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Why Obesity Is Often a Symptom of a Deeper Pain

April 8, 2016

In many previous articles published on my blog, I’ve mentioned the fact that chronic obesity is very often a symptom of a much deeper pain.  Today, I’d like to dive deeply into that subject and examine why this is the case, what you can do about it if it affects you, and what the consequences might be if you ignore it. 

Pain, Symptoms, & The Role of Compassion 

It is in our nature as humans to avoid pain. That’s why we deploy defense mechanisms like repression or avoidance to escape uncomfortable emotions that we are not yet ready to face. As a licensed therapist I am privileged to sit with people in their pain. While everyone’s story is different the commonalities lie in the behaviors they’ve found comfort in to help keep some feelings at bay. Some escape into a world of workaholism. Others substance abuse, and some find their escape in affairs.

People often wonder about how I resist judging the folks who come to me for help. To me it’s pretty simple. When we judge someone, including ourselves, that is just an indication that we aren’t fully immersed in the fulness of that personal story.

“Taken out of context I might seem so strange.” -Ani Difranco

Behaviors like comfort (binge) eating never make sense unless they’re put into proper context. People don’t engage in behaviors they feel ashamed about simply for pleasure. Pleasure may certainly be part of it, but longstanding patterns of those behaviors are merely a symptom of a much deeper pain that we are attempting to mask.

Those symptoms never makes sense outside of their context. Once we discover the context for the behavior it unlocks compassion–“I overeat as a way to regulate stress and anxiety, during times of loneliness and depression, etc.” I have said time and again, the only way to change behavior patterns that aren’t serving you is to first have compassion for yourself in understanding why you are doing it. You don’t have to like the behavior, but you have to like yourself enough to begin to make the changes you desire.

Your pain is public

The reality is that there is likely pain just about everywhere in our society. It is in the lives of your co-worker a cubical down, the person standing behind you in line at the coffee shop and it’s also likely to be in the life of you and I. The trouble with finding comfort in food for pain, is that over time it leads to a visible representation of our pain–weight gain. In this sense, people who find comfort in food cannot hide their pain.

I realize this is a different perspective than the popular notion promoted in our society that says obesity is a result of laziness, lack of intelligence and willpower. (And, imagine for a moment if we swapped this weight shame for the notion that obesity might be a symptom of deeper pain. When we noticed someone that is overweight we might have compassion in our heart rather than judgment and shame…just a thought).

Society can’t so quickly judge someone struggling who’s being unfaithful to their spouse because it’s rare to catch them with their mistress. It’s equally rare to catch the functioning alcoholic drinking after work at his secret watering hole, and thus there is a way to hide that pain and it’s symptomatology. Comfort eating, however, leaves a shadow. And, as that shadow looms larger and larger it only increases the shame, despair and hopelessness people feel.

Get to the root of the problem

If you want to change your long-standing relationship to comfort eating you must do two things.

First, you must be willing to dig deep and explore the recurring pain that you’ve been using food to escape, numb or find comfort in. Second, you must engage in that exploration from a place of compassion for yourself, rather than shame. When you explore the emotion behind your comfort eating you will discover a context that finally allows your wild relationship with food to actually make perfect sense.

Trigger emotions are the biggest clues that we have for tracing our way back to the real pain. What feelings triggers eating for comfort? Maybe it’s anxiety, or loneliness, or depression; maybe it’s the fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, or fear of failure—or a combination of several of those feelings. Identify what your trigger emotions are and then spend some time examining the backstory of your relationship to that feeling.  When did it first show up? In what relationships or settings?

In my journey I discovered that comfort eating was often something I did went I felt overwhelmed, lonely or worried about being abandoned by a loved one. Comfort eating plagued many patches of my adulthood but it started back when I was a latchkey kid. I used to dread coming home to an empty house.  Food was my long-standing comforter during those times of pain, and overtime that became my almost automatic response to those feelings popping up in my life. 

What happens if you ignore the pain

The process of identifying your pain and piecing together the backstory that caused it is not easy.  It’s something that must be done intentionally and often with help.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many arenas in life where people are encouraged to do that kind of exploration, which is why professional counseling can be a good option for many people. (LEARN MORE: 5 Reasons Why A Counselor Is Vital to Your Weight Loss Journey)

Because of the fact that the process of identifying the root cause of obesity isn’t easy, many people never attempt it and may never even consider that there is a deeper cause for it than simply eating too much.  The consequences of this are twofold.

First, it’s possible you might go through a drastic weight loss transformation—and all the hard work and effort it entails—and find out at the end of the process that the pain still exists.

Second, it’s likely that you will always be very critical and shaming towards yourself.  You won’t cultivate the type of self-esteem, self-worth and identity that you’re looking for. 

Either of these destinations would be devastating, and often it’s this devastation that I see most often lend itself right back into the loop of comfort eating, and eventual weight regain.

“I thought weight loss was supposed to fix all this stuff? But in the end I feel more scared, and hopeless that anything will ever heal that pain within.”

The ultimate consequence of either of these outcomes is that there is the sobering reality that you will may end up regaining the weight back all over again. 

Getting support

The mission of this website is to help support people in that journey to discover the real reasons they’re using food for comfort. To help you unlock compassion for yourself so that you can begin to develop new ways of advocating for comfort separate from food. And, to help you build a sense of self-worth separate from the number on the scale so that you will be happier, and ironically more successful on your weight loss journey. 

A great place to start this process is by taking the free self-assessment tool on my website that will give you some insight into some of the things you might be struggling with.  You can also take a look at my Roadmap to Weight Loss program, an 8-week class that takes you through each of the known stages of drastic weight loss, including how to get to the route of your pain. 

A few disclaimers

I think it’s important to disclose that I subscribe to the Health At Every Size movement that supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control). Within this movement is a philosophy that contradicts the “one size fits all model” of health and wellness that suggests we all should be the same size.

This is all to be clear in stating that I do not believe all overweight people should be pathologized for their body size. In other words, being overweight doesn’t always equal deeper unacknowledged pain. Just as much as I realize that there are plenty thin people who use food for comfort whose bodies hide that pain from the world.