What do we need to live a happy and fulfilling life? That’s a question that so many of us get stuck on. As we’re running around, trying to get to work on time, getting things crossed off our to-do lists, and trying to make ends meet, it makes sense that the first things we think about are our material needs: shelter, food, clothing, etc. And yes, meeting these material needs is incredibly important. Being happy and fulfilled requires being nourished, protected from the elements, and having a safe place to sleep.
But so often, we don’t think outside of these material needs. We might finally get to a place where we have the physical safety and financial security that we have been searching for for so long, only to look around us and wonder, “If I have everything I need, why don’t I feel happy?”
Often, the answer is that we don’t actually have everything we need. Needs aren’t just about getting the food, medical care, or housing that we need to keep our bodies alive. We also have emotional needs: things that help us feel safe, happy, and fulfilled in our relationships.
Our emotional needs are going to vary a lot from person to person, but a general list of emotional needs might include things like safety, connection, boundaries, pleasure, and support. Ensuring that these needs are met–for example, by building fulfilling relationships with loved ones who support us–can help us feel more calm and regulated, and increase our capacity to deal with stressors in our lives.
But what happens when we don’t meet our emotional needs?
When our needs are left unmet, we may find that we are less able to cope with stress. This is true for our physical needs as well as our emotional needs. A popular Snickers commercial from the early 2010’s included the slogan, “you’re not you when you’re hungry,” and touted the benefits of taking a snack break if you’re noticing yourself getting particularly crabby. And just like when we haven’t eaten enough, we might find that we get anxious, irritable, or exhausted when our emotional needs aren’t met.
Maybe you’ve noticed yourself being short with your co-workers, and you realized that you’re overdue for a vacation. Perhaps growing frustration towards your partner is telling you that you need to set different boundaries in your relationship. Listening to our bodies–and being aware of our emotions, thoughts, and changing behaviors–can help us notice when our needs are not being met. Often, we can course-correct to get ourselves back on track and feeling better.
But sometimes, meeting our emotional needs can get pretty complicated. This is especially true for folks who may not have had their emotional needs met when they were children or teens.
Childhood and adolescence are really important stages in our development. It’s during these times in our lives that we are learning how to cope with big emotions and take care of our own physical and emotional needs. We learn most of these skills by watching how our parents and caregivers respond to stress, and how they meet (or don’t meet) their own needs. If we grew up in an environment where good coping skills and self-care weren’t modeled for us, we may have trouble figuring out how to care for our bodies and emotions in a healthy way.
Humans are incredibly adaptive and resilient. When our needs go unmet, we adapt and develop strategies to fulfill them. If our parents and caregivers don’t teach us how to self-soothe, how to connect to a sense of safety, or how to create meaning and purpose in our lives, we figure out our own ways to meet these needs ourselves. And one of the most common ways that children and teens adapt to meet their emotional needs is through food.
What does it mean to use food to meet our emotional needs?
Humans are hardwired to enjoy eating–our brain rewards us with dopamine when we eat food containing the nutrients we need to survive, like carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Additionally, for many people, early meals were associated with connection to our loved ones; infants often receive care and soothing from their parents and caregivers while nursing or bottle-feeding. It makes sense that food would be one of the first ways that children learn to self-soothe.
There is nothing inherently wrong with using food to soothe ourselves. All humans need nourishment from food, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t enjoy the emotional benefits of eating or the social benefits of sharing a meal with others, in addition to the physical benefits of the nutrition. However, for those of us who may have experienced overwhelming or traumatic experiences, especially during childhood, we may start using food in increasingly extreme ways to try to cope with distress. For example, we may eat more and more food in a shorter period, ignoring messages from our body that we are full and don’t need more food. This is often referred to as binging. Over time, this can hurt our digestive system, and cause more pain in the long run.
Binging is often the first thing we think about, when we talk about using food to meet emotional needs, but there are a variety of ways that folks may use food to meet emotional needs. Here are some examples:
Choice and Agency: If we do not have freedom to make choices in our lives, we may control the food that we eat to regain a sense of power or control in our lives.
