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Emotional Hunger

Do either of these phrases sound or feel familiar: “But I’m just not hungry!” or “I have a ravenous appetite that I can never fill.”  For those experiencing an eating disorder, these thoughts and feelings seem to dictate your life.  Some never feel hungry, literally, no matter how little they eat.  Some never feel satisfied, no matter how much they eat. There are several emotional reasons behind such physical manifestations; however, I’d like to focus on one aspect. How we deal with our physical appetites correlates with how we deal with our emotional appetites and needs. For example, do you deny your need to use your voice? Do you ignore your needs for connection? Do you feel as if you don’t deserve to take up space through wanting or speaking your views? If you don’t feel hungry or deny your hunger, chances are you also deny or ignore your needs. Our body will speak for us what we cannot say with our mouths.

To understand these patterns of using food fill or deny one’s needs, we need to reevaluate our experiences as a young person. Such patterns start by hearing phrases like, “You’re being disrespectful,” “Who do you think you are?” or “You’re too loud.” Such statements communicate shame for having a voice and for being you. If you ask for help or express your feelings and a person says, either verbally or non-verbally, that they are a burden or an annoyance, you may internalize such treatment. This internalization creates core beliefs like, “My needs are too much.” Or “My needs will not get met.” Such core beliefs create the pattern of controlling or ignoring your needs. In time, it manifests into the pattern of ignoring and controlling one’s physical needs (feeding your body). However, feelings of shame, fear or rejection come alive when you eat (if you experience anorexia). It may feel like you are out of control. Since the emotional and physical needs are synonymous, it sounds like this: If I let myself eat, I’m afraid I’ll never stop.” However, what it really means is: “If I allow myself to have emotional needs, I will never stop needing or I’ll never be able to contain the needs or emotions. Why such fears? Again, hearing early messages from caregivers that communicate you “should” control your needs or that your needs are “too much” create such fears. The messages become internalized and you now believe the same about yourself. Can you see the correlation between the emotional and physical needs and hungers?

The same is true for those who experience emotional or binge eating. The insatiable hunger represents the insatiable needs which were not met. It represents the emptiness from not being able to ask for your needs, so you use food to try to fill it. I remember experiencing this while in recovery. While I was eating, I felt intense fear. It was an internal panic of abandonment which manifested into a binge. I didn’t want to stop eating because it felt like the “last” opportunity to ever have my emotional needs met. I feared the moment I had to stop eating. I knew the emptiness of my emotional needs would return. In time, I understood my feelings and knew food could never make me feel loved or wanted.

The relationship between emotional and physical hunger can manifest in multiple of ways. The combination of our experiences and personalities creates core beliefs. It is these core beliefs (like the only way I can feel good is to be thin or food is the only dependable thing in my life) which perpetuate unhealthy relationships with food. The important part of this exercise is to recognize the correlation between emotional needs and physical needs. Once you make such a correlation, you can start to recognize, honor and meet your emotional needs. No matter how many ways you eat or don’t eat, you will never find the perfect combination to feed your emotional needs. Why? Because there is no such combination! Food will never win a person in your life. A specific body cannot make people stop saying hurtful words. Binging will not help create authentic connections with people to create a feeling of love.

To begin meeting your emotional needs, find out what they are. Each day, rate your feelings. Zero represents the absence of that feeling and five represents the highest intensity of that feeling. For each feeling, write what thought or external situation created each feeling. Then, for each situation, write the emotional need. As you recognize your needs, you can find ways to meet the emotional needs. As you meet these needs, you will be able to recognize and meet the needs of your physical body. This will mean eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full. No matter what past messages you received as a young person, you do deserve to express your feelings, ask others for help and receive appropriate help. You absolutely matter!

~ Rachel Quast, M.A., CPT , SHED founder & president

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