I don’t want to face the pain.
That’s rarely what we’re thinking when we’re mindlessly eating to numb. At least, that’s not my experience when I reach for that bag of chips or third cookie. Instead, what I notice is a sense of urgency. I really need that cookie. Grab it, fast!
Some part of me pivots toward impulsivity, encouraging me to “act fast” to keep the more measured parts of me from weighing in.
If you’ve noticed a seemingly irresistible pull toward eating things you don’t want and that your body doesn’t need – it’s possible that an eating to numb part of you is working to put out the flames of uncomfortable feelings, such as confusion, sadness, or fatigue. These impulsive protectors encourage you to indulge in whatever feels good right now. They trick you into thinking that feeling better NOW is safer than facing an uncomfortable feeling.*
Last month, when I started noticing a descent into holiday eating to numb oblivion, here’s how I applied the Five Steps to taking a You-Turn. . .
First, I started by picking just one day to get to know my eating to numb protector. I picked a day that wasn’t full of stressful activities – one that afforded me some margin to become more aware of myself and my rapidly escalating eating-whatever-sweet-things-I-saw habit. (We don’t normally have a lot of sweets in the house. . . but you know, it was Christmas!) Then, I worked through the Five Steps in partnership with God.
Focus on the impulsive part of your soul.
I picked a specific impulse to observe. When I noticed the impulse, I had to pause mid-reach. It wasn’t about will-power or self-deprivation. I knew I could do this for one day. It was about getting to know this numbing part of myself with curiosity and compassion. And wow – did that part of me rear up when I stopped it from letting me grab that cookie!
Befriend this numbing part of your soul.
I reminded myself to extend compassion toward this impulsive part of my soul. And I began to engage it with curiosity. My ability to stay present with myself with compassion made all the difference between misery and shifting toward better understanding. This part of me seemed to acknowledge that there was now a caring adult in the room. And then I asked myself this question:
What do you fear might happen if you don’t get that right now?
I was surprised and somewhat amused by the almost child-like nature of what I noticed: “But I need that third cookie! What else will I do?“
I stayed calm and compassionate toward this cookie loving part. I was earning trust internally, even as I was setting a gentle boundary.
And then I noticed other emotions start to surface: sadness, frustration, then exhaustion. I noticed those emotions with curiosity and compassion, too – these were the feelings I’d been trying to numb.
And as I did, I became keenly aware of one key feeling: I was exhausted. And I didn’t want to admit it.
And the last thing that weary part of me wanted was a hit of sugar. Wow. My numbing protector had NO IDEA. (Humility is a great step forward for those numbing protectors that often think they have the quick fix.)
Invite God into what you’re experiencing.
As I became more aware of this part of my soul in need, I continued to invite God into what I was experiencing. My body (which had been tense without my realizing it) began to relax. I’d been running around like crazy. I’m so tired, I thought. But it’s Christmas! There’s still so much to do to make sure it’s The Best Christmas Ever for Everyone. By acknowledging my deeper feeling of weariness, through prayerful reflection, I could now minister to myself on a much deeper level.
Unburden the part of your soul in need.
So then I was curious – what would bring nourishment to this weary part of me? What comfort might bring a genuine sense of relief? In my case, it was simply to S L O W D O W N, to relax my body a bit, and to breathe. Just that simple awareness felt like a weight lifted.
Integrate the different parts of yourself.
Was my numbing protector aware of what just happened? Absolutely. It was so surprised that it hadn’t seen the big picture, and was willing to get on board with better strategies. I took a look at my to do list in light of this new information and cut things off of my list that just weren’t necessary.
And my numbing protector – less impulsive now – started dreaming up creative ways to get me some rest. I took a walk in the nearby woods, and enjoyed the feeling of just being for a few minutes.
So often, we mask emotions such as sadness, fear, or fatigue by numbing. . .instead of giving ourselves the deeper soul nourishment we need.
If your child was tired or hurting, would you give him a Coke? At your best, you’d sit with him and seek to understand what’s going on. Then, after you’ve connected, you might decide together on an activity to help lift his spirits.
And the same is true for parts of your soul that are hurting. It’s not that you can’t have a treat – it’s just that you don’t want the treat to replace the deeper soul nourishment other parts of you might need.
At their best, numbing parts of your soul become “warning lights” that something is off balance. So if you notice an impulsive desire to eat when you’re not hungry or to down that entire bag of chips, pay attention. It’s possible there’s something else going on inside of you that needs nourishment deep within. The trick is to learn to pause just long enough to get to know what’s underneath your impulse to numb.
You can lead yourself in partnership with God’s Holy Spirit. You can learn to give yourself deeply good gifts.
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?” Luke 11:11
*Bear in mind in some instances, when there’s been deep pain or trauma, it may not be wise to change eating habits on your own. You have to learn to build tolerance over time. Check in with a counselor, nutritionist or medical doctor if your numbing behaviors are extreme or if you’re experiencing any symptoms of an eating disorder. There are many resources for ongoing support: Potentia Therapy has specific programs for Food and Body issues, and Alive and Well Women seeks to promote mindful eating and healthy care of your body, to name a few.