I cannot change; it’s eating me up

What's the focus?

I have been asked to comment on the issue of eating our way out of problems or, indeed, eating our way into even more problems.

I have left this topic for a long time as it is a thorny subject. It may even highlight the Achilles Heel of small, safe experiments. The attraction of eating – too little, or too much – can be more attractive than the humdrum, day-by-day steps involved in sustaining ourselves on the scenic route with little more than faith to keep our eyes focused on the road.

Even so, it is now time to say what I can. I am hoping some readers – better informed than I – will get back with some concrete suggestions; steps that worked for them.

I cannot not behave

So,  I want to start with you cannot not behave: a phrase I have used before. One of the more interesting ‘behaviours’ is appearing to do nothing – to stop, look and listen to your own body and environment.

Every behaviour has a purpose. The purpose is commonly “so I can feel better” At the risk of being patronising, we do not always know ‘better’ when we experience it! It is even possible to feel ‘worse’, and to think that is ‘better’ at some different time. I make this point when talking about seemingly perverse responses to trauma.

Our eating behaviour can be problematic in precisely that way. It is a behaviour that is difficult to understand, it is complex, and it is challenging to alter.

How come do humans get confused over this?

  • by temperament,
  • levels of self-esteem,
  • as a learned avoidance of something uncomfortable.
  • early years experience, or
  • some genetic basis.
  • out of fear for the future. As a comfort and as an avoidance of the inevitable.
  • an unexpressed and buried strong emotion reluctant to see the light of day that diverts into food-related behaviour. It could be behaviour that is not related to food, but often it manifests via food intake and diet. What we eat, and how much we eat can be a concrete way to self-harm.

… to name just a few off the top of my head. Often eating in an unhelpful way may be related to dissociation; where ‘parts’ of ourselves do the eating,  and other parts look on with horror or disgust.

Such issues are often connected to Drivers, as mentioned before. Perfectionism and obsessive actions and feelings of anxiety are often co-related.

Research has suggested that dysfunctional family interaction and attachment history can increase our susceptibility to an unhelpful eating habit.

Either our own, or our parents’ pre-occupation with body image and food intake will promote unhelpful habits,  as may experiences of loss and abuse in our lives.

Eating as a ‘coping mechanism’

In short, eating patterns are powerful coping mechanisms, along with many others at our finger tips. 

All this will make sense for many readers but it is an understanding that does not help to identify do-able things needed to break the pattern in our behaviour.

However, this understanding may make the point that our eating habits are not the ‘real’ problem.

Eating habits can be a response to a problem

Like ‘drink problems’, the thing talked about as ‘the problem’ is most often more a response to the problem. That is, drinking and eating conceal something else more troubling to us.

This is very much in line with Stephen Porges’ view that it is not the ‘events that matter, but rather our response to events; likely as not, several events. To produce change depends on our ability to see what our behaviour is achieving and how we might achieve an unmet need in a different way; just something a little bit different? (a familiar phrase, I hope!).

When we are at war with ourselves

When there is a ‘war’ with our own bodies; food becomes a weapon, even the enemy, itself. Trauma and loss compromises our system that may be weakened already, say, by stress and current or recent life events. We may be pre-disposed to act against our longer term best interests.

Few people would intend things to work out this way. Dieting, for example, might seem like a good safe experiment. Yet restricted eating can slow down the body’s metabolic rate without us noticing this. After all, the body’s main purpose is to survive and it reacts to food intake to ensure that – even if we put on weight!

The more that is learned about the biology of appetite and weight regulation, the more complex the picture can become and, consequently, disordered eating can get out of hand.

Can ‘why’, an explanation, help?

Whatever the ‘cause’, it is best that your small, safe experiments do not go to the ‘why’.  Leave ‘why’ at the door and attend to the how and the what. More particularly, who do you need around you to make difficult things more easy to initiate and sustain?

This latter focus may help you maintain a watchful eye, without self-oppression. It may help to direct some energy to the ‘just noticing‘ small, safe experiment. The combinations are many and varied.

Looking avoidance in the eye

Please keep in mind that some experiments have the potential to be very sophisticated avoidance strategies.  notice how the grand plans offered by gurus and profit-making organisations may be very attractive when compared with the more modest task: to focus on small change. I have addressed the stages of change in several places.

Those who have struggled to find ways through the labyrinth may be best placed to help. I have not had to do that. Even then, when we are close to the experience it is not so easy to do the basic small, safe experiment which I do recommend –  to stand back and just notice what is going on. This ‘reflecting’ is necessary if i am to make a good judgement and to act in my best interest.

I offer the ”Standing Back’ safe experiment as a central option to you.  Standing back is what ‘good’ education can do for you – an opportunity to see the larger picture from a distance.  It requires a certain ‘attitude’; a reflective posture. 


Because reflecting and pausing may be more important than action.

Can you tell me about your own safe experiments?

Further leads to consider


What is a nudge

How to do small, safe experiments

An illustrated route towards change