Excerpted from Weight Loss for People Who Feel Too Much by Colette Baron-Reid, available in paperback wherever books are sold on December 31, 2013.
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A person who feels too much often senses the need to eat because her experience of the world is too much for her.
It’s not that she simply loves the taste, texture, smell, and sight of food, which provides a sensory experience. It’s not that she’s experiencing hunger pangs, or even that she’s addicted to food, although that may be.
Diets don’t work for her because they don’t address her powerful need to feel grounded in herself, separated from the confusing, distressing emotional turbulence around her. Food serves that purpose.
The stress of remaining in the moment, without knowing what you are sensing and how to be separate from it, is deeply discombobulating for someone who feels too much. The pain and discomfort are intolerable, and you will do anything to escape.
If you’re highly sensitive and empathetic, that has a profound influence on your weight, as well as your thought processes and your moods, which affect your eating habits and your relationships with others.
I’m sure you know all about emotional eating, but you’ve probably never considered what empathetic eating is, too. There is a subtle yet profound difference between the two. An example of emotional eating would be feeling so uncomfortable after a conflict with a coworker that you reach for the stash of mini candy bars you keep in your desk drawer to calm your anger and embarrassment.
However, let’s say that it’s not you who was in conflict with someone at work but two people in another department. You walk into the meeting room where they just had a heated argument and you feel the tension in the air. You’re unsettled and uncomfortable and have no clue why. As other coworkers file into the meeting room, you have a compelling urge to sneak back to your office and grab some candy bars. You start feeling defensive and on alert, and you can’t understand why. All you know is that you want those mini chocolates right now. That’s empathetic eating.
Emotional eating and empathetic eating often occur at the same time.
Let’s say you’re about to leave for work and you’re feeling particularly vulnerable because you woke up, weighed yourself, and were embarrassed and ashamed by the number on the scale. You drive to work and feel frustrated, anxious, and angry that other cars aren’t allowing you to merge. Then you walk into the meeting room where tension hangs in the air and you suddenly realize there’s a ball of confusing emotions rolling around inside you and you have no idea how to sort it out.
Visions of doughnuts dance in your head. Your emotions are difficult enough to deal with, but now you’ve taken on the emotions of others and added them to the mix. You’ve done this because you’re highly sensitive and empathetic, and other people’s emotions flood into you through your porous boundaries.
You probably don’t realize when you’re taking on someone else’s emotions that you’re experiencing feelings that aren’t yours. Thoughts don’t enter your mind when you’re deeply upset and feeling ungrounded. You just feel discombobulated, or upset. You can’t put your finger on what you’re really feeling. You don’t say, “Hey there, self. Bob’s anger has entered you and you’re tuned in to him!” All you know is that you have to have that salty, sugary, fatty treat now.
I know what this is like because I have felt this way with disturbing regularity: filled with confusing emotions that were upsetting me. I didn’t recognize that many of those feelings weren’t even mine.
Why did it take me so long to figure this out? Why don’t diet books or courses teach us about how taking on other people’s “stuff” affects us?
In our culture, we don’t talk much about empathy, so when you’re sitting there feeling guilty for downing a huge portion of junk food, you’re not likely to think about this whole “empathy” and “sensitivity” thing. But ah, if you did, what you would learn!