Identity: If we don’t feel connected to a strong sense of identity, having an eating disorder may become an identity label we can take on to help us feel unique and different from family and friends. We may use more eating disorder behaviors to strengthen this sense of identity.
Boundaries: If our caregivers didn’t provide good boundaries for us as children, we may have created boundaries and rules around food and eating (such as what we could eat, how much, and when) to help us feel connected to boundaries and structure.
Purpose and Self-Worth: If we don’t feel connected to a sense of purpose or achievement in our lives, we may use dieting and exercise to try to increase our self-worth and connect to a sense of purpose.
Connection: Dieting, eating disorder behaviors, and exercise can become a way for us to feel more connected to friends or family members who engage in similar patterns of behavior.
How else does food, eating, and exercise relate to emotional needs?
While we often see folks with eating disorders using food, eating, and exercise to meet their emotional needs, it’s also important to remember that many people also use food and eating to try to deny that they have emotional needs. It can feel safer to tell ourselves that we don't have emotional needs, rather than to recognize that we have them and aren’t able to meet them. Recognizing that our needs went unmet during childhood, or that we are unable to meet them as adults, can lead to many painful emotions, such as grief, confusion, and anger. Disordered eating can become a way to "mask" these needs, and to protect us from emotional pain.
Using food, eating, or exercise to deny emotional needs can look like:
Choice and Agency: Often, folks with eating disorders describe feeling helpless, and unable to control urges to use eating disorder behaviors. Sometimes, by “giving in” to the eating disorder, and using behaviors even when we don’t want to, we deny our need for choice and agency in our lives.
Identity: Eating disorder behaviors can help us deny our need to forge an identity, by preventing us from engaging in many of the tasks of young adulthood, or adulthood. For example, if we are always focused on our eating disorder, either by using behaviors or trying to stop using behaviors, it can be hard to spend time on hobbies, relationships, or other aspects of our lives that contribute to an identity outside of having an eating disorder.
Boundaries: When we use eating disorder behaviors such as binging, purging, and restricting, we often push past the messages our bodies send us that we are hungry, full, or in pain. By pushing past these messages our bodies send to us, we may be denying our own body boundaries.
Pleasure: Restricting food may be a way to deny our need for pleasure, as food is innately pleasurable, soothing, and comforting.
Self-Esteem: Using eating disorder behaviors may be a way that we reinforce beliefs about our lack of self-worth. For example, “I’m doing this to my body because I am unworthy. I don’t deserve to be healthy and experience pleasure.”
Connection: Eating disorder behaviors may be an attempt to push people away and deny our needs for interdependence and connection. We may repeatedly refuse help from others who care about us to convince ourselves that we do not need support or connection with others.
When we focus on how eating disorders help us meet or deny emotional needs, we can change our perspectives about what eating disorders are, and how we can grow and heal if we struggle with disordered eating.
What can change look like in eating recovery?
When we have spent a long time relying on food, eating, and exercise to meet our emotional needs, it can be difficult to learn new ways of meeting those needs and asking for help. Working with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating can be a great way to get outside support to change our behaviors and improve our relationship to our bodies. If you are looking to work with a therapist around these topics, River Chew, LMSW is currently accepting new clients for individual therapy.
It can also be helpful to connect to other people who have similar experiences. Meeting others who share our experiences can help us see that we are not alone and help us meet our emotional needs for connection and support. And often, our peers can share their experience to help us learn new ways to meet our own needs.
Do you want to connect with peers with similar experiences? River Chew, LMSW, and Hannah Frazee, at Healing Exchange, offer Nurturing Our Needs: Expressive Arts Therapy Group for Eating Recovery, an expressive arts group focused on understanding the role of core emotional needs in eating disorder recovery. Find out more about the group and if it’s a good fit for your recovery journey by scheduling a complimentary consultation with River today.