There are many reasons that people use food as a way of coping with stress. In my work with emotional eaters, however, I have found that there are four common types of coping styles that are most prevalent and seem to uniquely predispose people to emotional eating:
Suppressors are people who tend to deal with stress internally, without letting on that they’re feeling overwhelmed, need help, or need to talk about their feelings. Often, they’re not even consciously aware of the fact that they’re feeling this way, but may readily acknowledge it when asked by someone who recognizes the amount of stress they must be dealing with. They may not have the tools to express themselves emotionally or may not feel comfortable doing so. Typically, they are concerned about the appearance of weakness in asking for help.
Impostors are those who believe they’re just pretending to be competent at what they do (even though they really are) and feel like they have to maintain this supposed charade. It’s a way of coping that’s commonly referred to as the Impostor Syndrome, and it often leads to great anxiety about the possibility of their secret being found out. They consequently have a tendency to be overly vigilant in carrying out their tasks and are very cautious about avoiding mistakes. Instead of feeling satisfaction after successful completion of a task, the person usually just feels relieved.
Like Impostors, Perfectionists are also extremely careful about avoiding mistakes in whatever they do, but they’re motivated more by a fear of being flawed rather than the humiliation of being exposed like the Impostor. They are driven to be perfect in what they do, mainly because they embrace a black and white view of success and failure. They tend to see any result that is less than perfect as a failed effort.
Pleasers represent, I believe, the most common coping style among emotional eaters. They are people who consistently put the needs of others ahead of their own. They may feel obligated to take on a task for someone else even if that means that they must sacrifice what they want to do for themselves in order to accomplish it. This behavior is a combination of the desire to avoid conflict or rejection if they assert themselves, together with a tendency to undervalue their own needs.
One thing all of these coping styles share in common is the experience of a constant state of tension just beneath the surface of their outward behavior. The tension comes from restraining their emotional response due to concern about the consequences of expressing it. You might think of it as similar to a man holding in his stomach on the beach to hide his pot belly. At some point, he has to let go.
For people who struggle with emotional eating, there is a similar need to let go, but it’s done with eating. They see food as something that is often forbidden because of their tendency to overeat, or because of attitudes toward tempting but forbidden junk food; usually it’s both. In this way, food represents something that needs to be carefully controlled, just like their emotional state. They will almost always try to do this, but when they need to let go of the emotional tension that has built up, eating becomes a way of acting out that needed release.
How can one modify the effect a dysfunctional coping style has on eating, whether it’s one of the four I described or something similar? Someone who relies on any of these styles would need to make two important changes in their way of thinking. The first is to learn how to deal more constructively with the emotions that are held back. This may involve questioning and challenging long-held assumptions about the negative consequences of expressing feelings directly. Many of these assumptions are automatic beliefs that are simply untrue in reality, but have been accepted for so long, they feel very real.
The second necessary change is to challenge commonly accepted attitudes toward food. This could involve questioning the widely held belief that one must abstain from all purely indulgent foods, such as highly caloric desserts, if one is to lose weight. Instead, adopt an attitude of moderating and cutting down on their consumption and challenge the all-or-nothing way of thinking that is so common among chronic dieters. These two changes in how one thinks about expressing emotions and attitudes toward food can help tremendously when trying to take the “emotion” out of emotional eating.