If you struggle with emotional and binge eating, it is often a sign that you are disconnected from your body. Your body becomes a battleground and you lack a sense of safety and trust in your own skin. The opposite of disconnection is embodiment. Embodiment is the intersection of your physical body with the contents of who you are as a person.
What is Embodiment?
Learning to embody yourself is a long journey, but will have a lasting impact on your ability to heal from emotional and binge eating. Through embodiment, you will begin to experience your body from the inside out, rather than from your mind reflecting on your body. Embodiment allows you to experience your body as a container for the expression of your whole self.
Body as Object vs. Subject
There are two ways to experience your body, as an object or as a subject. When you experience your body as an object, you view the body as individual parts that can be observed, grasped, and manipulated. When you experience your body as a subject, you are able to perceive and exist through your body without reflecting on it. This is a state of embodiment.
When you relate to yourself as an object, you are self-objectifying. You feel disconnected from your body because you see it as an object separately from yourself. There are many experiences that may lead you to self-objectify: being valued for appearance rather than who you are as a person; bullying; media messages that keep you focused on perceived flaws; prejudices including sizeism/weightism, racism, sexual orientation, or gender identity discrimination; weight stigma; any experiences of boundary violations or trauma.
When you have been objectified, you learn that your value is less about who you are but more about what you offer as a thing. As the activist, speaker, and writer Jean Kilbourne says, “Turning a person into a thing it the first step in justifying violence toward that person.” Likewise, turning yourself into a thing/object is the first step in justifying violence towards yourself. This violence comes in the form of harsh self-critical thoughts and punishing behaviors. Relating to yourself as an object creates vulnerability to shame.
Overcoming Shame in Emotional & Binge Eating Recovery
There are many places shame lurks when you have been using emotional and binge eating as a coping skill – shame you feel about your body, shame you feel about your emotional and binge eating behaviors, and shame-based beliefs that are buried inside of you. Although it takes courage, this shame is important to explore and unravel. Shame perpetuates many unhealthy coping patterns. You feel shame so you binge, then you feel ashamed that you binge, which makes you vulnerable to another binge, and the cycle continues.
Remember that your value is in who you are and not your physical appearance. By healing the shame that has been fueling your coping behaviors, you can retrain your brain to focus on the neural pathways of self-compassion and create the key to healing.
Steps to Embodiment & Binge Eating Recovery
Below are four embodiment skills that you can use to heal emotional and binge eating behavior patterns:
1.) Begin to develop a mindfulness practice around what is happening in your body.
When you become consumed by negative judgments about your appearance (this is sometimes known as having a "fat attack," sort of like having a panic attack or anxiety attack) take a moment and observe yourself. Be curious about what is happening in the body and the sensations you are experiencing. Dr. Anita Johnston says that a FAT ATTACK = FEAR ATTACK. Be curious about what is creating vulnerability for this "fear attack" to occur. What are the emotions connected to these sensations? What unmet needs are these emotions alerting you to? When you develop an inner observer of the emotional roller coaster of the fat attack, your curiosity will allow you to explore the shame vulnerability, and what really needs attending to internally.
2.) Learn skills to track your nervous system arousal.
Our thoughts and feelings are often responses to activity that is happening in the nervous system. Or, you might experience triggers that cause your nervous system to go into fight/flight/freeze states. To start thinking about your nervous system, pay attention to how you feel.
If your nervous system is hyperaroused (overstimulated), you may experience anxiety and increased heart rate, muscle tension, rapid breath, digestive problems, racing thoughts, and/or emotional flooding. If your nervous system is hypoaroused (understimulated), you might become depressed, or you may experience slow cognition, numbness, confusion, self-loathing, helplessness, despair, shame, shallow breath, or glazed eyes.
When you develop mindful awareness of your nervous system, you reclaim the interoceptive awareness of your experience. Interoceptive awareness, the body’s ability to sense itself from the inside, is helpful in learning to experience yourself as a subject. Interoceptive awareness is lost when you are locked in self-objectifying patterns. Developing this sense increases your embodiment.
3.) Learn skills to bring your nervous system back to a calm, alert state.
All of your senses can be engaged in specific ways to either bring you down from hyperarousal, bring you up from hypoarousal, or support you staying in the calm, alert place in between these two states.
For example, if you are experiencing heightened arousal as a response to a trigger, you can use your breath to activate the calming part of your nervous system, use self-soothing touch to make contact with the anxiety, or use a scent that calms the nervous system. Learning how to use your senses to regulate your emotions supports emotional and binge eating recovery by connecting you to the resources your body provides.
4.) Learn how you have used emotional and binge eating as strategies to regulate your nervous system.
Develop mindful awareness of your triggers, what happens in your nervous system before the urges to binge, and begin to replace your eating behaviors with your somatic resources (the mind/body techniques you've learned along the way).
Embodiment leads to wholeness. Addressing obstacles to embodiment and reconnecting with your body as a place of safety and trust offers a powerful resource for any recovery and healing process.
When you are free from self-objectification and self-criticism, you are able to delight in the beauty of who you are as a gift to yourself and to the world. What a discovery to learn this embodiment path to healing and wholeness has always been with you, patiently waiting for you to turn towards your body!
By Heidi Andersen, MS, LPC, CEDS-S, RYT
Heidi has been a therapist in the Asheville, NC area since 2006. In her practice, she helps adolescents and adults transform their relationship with food and their bodies. She considers herself a body-centered psychotherapist and specializes in facilitating a shift from “body as a war zone” to “body as a resource.”
With loving presence and humor, Heidi helps her clients develop a more mindful, curious understanding of their behaviors and attitudes to find lasting freedom from their disordered patterns. She weaves mindfulness, yoga, and expressive arts into her work. She is also the author of the Reclaiming Beauty Journal & Wisdom Deck, a unique resource to support women on the journey of shifting from a self-critical to a self-compassionate relationship with their body and their Self.