Whether compelled by an inner void, loneliness or boredom, psychoanalysis can help you understand why you seek comfort in food
by Nina Savelle-Rocklin
Photo by Shannon Fagan/Getty
is a psychoanalyst. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating (2019) and Food For Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders (2016), and the co-editor (with Salman Akhtar) of Beyond the Primal Addiction (2019). She also hosts The Dr Nina Show on LA Talk Radio. She lives in Los Angeles.
Edited by Lucy Foulkes
‘I have a weakness for doughnuts,’ confessed Arlene, a 35-year-old teacher who came to me for psychoanalysis.
She began craving doughnuts shortly after her first child was born. She’d sneak one bite, then another, then another. Before she knew it, she’d eaten three or four doughnuts. Every time it happened, Arlene felt deeply ashamed and vowed to have more control. Days of stringent dieting followed but eventually her willpower failed, and she’d head back to Krispy Kreme.
‘I eat so many doughnuts that my stomach hurts,’ she said, her eyes filling with tears. ‘I tell myself: “You have no willpower. You’re so gross.”’
She sighed, dismayed. ‘I know they’re bad for me, but I can’t stop eating them. It doesn’t make sense. How do I get over this horrible doughnut problem?’
I reassured Arlene that doughnuts weren’t the problem. It’s perfectly fine to have doughnuts or other sweets occasionally as part of a balanced diet. But Arlene wasn’t eating them for enjoyment. She felt compelled to eat many at once, to the point of being in pain, and doing so made her feel ashamed.
During our therapy sessions, it became apparent to me that Arlene turned to doughnuts because of an underlying problem: her difficulty identifying and processing certain emotional states. By focusing on doughnuts and her weight, Arlene distracted herself from what was really upsetting her. This is known as emotional eating, and it’s a common problem. Emotional eating is a ‘frenemy’: it functions as both a friend and an enemy. It provides some kind of temporary relief, but it also hurts your body and self-esteem.
Emotional eating also masks the underlying cause. Every gardener knows that if you pluck a weed, it will grow back. To eliminate a weed for good, you have to dig out the root. Similarly, we have hidden emotions and thoughts that are out of our awareness but still motivate many of our actions. Self-defeating behaviours, such as emotional eating, might not make sense on the surface, but there will be an underlying explanation. As I often say to my clients: it’s not logical, it’s psychological.
As a therapist, I take a psychoanalytic approach: to resolve emotional eating, or any other issue, I delve deep into those hidden parts of my clients’ minds. This can take a bit of work. Arlene, for example, had become so adept at turning to doughnuts for relief that she often didn’t know what was actually causing her distress – because it was hidden from her conscious mind.
A helpful approach for achieving lasting change involves identifying and digging up those root issues, and learning a new way to respond to yourself. It’s particularly helpful to do this with a therapist, but, below, I provide some guidance to get you started.
Stop Dieting. Many of my clients try to resolve emotional eating by going on a weight loss diet – restricting calories or certain foods. But this is an ineffective strategy to deal with eating issues. Most diets fail – they’re a temporary fix and, in the long run, often lead to weight gain.
From a psychological perspective, diets involve deprivation. The anticipation or experience of not being able to have what you want can make you want it more – which, in turn, leads to overeating or bingeing. If you’re thinking about not eating pizza, pasta or ice cream, then you’ve got pizza, pasta or ice cream on your mind. That puts the focus on the wrong thing, which is what you’re eating, instead of why.
Ultimately, diets fail because they deal only with food. They don’t address what makes you overeat in the first place. If you’re turning to food, you’re turning away from something else. Instead of dieting, you need to consider what’s eating at you.
Crack the code of emotional eating. An important first step is to work out the link between your emotions and your eating. Each time you notice a period of eating emotionally, make a note of how you were feeling before it happened, and see if you can identify any patterns.
Many people, for example, overeat to avoid emotions. Remember how Arlene ate so much that her stomach hurt? That was our first clue to solving the mystery of why she couldn’t stop eating doughnuts. I learned that Arlene had been raised in a family in which everyone was expected to be grateful and happy all the time. If she was hurt or upset, she was told to ‘stop whining’.
