A gross estimate would suggest that about 90 per cent of the people I work with are drawn to emotional eating as a response to a victim mentality. Victimization presents a vast spectrum. At the one extreme, we find true victimization, in which an individual is treated in a manner that is cruel or unjust, at a given point or over time, and the individual lacks the resources or tools to extract herself from the oppression.
At the other extreme we find the victim mentality, which creates a response to an uncomfortable and inconvenient situation that is of the individual’s choosing, and despite having the tools and resources to extract himself – he chooses to remain intact and to feel that he’s a victim of circumstances or of other people.
Between the two extremes lies a vast terrain of scenarios that are characterised by a different degree of compulsion (which could be real and explicit and could be cultural and implied); choice (which could clearly exist, or could be difficult to discern); and resources (some of which are obvious and accessible and some are hidden or unappreciated).
For many, the feeling of powerlessness or lack of resources, alongside the pressure exerted by others or by their surroundings, is translated to a victim mentality. This mentality strengthens the tendency to blame others or the ‘situation’ for personal difficulties, and to resort towards avoiding positive action, and towards a feeling that no choice is truly available. Most people reject the assertion of their victim mentality or their ability to extract themselves from it, thus making it difficult to raise the matter in conversation. Instead, it is suppressed, silenced and soon manifested in emotional eating.
The most clear and common example of a victim mentality is found with women in the family home.
For various reasons, many women take upon themselves marital and parental responsibilities that exceed their share, and gradually develop anger and resentment towards their choices, and feel that they cannot pull themselves away, as if they were a victim of culture, circumstances, partners, children, etc. Anger and resentment are not pleasant feelings, to say the least. And the lack of choice is silenced, as the driving force is the need to continue to function without all hell breaking loose, and without hurting the partner, the children or the career.
As noted, this victim mentality is one of the most familiar grounds for emotional eating (eating that is not grounded in hunger) that I’ve encountered. Such emotional eating will always take place in one or more of the following times which ignite the victim mentality mindset:
- Nursery/school pickup: a victim mentality is triggered as a response to the fact that the woman carries (most of) the childcare load during those hours, often at the expense of her career, while her partner is still at work and will arrive (much) later. The tendency will be to ‘grab’ poor food en-route from work to pick-up.
- Children’s early dinner: a victim mentality is triggered because of the need to cater for the children’s physical needs whilst simultaneously addressing the chores, such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, in an unrewarding routing. The tendency will be to finish the children’s leftovers, particularly if carbs are involved.
- Peaceful, post-bedtime: a victim mentality will arise when confronting the partner who has only now arrived, or simply against the background of a long and tedious day. The fatigue deprives the quiet time of any meaningful value. The tendency will be to consume sweets or to order take out late at night.
Sound familiar? How do we start addressing emotional eating that has a victim mentality at its core?
The first step is to acknowledge the victim mentality. Just like other substances that induce dependency, a victim mentality is addictive, and thus is difficult to release. It allows the victim to be right, and righteous, and always claim her due. The implication, then, is that without being a victim, I am not owed a thing, and maybe am not even right. This, however, is false. You do deserve, and you are owed: support, assistance, equal share of the burden, recognition, and more. The understanding that a victim mentality caters for something you need, but are owed regardless, will help you to relieve yourself of its burden, to expose your needs and to ask for assistance.
The second step, following the release of the victim mentality, is the acceptance of responsibility. Responsibility for your choices and your consent to accept things as they are, for some time now. If you released the victim mentality, you can also release the presumption that someone victimised you and acted intentionally against you. The choices you made, and the fact that you agreed to accept things as they are, are precisely the foundations of your anger and hurt.
You are completely entitled to cease to accept things as they are simply because you changed your mind. You do not need any other reason to say – I want and need something else, please. Such an explicit request may result in one of a number of possible responses. Not all of them will be pleasant or ideal, and at times there is a long road ahead, negotiating with other family members, colleagues and those near and dear. The victim mentality may seem tempting at this stage, but it is not inevitable.
The third stage requires actively and consciously choosing some of the things that you simply cannot find a better solution for them, at this stage. You can continue to express your desires and needs, and while still seeking a way to satisfy them – to choose what cannot be changed at present instead of continuing to engage from the premise of a victim mentality.
And what about the food?
Start treating this type of emotional eating as a reminder to let go of the victim mentality. This will not be straightforward, and will not happen overnight. It will be a long road, at the end of which you will suddenly notice that you are no longer occupied with the feeling that everyone is against you, and is set to disregard your desires and needs. Instead of using emotional eating to silence what you desire and need, use it to identify your needs, and then eat.
Emotional eating is not something to be ashamed of. It is not the problem – it is the solution. But it can be a better solution. Before you grab a snack on the way to pick up the kids, or clear the pasta from their plates, or eat chocolate on your own at night – tell yourself what you need and how you like your life to look like. Then – eat.
Over time, these reminders will pile up to a significant layer of awareness to your needs and the places you chose not to pursue them. You cannot shy away from them any longer. When you eat, note that the way the food soothes the pain you feel due to the misguided feeling of impotence. The awareness will grow, and over time, you will agree to feel. You have the resources, you have the tools, and you have the choice.
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