“When you no longer believe that eating will save your life when you feel exhausted or overwhelmed or lonely, you will stop. When you believe in yourself more than you believe in food, you will stop using food as if it were your only chance at not falling apart.” ~Geneen Roth
I used to eat because I was lonely.
Lunch hour at school would last nine billion years. I’d have no one to sit with—I was spotty and mega bossy, and my hobby was copying pages from anthropology books.
Everyone would put a sweater on the chair next to them, so I’d have to sit further away. Then, just as I’d pick up my fork, they’d up and leave anyway! “Oh well,” I’d think, “If I eat slowly I can make my fries last till the bell goes.”
I switched to packed lunches to avoid the dining hall. But I didn’t want to be spotted alone on a windowsill, so I’d eat my sandwiches in a toilet cubicle.
After, I’d feel full, but unsatisfied. And still have time to kill! So I’d go to the dinner hall and buy a meat pie. I felt sad and gross.
The truth was, I didn’t know how to be a friend, let alone make one. I was full of resentment toward other kids.
I acted superior but felt inferior. I was needy, or tried to impress them.
I didn’t think friendship was something people learned—I thought there was something wrong with me. That I’d be this way forever.
I also hated that I couldn’t resist overeating. Since my family was big on brown rice and organic vegetables, I felt guilty for buying junk food.
When I hit my teens, I became body-conscious. I panicked that comfort food would make me fat. I wasn’t! But I thought my thighs were big, and clenched my stomach in all day. All day!
I felt too embarrassed to ask anyone—especially my parents—for help. I thought they’d say I was greedy. Or lecture me about eating crap. Or take me to a doctor—humiliating!
I didn’t know it was called “emotional eating,” but I was pretty sure it was bad. So I kept quiet.
I thought: “I can fix this myself. I just need the self-discipline to eat less!”
Going on improvised diets made things a whole new level of worse: binge eating, bulimia, and feeling utterly obsessed and depressed about food.
It took seven years before I found a way to recover.
I wish I’d known how to deal with lonely emotional eating in the first place, instead of going off on an eating disorder tangent!
So if you’re dealing with a double-whammy of eating and loneliness yourself, here are eight simple steps. They will guide you through solving your emotional eating, and your loneliness, from the inside out.
1. Imagine your life without emotional eating, and shift focus away from guilt and shame.
You’re not greedy. You’re not gross. You’re not ill. You’re just trying to cope with a fear: abandonment.
It’s the emotional fear we’re born with. Outside the tribal circle, a baby would die. The primitive part of your brain thinks, “I’m alone—I’ll starve!”
It’s how you’re wired, so give yourself a break.
If you waste your energy wrestling with guilt and shame over eating, you’ll never tackle the real emotional challenge—loneliness.
So when guilt and shame come up, shift your focus.
Imagine a peaceful relationship with food. Imagine eating when you’re actually hungry. Visualize slowly nourishing yourself.
2. Loneliness is a self-worth issue, so become willing to work on your self-worth.
It’s like this: You’re by yourself. That’s not loneliness, that’s solitude.
Sometimes it’s nice, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. Uh-oh!
Mind games start: you imagine it’s because you’re unlovable.
That’s loneliness. Low self-worth, in disguise.
If you’re lonely, it’s easy to think you could earn your self-worth back by changing something external.
You think, “If I found a great partner, then I’d know I was lovable.”
Or you think, “I’ll be worth loving once I get a grip on my emotional eating and lose weight.”
But that’s not how it works! Self-worth isn’t something you earn. Or that drops in your lap either.
You choose to create it.
So ask yourself: How can I work on my self-worth?
(Don’t worry if you don’t know yet. Some ideas are coming up…)
3. Spend some quality time with yourself.
Are you enjoying your time by yourself? Or just watching TV?
Imagine you treated a child the way you treat yourself on a too-tired evening.
Browsing Facebook when they say, “Play with me.” Sending them to the fridge to scavenge instead of cooking dinner. Binge-watching Netflix instead of putting them to bed when they’re tired.
They’d feel hurt, and start believing they weren’t worth spending time with. They’d also start misbehaving wildly to get your attention!
The same is true for how you feel about yourself. When we ignore our inner selves, we start to believe we are worthless, and an emotional eating crisis is a great way for our heart and soul to grab our attention.
Spend some quality time with yourself.
Take yourself on a date, just you and you.
Play (build a go-cart, paint your room), be in your body (move, bathe, meditate), or relax (read, whistle, sit in nature).
Self-worth grows as you self-connect, so every little counts.
4. Create thoughts that give an inkling of self-worth.
When I was rock bottom with food and loneliness, my thoughts were dominated by failure, being a victim, and believing change was impossible.