The message from her parents was clear: it wasn’t acceptable to express emotional pain. By eating doughnuts until she was in physical pain, I suggested that Arlene was unconsciously avoiding her emotional pain by converting it to a physical feeling. When she was able to process this disavowed pain during therapy instead of blocking it out, she stopped overeating doughnuts.
Western society often promotes the idea that expressing feelings is a weakness. Many girls and women are taught that it’s not nice to feel or express anger. Of course, that’s impossible, so instead many will get angry with themselves for eating too much or gaining weight. Really, they were already angry: their anger belongs to something or someone else. But they’ve been told they’re not supposed to express it. Similarly, boys get a sense from an early age that ‘boys don’t cry’ – then they grow into men who have a hard time expressing vulnerability.
In part because of these societal expectations, many people that I see grow up feeling like they can’t admit or process their feelings. For them, emotional eating can be a way of dissociating from the world and temporarily escaping whatever is upsetting them. My patients often describe the experience of ‘zoning out’ while eating, being in a numb state without thought or emotion. That blank state is a temporary protection from pain.
Emotions are simply reactions to situations, not character flaws. When you find a new way of coping with your feelings, you won’t need to rely on food. Cultivate healthy ways of expressing your emotions, such as talking with a loved one or journalling – writing down what you’re thinking and feeling. You could also try practising supportive self-talk, such as telling yourself: ‘I’m doing the best I can. I’m in a process of change, and I’m going to be gentle with myself right now.’
If you find yourself zoning out while you’re eating, try to stay in the present with a grounding exercise. One way to do that is to look around your environment and note one thing you can touch, see, hear and smell. If possible, say them aloud. Using your senses to name your environment helps you centre yourself in the present moment.
Consider if there are any specific feelings you’re trying to avoid. If you automatically eat when you’re upset, it’s vital to be curious, not critical, and discover why you’re heading for the kitchen. There are many reasons for emotional eating; I highlight several of the most common here. For example, you might feel deeply lonely or dissatisfied – an internal sense of emptiness, which you might then symbolically fill with food. Consider the following questions: what do you need more of in your life? In what areas do you feel deprived? Your answers can help identify what’s missing. Whether you’re unfulfilled in a relationship, or lack satisfaction in other parts of your life, you can take steps to create change. This will help you to stop figuratively getting fulfilment from food.
Others turn to food to manage helplessness – a sense of feeling powerless, and one of the most painful experiences of human existence. The psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Lance Dodes proposes that addictive behaviour (such as compulsive eating) is a way of reversing helplessness. Feeling helpless about a situation out of your control is displaced onto helplessness over food – it’s easier to feel helpless over food than over the exigencies of life.
To deal with helplessness – at work, in an argument, when your train is cancelled – acknowledge that you’re powerless in the moment. Come to terms with the limitations of your ability to impact your world, while recognising where you do have a sense of agency and control. Remember times in your life when you overcame adversity, for perspective and reassurance. If you’re better able to tolerate helplessness in other areas of your life, you’ll be less inclined to displace it onto food.
Finally, it’s also common to overeat when bored. Boredom is the state of feeling like you have nothing to do, along with a sense of restlessness and tediousness about the day. I call boredom an ‘umbrella emotion’ because it covers other emotional states, particularly loneliness, but also emptiness and anxiety.
The solution to boredom is to try to change something. If boredom is covering up another difficult emotion such as loneliness, then address that underlying need. If you’re lonely, try giving someone a call, or think about ways you might meet new people. Sometimes, of course, we can’t just make boredom go away. If there’s nothing to do or nobody to be with, responding to yourself in a soothing way – which I describe below – is crucial.
Consider whether you’re eating for comfort. Our initial experience of feeding, as babies, is tied to feelings of love and connection. Think about what happens when a baby is fed: they feel safe and loved in the arms of a caring parent. Even in adulthood, eating is connected with that early sense of love and safety. When we need comfort, turning to food makes sense, because that’s what worked earlier in our lives.
That’s why – and this might seem a little strange – I believe that, deep in our psyches, food actually represents people. We don’t actively think of it that way, but we use the same words for both food and love, describing relationships as fulfilling or satisfying. We talk about being hungry for love, or starving for attention. Food and relationships are intertwined in our minds.
