The Invisible Link Between Overeating and Loneliness
Sarah Bray, a friend I deeply admire tweeted,
“Loneliness is the worst of all the feelings. And the weird thing is, it’s not that easy to solve. It’s more about the heart than proximity.”
Sarah poetically captured startling new research findings. The research found it doesn’t matter if you’re physically alone. Or if you’re attractive, intelligent or popular. It’s your perceived isolation, specifically if your relationships don’t meet your social needs.
For many of my clients, they overeat when they feel (awkwardly) visible or invisible. These feelings of being “too much” or “without plans” leads to overeating and private bingeing.
The daily costs of this perceived social isolation is “makes no sense” eating.
The long-term consequences are a constant battle with food that leads to health challenges and body image issues.
Weight and body challenges are as much about belonging as they are about food.
The Visible and Invisible Tension: Root Causes
Most of my clients don’t realize it’s their perception isolating them from others. Here’s what happens:
- You compare yourself to thinner people. You find ways your better and worse. You come up wrong in the math and shut down. You’re still talking but keep the conversation superficial and light. No voicing your opinion about your experiences that counters the other person’s opinion or you’re in your head the entire time, focusing on how to not be any more awkward than you already feel about your body.
- You’re afraid others will think you’re on a diet. And clearly failing because you haven’t lost weight yet. No one wants to look like they’re trying! You genuinely don’t feel like dessert yet order one anyway.
- You’re the perfect host or you talk sports all night at the bar with a cute guy yet feel invisible when you don’t get enough gold stars for the logistics you pulled off or the guy doesn’t ask for your number. You overeat in private because, why even try? Nothing is ever going to change.
Much of the time, this isolation is unconscious because it’s how we see the world, not that we’re making up a story about the situation itself.
My clients sabotage their healthy eating efforts when their mindset is focused on, “am I being chosen?” instead of “what do I choose?” It’s really difficult to have our social needs met when it feels like approval is conditional.
Transforming what I call the “Good Girl” mindset, whose constantly monitoring if you’ll be chosen, requires increasing your agency. Your power comes from choosing who you want to belong with.
As pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Brogan writes how mental struggles can help restore your power, “Sometimes challenges are exactly what the doctor ordered.”
Unpacking Social Isolation
As I tell clients, when we’re in the “please choose me” mindset, it’s like riding in a car with someone else or others. Your whole goal is to people please so you don’t get asked to leave. You’re not particular about the destination. Rather, your goal is to arrive with the other person or group.
You also don’t realize this is your goal. Or that Uber, the bus, and the subway exists.
“Am I enough?” even becomes a question. And it determines if you get to stay and the criteria is based on the other person’s perceived terms. Many of my clients assume their needs are in conflict with others, like wanting to have a healthy dish but not wanting to offend the host or appear high maintenance.
Even though this but situation is often an and situation.
When I have them test this story by actually finding out their hosts needs in this example, most discover an intimate collaboration with the host about what foods they’ll be able to eat and what they can bring to fill in any gaps because they aren’t expecting everyone to eat like them (the opposite of high-maintenance).
Now, back to the car metaphor.
In this car, there are hundreds of passengers that come and go. And you really want to stay in because CONSEQUENCES! To Sarah’s point, loneliness, and its sister feeling rejection, feels like rock bottom.
As a result, you believe you have mind reading abilities and rely on subtext to determine the other passenger’s needs (in the case of the host, it’s assuming she’ll feel put out by your dietary needs).
As one client aptly described her skill, “I’m the Queen of subtext!”
In the examples above, here’s one version of the subtext:
- Thin people have it easier when they put themselves out there; it’s harder for me.
- The weight isn’t coming off so I’m failing; success is measured only in pounds lost.
- Silence is rejection; I need to be a right fit for everyone.
This subtext builds up our social stories. Instead of challenging those stories to feel more intimacy in our social interactions, we increase our sense of isolation when our stories aren’t fact-checked.
Can you see how this leads to perceived isolation, even amongst “close” family members?
The Cost of Seeking Approval
Over time, people pleasing disconnects you from your own choices, wearing away your self-trust. It happens gradually and subtly. This becomes a downward spiral of chronic tension between feeling visible in the wrong ways and invisible.
You continually abandon your needs, eventually unsure of what they are. You increasingly make others assumed preferences, your preferences. Your grip on the weight loss fantasy of your social life being easier intensifies. More pressure. More rebellion.
And here’s where the fun comes in:
You can’t just not care what people think. Others are biologically and emotionally essential to survival and thriving. And food has overtaken social situations as the main attraction.
So, how do you feel intimately connected for your nutritional and emotional health?
The Bridge to Intentional Caring
Note, these steps are like walking a labyrinth. You continue to revisit, feeling more grounded and clear with each interaction.
Step 1: Change the car
Sometimes we know what we need from our social outings and relationships. Yet don’t follow through. And sometimes we just don’t know.
Either way, scheduled time in solitude reacquaints you with you. Having space to sort out your thoughts and hear your intuition is what you need.
Walking in nature or dancing to music are my favorite meditative outlets.
