Food is not always used, as we know, for healthy nourishment. Often it serves an ulterior motive, as a way for us to sneak into psychological mischief and indulge our emotional appetite for unresolved inner conflict.
When people struggle with overeating and weight gain, they usually believe their problem is with the food itself. They obsess or fixate on food. But food is only the meat and potatoes of their unresolved emotional issues.
In other words, food is being used to replay unresolved issues. In the foreground, in one’s face for that matter, is the unconscious compulsion to act out unresolved inner conflict. The primary conflict in the psyche is the conscious wish to feel strong and capable of self-regulation versus the unconscious willingness to experience oneself through familiar emotions associated with weakness, self-criticism, and shame. We can overcome this conflict by understanding the unhealthy psychological ingredients we bring to the table.
Food is just one of many external means by which people get into emotional trouble. We can make mischief with alcohol, money, drugs, possessions, work performance, family, friends, neighbors, and bosses. A basic principle governs all such misadventure, namely that the struggles in our life, our misery and failures, are direct offshoots of inner conflict. This conflict drives us compulsively to produce misery and self-defeat in our encounters with the world around us.
With inner conflict, we compulsively seek and create situations or circumstances through which we can feel the conflict. Food, alcohol, money, or people serve as staging-grounds on which to act out such conflict. The emotional price for this acting-out includes stress, self-doubt, guilt, shame, anxiety, and self-recrimination. Costs in behavioral self-defeat—involving incompetence, foolishness, and failure—must also be paid.
For this article, let’s stick to food and how it can serve as a prop or accomplice in our misery and dysfunctional behavior. What is going on inside us that creates such misery with something that ought to be providing pure pleasure, energy, and health? How does it happen that food gets all mashed in with inner conflict and misery?
First, some preliminary thoughts before getting to the heart of inner conflict. Many people, for starters, eat with too little attention to the process, meaning they don’t get enough second-by-second or minute-by-minute satisfaction and pleasure from their food. We don’t want to gulp down our food the way a dog does. Dogs aren’t conscious enough to register all the pleasure that’s available by eating food more slowly, more deliberately. A little goes a long way when we eat in a conscious manner.
Just as dysfunctional parents are less able to nurture their children, we can be deficient at nurturing ourselves through healthy food preparation and consumption. When we’re inwardly conflicted, we’re less connected to our authentic self and less able to be supportive and nurturing of that self. We experience more self-doubt, self-alienation, and self-abandonment.
The food doesn’t have to be scrumptious to be thoroughly enjoyed. Ideally, we eat for health as much as for taste. When we eat for health, more pleasures can be experienced other than simply from taste. A quiet, stable, enduring pleasure is available in the strength of self-regulation because it connects us intimately with our best self. We support ourselves emotionally by eating well. We’re taking care of our body and its needs as an act of self-caring. In functioning at our best in this manner, we reap the emotional benefit of living up to our potential.
Often people crave food even when they’re not particularly hungry. They’re trying to compensate for an inner emptiness. Cravings for food can arise from the emotional impression that something vital is missing. That missing something is psychological. The hunger is emotional. It arises because of one’s disconnect from self, as if one’s own emotional self is starving for recognition, appreciation, significance, and a feeling of value.
Many people fail to generate a healthy emotional connection with their existence in the world. They’re desperate to feel substantial because they otherwise feel a painful emptiness. They’re usually blind to the degree to which they’re identified with themselves through this emptiness or disconnect. The painful feeling is, in effect, an emotional attachment or even an emotional addiction. A psychological defense blocks people from becoming aware of this unhealthy emotional attachment. The defense is registered unconsciously: “I’m not willing to go on experiencing myself through this painful feeling of emptiness or unworthiness. Look at how I give to myself with all this food. I want to feel full and fulfilled, not empty and disconnected.”