People can be unpredictable, unreliable and unavailable, whereas, for many of us, food is the opposite: a reliable, readily available source of comfort. That’s why it can feel easier and safer to turn to food instead of people when we’re upset. Eating for comfort really means expressing a wish to be cared for by someone else.
Learn new ways to self-soothe. While the specific details differ from person to person, nearly everyone who eats emotionally is trying to soothe themselves. The key to change is to find new ways to comfort yourself, with words instead of food. Here are some strategies to do exactly that.
Change the way you talk to yourself. First, identify your inner critic. Arlene told herself: ‘You have no willpower. You’re so gross.’ Nearly everyone I’ve ever treated has spoken to themselves in a vicious second-person voice like this. If you use the pronoun ‘you’ when speaking to yourself, consider who is really talking. It might be the voice of someone who criticised you in the past. It might just be your own internal voice – a stance you developed to try to keep your behaviour in line. Either way, being self-critical never helps. It makes you feel worse.
When I asked Arlene to say ‘I am so gross’, she couldn’t do it because it felt too mean. She also realised that she was talking to herself in the same dismissive way that her mother had. She had absorbed her mother’s critical stance toward her and was now speaking as dismissively towards herself as her mother had done.
When you start criticising yourself, imagine saying those words to someone else. If you wouldn’t say something to a friend, child or loved one, don’t say it to yourself. Imagine you have a friend who’s upset because she ate too much pizza. Would you say: ‘That’s really disgusting. How could you have eaten all of that?’
Of course not. The best response is along the lines of: ‘I’m so sorry you’re upset. That’s really tough. How can I help?’ Start treating yourself as if you were your own friend. I developed the VARY acronym to do exactly that:
Validate – Recognise and accept what you’re feeling, without judgment or apology.
Acknowledge – Affirm the importance of what you’re feeling.
Reassure – Put yourself at ease and remind yourself that you’re not always going to feel this way.
Yourself – That’s you! Ask yourself what you need to feel better.
When you talk to yourself, take care with your tone. The same words can feel very different depending on how you say them. When Arlene tried talking positively to herself, she reported that it didn’t work. I asked her to repeat what she had said. In a very flat, slightly exasperated tone, she stated: ‘This is upsetting. Of course it is. And it’ll be okay.’
She sounded as if she were reciting statistics. No wonder she didn’t feel better. I repeated exactly what she had said, only my tone was different. ‘This is upsetting,’ I said with warmth and kindness. ‘Of course it is. And it will be okay.’
Those same words had a completely different impact on her. That’s because a soothing tone can feel like a verbal hug.
Find alternatives for food. Many people respond to physical needs with food, for example, eating when they’re sleepy in order to perk up, or when they feel tense as a way of calming down. If this sounds like you, consider what else you might need rather than automatically reaching for food.
For instance, if you’re tired, you need to rest. Take a 10-minute nap to let your mind and body recharge. If you’re wired, have a cup of herbal tea or do a calming exercise such as progressive muscle relaxation. To do this, tighten your legs, then your stomach, and next your arms. Make fists and keep your muscles extremely tight. Hold that tension as long as possible, a minimum of 15 seconds. Then release.
Feel that? You’re likely feeling more relaxed. The idea of this exercise is that when your body is relaxed, your mind will follow. See the Links and Books section below for a six-minute progressive muscle-relaxation exercise to try.
You might also want to find new treats for yourself. Our culture uses food as a reward: we go out to dinner to recognise graduations, anniversaries and other milestones; we celebrate birthdays with cake. Many parents say: ‘No dessert unless you eat your dinner.’ It’s no wonder that so many of us use food to celebrate or create happiness.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a celebratory cake or dessert. But if you find you’re always turning to food to mark minor accomplishments, or that you’re heavily dependent on food as a reward, it might be worth considering other options – whether that’s watching a fun TV show, giving yourself a manicure, taking a walk or reading a ‘guilty pleasure’ beach read.
If you want to change, a helpful step is to understand how the past haunts your present. That doesn’t mean constantly talking about the past over and over again. It means recognising, while you seek to change your behaviour, how the past impacts you today.
