If you want to make sure your efforts towards overcoming emotional eating are as purposeful and brief as they can be, the place to focus your efforts is on learned helplessness and the anxiety it triggers whenever you feel the slightest bit stressed or uncertain about something.
Learned helplessness is the pattern of thinking that we establish as children in situations where we have needs that are not being met. We feel panicked, hopeless and desperate. We are overwhelmed with the seemingly insurmountable chasm between knowing what we need and being unable to get it.
As children we automatically interpret everything that is going on around us as being about us. We are consistently supported, encouraged and reassured of our lovability, our place in our family and our world. As we develop, and our brain transitions from this child mind to our adult brain, a more rational and big-picture thinking brain, we learn to handle the fact that the world no longer revolves around us.
But what if the transition is not gradual? What if we are forced, due to situations well beyond our control, to deal with circumstances that are truly beyond our comprehension (the absence of a parent, the experience of abuse or the death of someone close to us, for example)?
That’s a very frightening and rude awakening. For most of us it is just too much to truly understand. Thus we feel overwhelmed and frantically grasp for some way of perceiving the world and our place in it that has the potential to afford some sense of protection from the harsh reality of our limited power.
The truth is we all need to “grow up.”
We all need to come to the realization that the world does not revolve around us; that what others think and feel is not a reflection of us but rather of their own life experience and needs; that we truly only have power over our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and that any time spent trying to control or influence others is time poorly spent and is, in our society, referred to as co-dependency or, in more extreme cases, abuse. These are fundamental truths of humanity and adulthood, and in order to be healthy, balanced adults, we need to be able to see these truths clearly and embrace the many gifts they bring.
But we need to awaken to this truth gently or it is just too hard to take. We feel exposed, raw, far too vulnerable, far too unsafe, and we need to immediately seize upon some way of covering ourselves up. We need to have a coping strategy.
A coping strategy is any thought, feeling, or behaviour that allows us to remain in an uncomfortable situation without being aware of how uncomfortable we are. Picture a kitty cat that after accidentally falling off the back of the couch, immediately affects an air of confidence and acts as though nothing has happened. We can relate. If we are using food to cope, whether through binging, anorexia, bulimia, or dieting, we struggle with self-confidence. When we feel insecure and doubtful in ourselves, we work very hard to portray that kitty-like image of nonchalance all day, every day, no matter how hurt or humiliated we feel.
When we are forced before we are ready to realize our true powerlessness over others and our dependence on them, it is a great shock; it is humbling and frightening, and just like a kitty cat, we feel immediately compelled to cover up and protect ourselves, often without truly understanding what just happened or why.
This experience (or, “these” experiences – often there is not one big trauma that we experience but a series of events that undermined our confidence and sense of worth) leads to the assumption that instead of being all-powerful and all-knowing, we are actually completely powerless.
The all-or-nothing thinking naturally makes us feel hopeless, worthless and stuck. Our brain is not yet developed enough to see the extreme thinking in these statements. As far as our child mind is concerned, this is not extreme or exaggerated thinking; it is the truth, no need to question it. In fact, in our mind, questioning the validity of these statements just serves to make us more aware of our powerlessness and ignorance.
This is learned helplessness. The automatic mental default to: “I can’t!” whenever things are new or unexpected, is what makes ordinary life events feel overwhelming and is what leads you to need to focus on food in the way that you do. That is the problem that needs to be addressed.
If you doubt this at all or just want to prove it to yourself on a deeper level, commit to the following exercise for today: Whenever you notice you’re feeling at all anxious or pressured or using food to cope (restricting or overeating), ask yourself: What just happened (or what was I just thinking about my past or my future)? And, in what way am I telling myself that I can’t handle it, that there’s no point in trying, or that it will be too hard or scary to deal with?
If you can answer the last question you are in learned helplessness. Guaranteed.
Once you’ve experimented with this for even one day, you’ll be acutely aware that you suffer from learned helplessness and that it is always the trigger for your use of food to cope and for your focus on food and on your body in any way that is stressful.