It’s probably not uncommon for someone to say or do something that sends you, a dysregulated eater, into an emotional tailspin—which then propels you, immediately or even hours later, to the refrigerator. If you have some self-awareness, you may make the connection between a person’s actions or words and your distress. If you have little or no self-awareness, you might feel a vague upset, but not necessarily relate it to someone triggering your distress. However, this is exactly what happens.
I recently read an article which explains how you get set off. The author, Janina Fisher, Ph.D, explains how, because we are social animals, people who are disregulated can all too easily disregulate others. Disregulation occurs when someone’s emotions, and not their good judgment, are running the show. They don’t realize or can’t control how upset, distressed, enraged, fearful, or anxious they are and their presentation shows it. They yell, sulk, interrupt, bully, project their stuff onto us, insult, attack, blame, and shame—and their behavior is anywhere from inappropriate to off the charts.
If you’re poor at managing your emotions and separating your stuff from other people’s stuff, you may find that disregulated people set you off big time. Examples abound. Your aging father is controlling and demanding and you end up being nasty back to him. Your boss loses her cool and chews you out in front of co-workers until you’re reduced to tears. You’re so anxious to get home to make dinner that you yell at your child for poking along and she begins to cry. Your generally friendly co-worker is snippy to you all day and you can’t shake the feeling of having done something wrong.
As a therapist, I work hard not to be thrown off balance by emotionally dysregulated clients, but staying neutral all the time is impossible for me or anyone. When a client is suicidal, intensely emotional, abruptly terminates therapy, or rants at me, I, too, become internally dysregulated. That’s when I count on my training and professional skills to quickly re-regulate my emotions. Of course, I do better in clinical settings than in my personal world, which is true of all therapists.
I hope you understand that abusing food has been your attempt to re-regulate after emotional dysregulation. To change this pattern, first recognize that an emotionally dysregulated person may be triggering your desire to eat. Second, re-regulate with life skills like self-soothing, positive self-talk, or distraction. Better yet, work at not allowing yourself to get dysregulated in the first place, a worthwhile goal for all of us.