Rhona Epstein, Psy.D., C.A.C.
“Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places…”
When Valentine’s Day rolls around, I find myself returning to my favorite chick flicks. One such movie is What Women Want; I find so powerful that scene where Nick Marshall (played by Mel Gibson) struggles with his feelings for Darcy McGuire (played by Helen Hunt). Nick begins to like and then care deeply for Darcy. He’s falling in love and doesn’t even know it. After years of seeing women as simply for his pleasure, these new feelings of devotion and commitment to a woman are strange. They scare Nick when he begins to think of giving more consideration to Darcy than himself. He’s only known how to use women who gave him what he wanted for the moment: a kiss, an idea, flattery, a fling.
Confused, Nick wanders into the kitchen. He’s searching for . . . he doesn’t know what. He’s flailing about, opens the refrigerator, looks around, then suddenly aware mutters to himself, “She’s not in there.”
Wow. What a moment of recognition. How many times has your client looked for what they thought they wanted in the fridge? How often, instead of dealing with their issues and relationships, have they turned to food? What I really want isn’t in here, Nick realizes. I’m not hungry for food. I’m hungry for love. What your client needs and wants most are often the things that haven’t come easily to them: love, belonging, security, success, fulfilling relationships, meaning.
These things can elude them completely or seem too hard to get. Food, on the other hand, can be everywhere and easy to find most of the time. Somewhere in the search for what they’ve longed for most in life, they’ve turned to food to fill the empty places.
Turning to food in a crisis is not just your client’s experience, but also our culture’s, which encourages the illusion that sweets can soothe the soul. Feeding frustration, sadness, hurt, and disappointment with food, in fact, has become a national joke. Emotional hunger is not sated by ice cream and cookies or chocolate and peanut butter, any more than the hunger for love is sated by a store-bought valentine and a teddy bear.
The good news? Your client can relearn the difference between physical and emotional hunger.
To start, ask them to think on how the pangs of physical hunger and emotional hurt can feel so much the same: the pounding in their head, ache in their heart, yawning hollowness in the pit of their stomach, tightness in their throat. Isn’t it strangely similar, the sensation of needing food for your stomach and sustenance for your spirit—those times you feel lonely, rejected, grieved, bitter, abandoned, or hurt? Both hungers can leave a person feeling the same: faint, weary, and weak.
But physical and emotional hunger differ in several ways that you can share with your client:
- Emotional hunger doesn’t notice signs of fullness but physical hunger can be satiated and you can stop eating when you’re full. With the emotional, even when your stomach is full, you keep eating until you’re numb to what triggered the impulse to eat.
- Emotional eating doesn’t satisfy and leaves you feeling ashamed and guilty, while there’s no remorse when you satisfy physical hunger and no guilt in eating.
- Emotional hunger must be fed by what you crave but physical hunger can be satiated by most any food, from spinach to sauerkraut, even foods that you don’t especially enjoy by taste or texture. With emotional eating you want your trigger foods, whether they’re sweet like ice cream and doughnuts or high-fat and savory like pizza and potato chips.
- Emotional hunger arrests you suddenly but physical hunger grows gradually. With emotional hunger, there’s an intense, urgent impulse to eat, and you confuse an emotional need for a physical one. The need isn’t really for food but you can’t seem to get food off your mind, and once you start eating you can’t seem to stop. Physical hunger begins with subtle cues like a growling stomach that can grow to a yawning feeling in your stomach and eventually a headache and lightheadedness. For the most part, however, you can control these signals, deciding when to eat and when to stop.
Your client will begin to see, as Nick did, that what may pull them to the refrigerator is not just the cupcake but a kiss, not only a batch of fudge but a fling. Their soul hungers for something more satisfying beyond what’s immediately there for the taking. Because they want more from life, they start paying attention to not only what they’re eating, but what’s eating them.
Rhona Epstein, Psy.D., C.A.C., is a licensed psychologist, certified addictions counselor, and marriage and family therapist in the Philadelphia area, and the author of the new book Food Triggers: End Your Cravings, Eat Well, and Live Better (Worthy Publishing). For more than twenty-five years, she’s lead seminars, conferences, and therapeutic workshops to help people overcome food addiction and its underlying issues. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from Chestnut Hill College, and her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Temple University. She’s passionate, from her own personal experience and recovery from food addiction, to address the needs of the whole person (mind, body, and spirit). Visit her web site at www.rhonaepstein.com