I treat many clients who are successful and look great from the outside—well put together and functioning at a high level—but feel like a total and utter mess inside. They are well liked and appear to handle life superbly, while in reality they are anxious much of the time and often even depressed. One of the ways they manage their well protected, hidden inner turmoil is through mindless eating.

To a person, these clients had difficult childhoods in which they could not express their authentic selves due to a rigid environment which brooked no challenge or dissent. Maybe it was Mom who needed to have everything go her way or she flew into a rage. Or Dad who maintained tight control over everyone in the household and losing his temper meant emotional or physical abuse to those who upset him. Can you see how this environment would produce children who obeyed, did the right thing, succeeded, and outwardly kept it together? They had to in order to survive and thrive.

But within, these children trembled with fear and anxiety. They feverishly worried about making mistakes and about not being perfect. They became hypervigilant, feared letting down their guard, kept up a good front, and perhaps turned to food for comfort and as a way to release pent up anger, despair, anxiety, and emotional tension. And this became their life pattern: make it through whatever is going on and put on a happy face. Never complain or let anyone know how badly you’re suffering. Keep it together at all cost. Even acknowledging inner turmoil was too scary because they were ashamed of their alleged “weakness” and because that might lead to articulating their distress. Better to suppress and repress, disconnect from disturbing emotions, and act as if all is well.

If you are often emotionally numb, push yourself through difficult times while insisting to yourself and others that you’re okay, have a great deal of unwarranted high anxiety, suffer panic attacks, or are more concerned with keeping it together than with being emotionally healthy, your food problems may be due to unbearable inner tension. Sometimes simply acknowledging how you feel brings release and relief. More likely, you will want to explore your childhood to see how it formed your habit of looking good while feeling awful, then find ways to become more authenticate, in tune with your true emotions, and express them appropriately. The goal is to feel comfortable showing the “real” you, that is, when you experience stress and distress, to let yourself and others know it. You no longer need to pretend. It’s safe now to be authentic. By showing emotional wear and tear to the outside world, you’ll be growing healthier on the inside.