can’t be bothered to address them or the difficulty in satisfying them. We’re entitled to do that. But it’s important to note that sometimes we do it because we think that letting go of the comfort narrative leaves the need to deal with our deep needs as the only alternative. However, there’s actually a ‘third way’, another alternative, which also uses the term comfort, but is far less demanding on our emotional makeup. It’s the comfort zone.
What if, instead of telling ourselves a story about imprecise comforts, we tell ourselves about our comfort zone and its importance for us? What if we remember that, amidst all the difficulties and unsatisfied needs, we are driven towards the familiar and the comfortable, the accessible and the effective? Emotional eating is the turn towards comfort food, instead of turning to the comfort zone.
This story of comfort may not be complete, but at least it’s accurate. In contrast, the story of comfort is often not only incomplete, but acts to hide our truth from us.
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