Stuff like “I’m gonna be lonely forever,” and “I hate my body, I hate myself for eating, and I’m too pathetic to stop.”
Three positive thoughts in particular helped me out of my pit.
They didn’t tell me directly I was worthy or fabulous—saying anything saccharine about my life would have felt like gloss painting a turd.
They just implied a basic level of self-worth.
They were: “I’m part of life unfolding.” (I’m not in a vacuum. Even though I feel totally dissociated and alone, I’m still participating in life on the planet.)
“I really care about my body.” (I’m upset I overate again. But I couldn’t get upset if I were indifferent… So on some level, I must care!)
And: “Things are already changing.” (Repeating this phrase is a positive action… So maybe I won’t always be like this).
Find one thought that implies you aren’t your worst fears. That makes you feel worthy-ish. Then repeat it like you’re being paid a piece rate to do so.
5. Explore how you’ve created loneliness.
Try this: It’s funny!
Imagine someone wants to master the art of loneliness. Lucky for them, you’ve honed the perfect system!
Write down what you’d teach them.
My own Perfect System for Staying Lonely says: “Don’t have a calendar for friends’ birthdays. Tell yourself that you’re too broke to buy gifts, cards, or book a babysitter.”
And: “Get hired for shift work, and rehearse theatre shows every weekend.” I disconnected from my relationship like that that for the first five years of my marriage! (Thankfully, the guy’s a legend.)
The point is, I thought loneliness happened to me.
But I make myself lonely, when I don’t need to be. Years after my schooldays are behind me, I lead myself back to that painful-yet-familiar place. It’s called a comfort zone.
It doesn’t mean it’s your fault you’re lonely—this isn’t about blame. This is actually good news: If you’re doing it, you can undo it.
6. List everything that your loneliness buys you.
An excuse not to face trust issues?
A reason to avoid intimacy?
A cover for social anxiety?
I know it’s not obvious that loneliness has advantages, but sometimes it’s a way to avoid something even more scary or painful.
Me? Loneliness excuses me from owning my introvert personality. Intimacy makes me feel vulnerable, and rejection scares the crap outta me.
These hidden benefits to your loneliness are called “payoffs.” It pays off to explore them!
Because they’re the reason you’re creating loneliness, even though it hurts.
7. Explore the ripple effect of loneliness in your life.
You’d expect loneliness to make you shy at parties, or reluctant to date.
But has it changed you in other ways?
Unhealthy self-reliance has made me a nightmare to cook with. And low self-worth has taken its toll on my financial outlook.
Clean out your worldview.
Defy your loneliness-inspired beliefs about what you can and can’t do (like, ask someone to chop the mushrooms while you stir the risotto, or ask your boss for a raise).
It’s a great way to un-victim yourself.
8. Finally, when you’ve done all that inner work, break up your emotional eating habit.
Habits weld to each other! Drinking and smoking. Driving and talking to yourself in a variety of accents. Lonely emotional eating and—?
Break the links.
Don’t just say to yourself “Stop eating toast.” Don’t make any rules about what you eat.
Instead, change how you eat. If you don’t know how you eat, slow down.
Notice what you do at each stage of your emotional eating habit—beforehand, during, after, where, when, with what planning.
Do any part of your habit differently.
Say you eat ten slices of buttered toast and jam in front of the TV each evening. Buy different butter that you don’t like so much. Put the TV (or the toaster) in the cellar. Create an eating area, keep the sofa for relaxing. Shop differently. Go out.
Keep disrupting your habit, and it will eventually dissipate.
Habit change takes patience, and sometimes repeated attempts too.
But break up your habit from enough angles, and you’ll eventually find you’ve replaced it with a way to enjoy food again.
The way I think of it, addressing loneliness is 88 percent of the solution for emotional eating from loneliness.
When I solved my eating struggles, I spent a couple of years of journaling and becoming aware of my beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. Then, only a month or two of habit change.
I know a couple of years sounds really long! Perhaps it will take less time for you. The point is, this isn’t a quick fix. Quick fixes rarely address the underlying issues.
It’s tempting to rush. To try to skip straight to solving the eating—out-of-control eating feels unbearable and you want it to stop, like, yesterday—but if that hasn’t been working for you, or you’ve even ended up binge eating like I did, give yourself permission and time to go deeper.
Trust me, changing an emotional eating habit is much easier when it’s just eating, and the compulsion part has had your loving attention.
So good luck, and don’t rush.
About Laura Lloyd
Laura Lloyd is a food psychology and weight loss coach, specializing in work-driven emotional eating. You can access her FREE training: How do I stop after-work overeating? here.