Do You Use Food as a Substitute for Intimacy?

Do you ever find yourself eating when the hunger you feel isn’t in your stomach but rather in your heart? Feeling sad, brokenhearted, anxious, angry, or lonely can be so uncomfortable, we feel it in our mind and body. Sometimes we’ll do anything to shake those difficult emotions even if only for a few moments. And often that leads us to food.

We tend to turn to food particularly when what we really need is intimacy: a hug, a kiss, some sensuality and tenderness. Feeling understood by someone we care about and understanding him or her in return.

It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly how intimacy satisfies us, yet the lack of it can feel as concrete as missing a part of our bodies. It can even feel like a void that lives deep inside us. No wonder we turn to certain foods – creamy ice cream, crunchy-salty chips, heavy fried chicken, rich chocolate, or bowl after bowl of cereal and milk – to fill us up.

Eating for comfort and pleasure isn’t a problem in and of itself. But eating when what you really need is intimacy is always going to feel unsatisfying on some level.

If instead you could more precisely meet your need for intimacy by trying some of the ideas below, or even by beginning to tolerate the feelings without reacting, wouldn’t you? Don’t you deserve that?

Next time the urge to eat to fill your need for intimacy arises, here are some things you can try:

  1. Notice what is happening: When you feel triggered – whether at the first sign of the urge to eat for heart hunger or three cookies deep – take a deep breath and notice what is happening. Check in with your physical hunger (and thirst) and identify where your hunger is located. Are you physically hungry (or thirsty) or are you feeling some other type of discomfort or strong emotion?
  2. Acknowledge your feelings: If you realize that the hunger you feel is in your heart, acknowledge it. Say to yourself “I am feeling anxious/stressed/lonely, and it is very frightening to me. I would prefer not to feel this way and part of me wants to eat to distract myself from my pain, even if the relief will only last for a few moments.” Remember that it’s OK to feel this way. More than OK, in fact, because feeling this way and acknowledging it allows you to take better care of yourself. When you acknowledge your feelings, you can work with them.
  3. Soften toward the pain: Know that we all feel painfully strong emotions sometimes. Rather than trying to distance yourself from them, or beating yourself up for wanting to eat to tamp them down, experiment with looking at things differently. Say to yourself “These feelings are uncomfortable but they’re not necessarily bad. My pain makes me feel vulnerable right now but it won’t last forever. My desire for comfort and to feel better comes from my desire to take care of myself. Maybe there is a better way for me to take care of myself right now.”
  4. Make a choice: You can still choose to eat in moments like these. If you do, have something you love; pay attention to it and savor it without guilt or self-recrimination. If, however, you feel open to trying something different, consider the following options:
  • Ask someone you trust for a hug
  • Get a pedicure, foot rub, or massage
  • Watch a romantic or sexy movie
  • Read a romantic or erotic book
  • Take a hot bath with candles and bath oils
  • Take a dance class or dance by yourself at home
  • Cuddle with someone you love (even if that someone is yourself or your dog/cat/pillow)
  • Tell someone you trust – a friend, loved one, or therapist – how you are feeling

As always, this isn’t about always getting it right, but rather about experimenting with different ways of caring for yourself, noticing what works and what doesn’t, and learning to apply your self-knowledge as your situation changes.

Do you ever use food as a substitute for intimacy? What other things have you learned to do to take care of yourself?