Arlene was the oldest of eight children. Her mother expected her to help take care of her younger siblings, who were known as ‘the kids’. Growing up, Arlene always felt more like her mother’s helper than a daughter or sibling. Her mother dismissed ‘negative’ emotions. She told Arlene to quit whining and complaining, displaying a complete lack of interest in Arlene’s emotional pain. Arlene longed for a loving, warm mommy but had to settle for an overwhelmed, unavailable mother.
In psychoanalytic psychotherapy, we look at how unresolved dynamics from the past continue to impact our present lives. This often involves looking for symbols in a person’s current life that might provide clues to their past and the source of their difficulties. When I work with patients, I pay attention to ways in which the unconscious mind makes itself known.
In Arlene’s case, giving birth to her first child triggered a deep hunger to be mothered herself. In our sessions, I considered why she had become particularly fixated on doughnuts, rather than other foods. What is distinctive about doughnuts? They have the hole in the centre. I thought it was important to understand the symbolic link between this hole and the deficit in Arlene’s relationship with her mother. Using a psychoanalytic perspective, I suggested that Arlene’s unconscious mind was using doughnuts to communicate how intensely she felt the past absence of her mother.
The symbolism of the doughnut holes made sense to Arlene. As we processed her unresolved relationship with her mother, Arlene stopped craving these ring doughnuts – but then developed a ‘thing’ for cream-filled doughnuts. I considered what the significance of this might be, and was struck by one particular story she recounted. One day, she bit into one of these filled doughnuts and realised there was no white, creamy centre. She became very angry.
‘I can’t explain why I was so mad,’ she exclaimed. ‘But I needed that cream filling. I needed it!’
She held her hands in front of her chest and cupped them, emphatically shaking her hands back and forth. I was struck by the way Arlene’s hands were almost cupping her breasts and wondered if the cream filling symbolised a ‘mother’s milk’ that she could actually take in.
This idea also resonated with Arlene. She had progressed from eating doughnuts with their missing centre to craving something sweet, creamy and filling. I suggested her anger at the missing cream filling represented the unexpressed anger and sadness she felt in childhood, deprived of a warm and soothing mother, and this helped Arlene to understand herself better.
Working through the past helped Arlene heal, and she stopped using food to express her hunger for the nurturing she never received. She grieved what she never received from her mother and learned to nurture herself, forever freeing herself from the tyranny of doughnuts.
To eliminate your own emotional eating, I recommend bringing unconscious needs out of the dark and into the light, so they can be consciously challenged and worked through. These can sometimes be difficult to identify on your own, so you might need the help of a therapist. When you identify those hidden triggers and find new ways of responding to yourself, food will stop being your best friend or your worst enemy. Instead, it becomes part of a healthy, balanced life.
This YouTube video on progressive muscle relaxation is produced by Therapist Aid, which creates and shares free tools for mental health professionals and clients. Progressive muscle relaxation is a helpful way to relax your body, which allows you to more easily process your emotions. A relaxed body leads to a relaxed mind, which in turn can help you overcome emotional eating.
If you’re intrigued about psychoanalysis more broadly, the Psychoanalysis Unplugged blog on the Psychology Today website, curated by the American Psychoanalytic Association, is an excellent source of information about the contemporary application of psychoanalytic theory. To get started, here is a user-friendly article about emotions, and another about dream analysis, an important part of psychoanalytic work.
This video also explains how psychoanalysis can help you work through sadness, depression, anxiety and more. It’s produced by the American Psychoanalytic Association, an organisation for mental health professionals who practise psychoanalytic therapy.
The Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food (2017) by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch guides readers to create a happier, healthier relationship with food.
Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness, second edition (2004) by Margo Maine examines the interplay between paternal yearning and disordered eating.
Lance Dodes has written extensively on addiction and his books are useful for understanding any behaviour that feels addictive. His book Breaking Addiction: A 7-Step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction (2011) is user-friendly and valuable.
The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (2013) by Stephen Grosz takes readers into the depths of our relationship to ourselves by giving examples of his contemporary psychoanalysis – which is to Freudian analysis what a Tesla is to a Model T. This book is a beautiful exploration of the human psyche.