Food also becomes a substitute for connection because it is associated from childhood with the impression of being loved and supported. The more a person feels unloved, the more the consumption of food is used as a means of coping. Consciously, people want to feel love and support, but unconsciously they can be aligned emotionally with feeling unloved and unsupported, a conflict that remains unresolved within them. These adults then have difficulty producing a foundation of emotional support (and thereby successful self-regulation) within themselves. Their inner critic produces self-rejection and self-criticism while their inner passivity produces self-doubt, both of which serve to undermine them.
The unconscious dynamics and issues involved in inner conflict produce inner weakness. Many people become fixated on food and eat in a compulsive manner in order to continue to feel what is unresolved, namely an emotional identification with a familiar weak sense of self. The more they lack self-regulation with food, the more they continue to live through a sense of weakness and failure.
The human psyche is burdened with passive congestion. This passive aspect of human nature is a key influence in our failure to self-regulate. This weak state of nonbeing is called inner passivity, and it’s a handicap to our humanity, a hindrance to our self-development. Inner passivity is a dead-zone in our psyche, a part of us that has no interest in, or connection with, our wellbeing. When we don’t recognize or understand it, we’re more likely to fall under its influence, even to identify with it. Inner passivity repeatedly pulls us into its own orbit, leaving us cognitively and emotionally impaired in the face of cravings, desires, and other challenges.
Our psyche’s battle royal consists of conflict between inner passivity and the inner critic. The inner critic attacks, inner passivity defends. When people are struggling with the regulation of food, this conflict can intensify. How so? Cravings for food are often activated psychosomatically in such a way that the cravings serve the purpose of intensifying inner passivity. Keep in mind that whatever is unresolved emotionally or psychologically will be experienced compulsively. Psychologically, the real craving is for the familiar, old, unresolved sense of weakness. When the individual submits to the cravings for food, he or she is also submitting to the compulsion to experience inner passivity. The misuse of food feeds this inner weakness.
Now the inner critic pounces. It mocks and condemns the individual for his or her weakness and passivity concerning overeating, unhealthy eating, and weight gain. The inner critic also condemns “forbidden” behaviors such as binge-eating, snacking, eating prohibited foods, eating at prohibited times, or the acting-out associated with bulimia and anorexia. The nature of the inner critic is to attack the integrity and worthiness of the individual whenever an opportunity presents itself. Through inner passivity, we fail to protect ourselves from these attacks.
Now the game is on. And the game is to suffer the ravages of unresolved inner conflict. The primitive chaos in our psyche takes its pound of flesh in the agonizing back-and-forth of inner accusations and defensiveness. Again, the inner critic attacks, inner passivity defends. Inner passivity, however, is an incompetent defender. It compromises with the inner critic in such a way that we end up accepting considerable punishment in the form of guilt, shame, remorse, anguish, and depression for alleged crimes with respect to food or other props.
The inner games can be insidious. For instance, individuals who anguish over their weight-loss failures often engage in ongoing weight-loss battles not to lose weight, as they consciously think, but to experience themselves trapped in endless conflict, as weak failures continually on the receiving end of scorn and mockery from their inner critic. What has been especially difficult for us to fathom is the fact that, through inner conflict, we are so compulsively driven to repeatedly feel weakness, self-doubt, and punishment.
The antidote is deeper consciousness. This entails the self-knowledge that fortifies our intelligence and connects us with our authentic self, helping us neutralize inner conflict along with the effects of both inner passivity and the inner critic.
Science has fully informed us that people who have trouble regulating their bad moods are more likely to have persistent eating disorders. Unfortunately, science and mainstream psychology are not teaching the public the true source of eating problems and disorders. This following comment from The Atlantic magazine illustrates the present blindness:
Both eating and emotion are such regular, consistent parts of our lives that it’s inevitable they would get tangled up together. Unfortunately, though research has illuminated some interesting possibilities as to how they relate to one another, the knot is still very much intact and it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins.
Through depth psychology, however, it is not hard to see where one ends and the other begins. The solution is to recognize inner conflict and, in particular, the psychological operating systems involving inner passivity, the inner critic, and unconscious defenses. We see exactly how eating and emotions are related when we begin to appreciate how the best psychological insight elevates our consciousness and strengthens self-regulation.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.