Compulsive Eating? Try the Mirror Cure

MirrorMeditation_09When you do something compulsively, you really get into it. People often experience going into a trance­like state of euphoria that takes them out of the present moment. It feels so good that it’s difficult to stop. And when they do finally stop, they often crash into feelings of self­loathing and regret.

Compulsive eating is a great example. This urge to eat that doesn’t come from actual hunger; it’s often triggered by a desire to shift our attention from ourselves to something that feels better at that moment. Psychologists have studied this particular pattern of eating to escape self-awareness. When people aren’t feeling particularly good about themselves or their thoughts have made them feel uneasy, they may find it almost unbearable to keep focusing their attention on it. One way to shift their awareness and reduce the discomfort is to focus on something outside themselves that provides immediate gratification ­­ and wants nothing in return. that four-letter word: FOOD.

When we eat compulsively, we take the focus off ourselves and put it on food and the immediate sensations of eating. Eating alone further reduces our self-consciousness – there’s no one there to see us pigging out. Our attention narrows to focusing on the simple and pleasurable experience of tasting, sucking, chewing, and swallowing. The experience of compulsive eating is one in which the eater is transported or suspended in time loses awareness of their self or their immediate surroundings. This temporary euphoria is a common and readily accessible way to escape the pain of being you.

You see, most people have critical voices in their heads that come from various sources. Knowing where they come from doesn’t seem to get rid of them, however. And, most of us just don’t know how to get these inner critics to shut up. When these internal voices get activated they lead us to feel discomfort in the form of shame, worry, sadness, or anger – it’s difficult to be with it ourselves, let alone express it to someone else. So we do something to distract ourselves – eating that cupcake or eating just about anything handy to shift our attention off our immediate painful and seemingly uncontrollable emotions. By engaging in a behavior that turns our attention away from our painful thoughts, we have temporarily solved the problem. In this way, we train ourselves to act compulsively as a way to escape from emotional pain.

So how can you stop eating compulsively? Just be friendly, happy, and think only positive thoughts? Good luck with that. Why not try something radically different. Take a look. Yep. That’s right. Watch yourself in the mirror or video record yourself with your phone while you are eating compulsively.

It sounds extreme, I know. But see if you can do it as an experiment and just be curious, you will discover something new about yourself. What does the urge to escape feel like in your body? Can you identify the tactile sensations and emotions that accompany the urge to get away? What are the specific situations that trigger the urge to eat compulsively? By observing yourself with compassion, you may come to realize and want to work with some of the emotional pain you have been trying to chew and swallow away. In any case, it will change your perspective on your behavior ­­ and as a warning, it may spoil your fun!

At this point, you may be asking yourself: What’s so wrong about escaping anyway? Do I need to be that aware of myself? Knowing yourself is your responsibility – and the time, energy and attention you use to escape from knowing yourself ­­ robs you (and the world) of precious resources to create relationships and projects that are unique expressions of you. The world needs you to be present.