Fifteen minutes is a great time frame to start. It’s short enough you won’t cancel on yourself and it’s enough to feel the benefits.
The more you’re with yourself, the less isolated you feel.
This is the paradox, and how change occurs: what we embrace, dissolves.
Here’s how this happens:
The less other people’s approval determines your loneliness, the less pressure on each interaction you have with others. You don’t feel like you have to be perfect.
Your existing needs, like staying gluten-free are reinforced and you discover new preferences, like wanting to leave social obligations early because your bad eating comes once your Introverted battery dies.
This gradually fosters the deep belonging we all need, with the right-for-you people, who respect and support your needs.
As the poet David Whyte breathtakingly says, “I will come and find you when the love I find inside myself is equal to what you offer.”
Getting clear on your needs is an unfolding process. Making solitude a ritual facilitates this.
Step 2: Orient your direction
Next is changing your behaviors that keep you isolated.
Part of the challenge in eating well isn’t just that different foods work for different people. In the case of overeating when feeling isolated, everyone isolates differently. With food, some of my clients:
- Believe they can’t be moderate so they skip social affairs where they might be “tempted to eat bad.”
- Have “performance anxiety” about explaining why they aren’t eating certain things or being viewed as boring or high-maintenance for being healthy.
- Eat healthy in public only to overeat on “bad” foods in private to avoid feeling visible in the “wrong” ways.
In each of the above scenarios, it’s exploring and challenging your story underneath your food choices:
- Can I balance your blood sugar at the event so I don’t crave all the “bad” carbs?
- Why do I think it’s a conflict to take responsibility for my health?
- What scares me about sharing the “in progress” parts of my life?
A great way to identify your own isolating behavior is to think of the four stress responses: fight, flight, freeze or tend and befriend.
- Some clients “fight” by being defensive and sarcastic in social interactions.
- Some clients, “flight”, withdrawal and think, “Ok, I’m out!” only to overeat as soon as they’re alone.
- Others “freeze” and over-analyze the situation to death, exhaust themselves, eat and nothing changes. Battling food becomes the norm and they continue to battle, and lose.
- Others “tend and befriend” or people please by ordering what the group wants, or drink as much as others, even though if they check-in, they really want to make the healthy choice.
While these behaviors are around food, there’s a coaching maxim that “how we do anything is how we do everything.”
You’ll most likely notice these same, draining behaviors in non-food related interactions.
Once you notice your stress response in social situations, you then have a choice to be different. Check-in with yourself first and determine your goal for that situation. Not what looks “good”, but what will feel good?
As you change your own behaviors, you’ll start to realize that the main person’s mind you were reading was your own.
As you act differently and “measure” what actually happens, not your subtext or “mad libs” version, you chip away and eventually prevent the isolating feelings you’re trying to numb out from.
It’s not about pushing these feelings aside, it’s seeing the opening they’re providing to make your world bigger. And find the people you’re meant to belong with.
Here’s some client examples of trying new behaviors to not feel isolated:
- Starting a conversation about how hard motherhood is with the Mom who already lost her baby weight. You discover you’re both finding your way and being at one’s pre-baby weight doesn’t give them the magical answers to parenthood.
- Make the “diet” choice and no one comments. Or seems to notice.
- When being asked to do a couple of extra things for a holiday party, saying you’d love to but you can’t and the hostess saying, “Ok, I’ll find someone else. Can’t wait to see you!”
Step 3: Who’s in? Who’s out?
You’ll find that many people in your life are happy to travel where you want to go. You’ll also find new, soulful connections on your new path. These are the people whose needs aren’t in conflict with yours.
Others will leave or fall by the wayside.
Most importantly, you’ll be with the people Oprah soul-stirringly says, are “rooting for your rise”.
Many of my clients find their discomfort around their food choices and needs disappear because largely, most aren’t paying attention to what they eat and, they feel emotionally fulfilled with deeper connections.
Or, it they say, “I’m experimenting with larger lunch meals like Europeans”, it starts a lively, interesting discussion where others want to try it too because they know their heartburn is from such a large dinner.
This authenticity breeds healthy intimacy. And healthy intimacy satiates our need to belong.
While my clients know on an intellectual level, that all humans are, well, human, and mostly concerned with themselves, trying new behaviors translates into emotional healing that chips away at the feeling that visibility and invisibility is a threat to their belonging.
As one client reflected on how different her Thanksgiving was, “The shame around food is just gone.”
Step 4: The breakdown before riding off into the sunset
It’s popular in the self-help world to call our stories self-limiting beliefs.
But the hard truth is that in some cases, it’s not “all in your head”:
- Thin privilege exists.
- You’re not going to get healthy or lose weight without feeling like you’re on a roller-coaster, dipping into failure at times.
- There are people who have narrow definitions of what a romantic interest look like.
The difference is knowing we have a choice. That belonging is accessible to all of us. As I often tell my clients when they embark on healing their stories, in a quote made famous by Gloria Steinem and Erin Brockovich,
The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off.
I hope you’ll take this clarity and labyrinth map and choose yourself and your health goals, and include fulfilling belonging in your prescription.
Originally published at alishapiro.com.