Emotional tolerance is a critical skill to stop unwanted eating patterns like overeating, night eating, or binge eating. It involves developing your willingness to feel uncomfortable — to tolerate unwanted emotion without using something external, like food, to buffer your discomfort (aka, “numb out”).
I don’t really like the phrase “numb out” because it’s almost belittling. It sounds like something a personal trainer would shout at you while you’re struggling to do your hundredth push-up: “your’e taking the easy way out” by reaching for food. Please know, this is not my attitude at all.
The typical person that struggles with overeating is NOT weak. People that find themselves compulsively eating might feel like they lack willpower, but from my experience, most people that struggle with overeating have BOATLOADS of willpower. Including you, I’m sure! Seriously!
So when I say you need emotional tolerance, it’s not because you’re weak and you need to “toughen up.” Rather, it’s because the diet industry has caused you to waste your willpower on the wrong skill (depriving yourself of food) and it does nothing but screw you over (by triggering famine brain and binge eating!).
Asking you to intentionally feel bad is a strange thing to ask someone to do, though. It’s a talllll tall ask too, and I’d like to explain why it’s worth it.
Do You Want to Stop Overeating AND Up-Level Your Entire Life?
Emotional tolerance is a much different skill than dieting. While diets focus on the superficial level of food, emotional tolerance digs DEEP. It asks us to show up in the moments when we most want to run (aka, the moment right before we binge).
This is the foundation of Psycho-Spiritual Wellness — a path to stopping compulsive eating through psychological and spiritual practices (aka, everything but dieting). When we learn to feel uncomfortable emotions like anxiety or loneliness without jumping outside of ourselves, that’s when progress is made.
And that’s also why it’s a tall ask! No one wants to feel lonely or sad or unhappy. In fact, part of the American Dream is to feel 100% happy 100% of the time!!! Any time you ask someone what they want in life, they may sputter some specific goals, but most of the time, people “just want to be happy.”
But it’s the moments in between our happiness — the moments when things don’t go to plan and when life really tests us — that our character is formed. And it’s often those moments that push us towards food when we aren’t hungry.
The desire to reach for cookies in the cupboard when it’s 11pm at night and you aren’t actually hungry… that’s one of those moments in between. And there is always an emotion sitting there begging for your attention in those moments. You could be lonely, scared, anxious, stressed… and food is your ticket out of that discomfort — temporarily, of course!
But enough yammering on about the problem. We all know that eating too much sucks and we wish we didn’t do it! And yes, we know that we can’t be happy 100% of the time, but where does that leave us? What can we DO to help ourselves out of this mess?!
Enter: emotional tolerance. Let’s illustrate it with an example from my early days, back when I was still struggling with binge eating, overeating, and compulsive snacking.
How Emotional Tolerance Helps Stop Binge Eating
It was an average day at work, and I had an average lunch: a Chipotle burrito bowl. Yum! For those of you who are unfamiliar with Chipotle, it’s A LOT of food.
I went back to the office with a full and happy tummy, and then dropped straight back into the grind. About two hours later, I suddenly felt the urge for some chips. This was a red flag because I wasn’t hungry. There was no way I could be hungry within two hours of eating a mountain of delicious Mexican food. So where did this craving come from?
Acting out of compulsion (because these were the early days, and I still had a LOT of progress to make) I stood up and walked over to the snack station that was loaded with all kinds of chips, and then stood there battling with myself…
And once I recognized the battle, I asked myself,
“Wait, I’m not hungry, but I still want to eat. That mean’s there’s a feeling floating around here somewhere that I’m not feeling… So what’s really going on here Kari? What am I feeling right now?”
And with those questions, everything became crystal clear.
Next, I’ll explain how that worked.
Emotional Tolerance Starts with Self-Inquiry
After I asked myself those question, I stood there to see what emotions would bubble up, and A LOT came up: anxiety, boredom, procrastination, more anxiety, restlessness… fear.
I mean comeeee onnnnn. It’s no wonder I wanted more food even though I wasn’t hungry! There were a lot of uncomfortable emotions floating around with nowhere to go.
And this is exactly how self-inquiry will help you stop binge eating. Well, it’s the first step. Self-inquiry is the starting point.
Once I became aware of the emotions I was trying to avoid, my next job was to to make space for them. This is the second step: dropping into the emotions we’re trying to run from. This is how we develop emotional tolerance.
A great tool for this is the Stop, Drop, & Feel method to stop binge eating. It asks us to pause before we overeat and drop into some self-inquiry. The magic happens as we give these unwanted emotions the attention they need.
The more we stop and feel, the less we feel the desire to overeat. Like all great skills, it takes practice.
Developing the Most Important Skill to Stop Compulsive Eating
You’ve probably heard before that practice makes perfect, so why haven’t we been able to lose weight from practicing all these diets for all these years?!
The answer, in my humble opinion, is because dieting puts you at war with your physiology. It activates famine brain and causes you to binge out of a physical reaction to deprivation.
When we turn our attention inward and focus on our emotions, that’s when everything changes. At least, that’s how it worked for me and all my lovely clients and readers that I’ve helped over the last 5 years!
Give it a try and see for yourself. The next time you want to reach for food when you aren’t hungry, do the Stop, Drop, & Feel. See if an uncomfortable emotion bubbles up. Nine times out of ten, something will!
Then your only job is to feel that feeling. Make space for it. Try try try to peacefully coexist with it. You may not get it on the first try, or even the first month of trying. But as time goes on, if you keep up with this practice, you will develop emotional tolerance.
Your ability to stay with yourself instead of “numbing out” will get stronger and stronger. And then the day will come where you realize that you haven’t overeaten in a whole week, or a whole month!
It will happen without you even realizing it, because you won’t be focused on the surface level of dieting and deprivation. You’ll be focus on your authentic emotions. You’ll “get good” at feeling bad.
And when you can stay with yourself even on the days where you’re struggling, that is when you stop reaching for food when you aren’t hungry. That is when you start to move mountains, because you never lacked willpower in the first place!
This is a practice, and it’s the best one I’ve ever started. Will you join me?
Originally published on April 8, 2018 // Updated on December 5, 2022
Thank you Kari, I’m so looking forward to trying this. I have been over weight most of my life and for the first time trying to really dig in to find out why . I always just told myself I really like food but after so many diets, which I always fail at , I’m finally willing to dig deeper and this makes so much sense to me. Tks again .
Kari Dahlgren says
Thanks for the comment Brenda! I am celebrating your courage! This isn’t easy work, but it’s the most important.
Thank you Katie..
This is something new for me. I’ve struggled with diets since I was 16 (I’m 59). I want to work on allowing myself space for these emotions! Ok????
Kari Dahlgren says
You seem like a downright warrior Brenda ????