Growing Up Emotionally

Most of us who struggle with emotional eating, have developed a behavior pattern (in our case an addictive eating pattern), often, but not always, around the time of puberty, of stopping any unpleasant feelings or emotions dead in their tracks.  By adulthood we’ve repeated and streamlined the pattern so flawlessly that we end up with almost no clue that we do this. We’ve distilled it to this inner dialogue:  I’m feeling vaguely uncomfortable (cue inner sirens).  EAT! Eat eat eat, something good, something DISTRACTING, now now now!  STOP that feeling.  Now eat some more–make sure you’ve silenced that feeling–whatever the hell it was!!

Eventually this becomes an embedded, mindless pattern that serves us in some surprisingly effective ways. Most importantly, I believe, it serves us into never going through the tumultuous and often painful process of maturing emotionally. Thus, we end up in our 30’s, 40’s and beyond, attempting to function emotionally more like 13-year-olds than emotionally-capable adults.

Here are some traits of what I believe addicted binge-eaters, that is, “emotional 13-year-olds” have in common:

  • We believe there is something exceptional about us and our situation.  The rules and consequences (of overeating) apply to others, but surely not to us.  We are often the center of our universe, prone to hyperbole, and a naïve sense of entitlement.
  • We are often drama queens—overwrought and impatient. We’re a prickly, hypersensitive bunch, masters at nursing grudges and “building a case” against anyone who says or behaves in any way “against” us or our notions of how we think things should be.
  • Like 13-year-olds, when things are not going our way (which is the right way of course!) we tend to withdraw, sulk and brood.
  • There is a whole lot of “should” in our thinking—about others and ourselves. We are idealistic and perfectionistic. We expect not just ourselves, but most everybody and every occasion and circumstance to conform to our notions of fair and perfect, and we can become indignant when they don’t. As part of this we have a strong tendency toward all-or-nothing thinking and behaving. “If I can’t be perfect, I might as well not even try. If I’m going to eat one slice of cake, I might as well eat the whole thing.”  If someone says or does something that irritates or upsets us, instead of calmly discussing things, we will often blow up into a confrontation and really let them know how wrong they are.  Minor things rarely just roll off our backs.
  • Our fear of rejection is often extreme and overwhelming. We feel an (unnecessary) OVER-responsibility to shape/control the feelings of others, especially their feelings about us, because in our tender, immature emotional state we cannot bear even the thought that anyone disapproves of or dislikes anything about us.
  • We concurrently fear and revere all kinds of authority. We resent and must therefore (often dramatically, if silently) rebel against it.  Authority = control.
  • We distrust, fear—we hate!—most any kind of change unless we can control it.
  • We are black and white. Emotions are gray. Emotions, especially strong ones, make us uncomfortable—sometimes make us crazy!—because they don’t make sense, we can’t control them and they will not hold still or stop changing!

When we begin to examine all the unflattering inconsistencies in our behavior pattern, it can be very hard to swallow. It’s uncomfortable to say the least, which of course brings us back around to the first step in this life-dance-pattern we think we want to curtail (which is at least part of why it can be so daunting to stop—we cannot abide feeling “uncomfortable”). Nevertheless, until we slowly begin to get away from these behavior patterns, we will stay locked into them because they are all we know.

These patterns are a bad habit, but they are much easier than facing the challenges and discomforts of changing them.  Besides, we don’t HAVE to change this.  In fact, major industries are flourishing—fast food, cosmetic, weight loss, and of course the medical sector, to name a few—by literally banking on their ability to lure us into purchasing a “better” life (as in quick, easy and painless), by selling us their goods and services. It’s actually kind of ingenious.

It’s even possible that (gasp!) it is not our fault that we developed this pattern. We might have been raised by people who abused or took advantage of us emotionally for their own twisted or immature reasons, or merely by overly fearful, emotionally immature people themselves, those who believed that the best thing they could do for any child would be for her to never have to feel any pain—physical or emotional. So they well-meaningly took away our many opportunities to learn hard lessons and develop stronger emotional coping skills.

I think an important preliminary truth and an all-too-common stumbling block to even getting ourselves on the road to successfully changing our patterns is that we think we must first figure out why we developed these patterns before we can change them.  But those reasons really don’t matter.  Some understanding might come in time but in my opinion this can’t—and doesn’t need to—come FIRST.  It’s even possible—and okay—that we will never be able to completely (and perfectly!) understand them.

The only way to stop the negative consequences our behavior patterns have been bringing us is to stop the behaviors.  For quite a long time this will be a sometimes uncomfortable conscious choice, making decisions that will NOT be easy, convenient, quick or painless to implement in a culture that churns along on those buzz-words.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve repeatedly used the phrase behavior pattern here. That’s because I think an important first step in the painfully slow dismantling of this whole cycle is to calm down our overwrought selves and recognize that this is only a pattern. It doesn’t define who we are, or our worth as human beings. It’s not any kind of crime or sin (except perhaps against ourselves).  And it is something we can change when we are willing to do so.

Everybody wants. 13-year-olds especially, want.  Everything.  Desperately.  The difference—and the reason why the majority of folks trying to stop this pattern do not succeed—is that so very few are willing to change it permanently.

Being willing to change means being willing to face all kinds of ongoing social-emotional risks, isolation, and some fleeting discomfort. It can make family and friends uncomfortable because it requires us to sometimes behave “against the grain” (pun intended) socially, as well as to work hard “behind the scenes”, where nobody can see or appreciate how hard-working and thus how hard working and admirable we are, for self-enforcing our behavior changes.

That’s what leading with abstinence is. It is planning and executing a simple plan for ourselves that is sometimes puzzling and off-putting to others, which will sometimes cause some of them to reject us on some levels, temporarily or maybe even forever.  Then we have to pick up the pieces and decide, sometimes over and over again, which pain we are willing to abide—the pain of being overweight, sick, and out of control, or the pain of being a little different when it comes to food.

Emotional grown-ups really aren’t all that different from 13-year-olds, we still have most if not all of the same emotions we had when we were 13. We merely learn how to handle them better—to sort them and respond appropriately to the important and to dismiss the others. Emotional grown-ups realize that despite all our jumbled and conflicting feelings, despite the fair and unfair, we can’t and will never “have it all,” and that wanting or deserving have little to do with anything—positive or negative.

We are only entitled to and deserve—and we will receive—the consequences of the behaviors we choose day after month after year.