Food, finances & eating disorders

This blog is reposted with permission from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

Do you overspend and overeat? Deprive yourself of possessions as well as of meals?   If so, there may be a connection between how you spend money and what’s going on with food.  

Many behaviors with food and finances are strategies to cope with uncomfortable or intolerable thoughts, emotions and conflicts, including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. Expressing mixed feelings about needs.
  2. Managing emptiness and loneliness.
  3. Enacting conflicts over abundance.

Eating binges and shopping binges are often described the same way, as an experience of “spacing out” or “going blank.”   Many people become so adept at using those coping mechanisms that they don’t even know what’s going on internally.  

If that is the case, I found from working with my patients that what you’re buying can shed some light.

Needs are Not Needy

“I just couldn’t get enough,” said Belinda.*  “I lost control and just couldn’t stop.  I wanted to, but I couldn’t.”

Belinda, who struggled with bulimia, was not talking about food. 

“It was extreme retail therapy,” she said.  “Afterwards, I returned everything I bought, every single thing.”

Splurging at the mall and returning items is behavior analogous to bingeing and purging, and may be understood as “financial bulimia.”  

Bulimia often expresses a conflict about needs and wants.   All human beings need love, connection, and acknowledgment, but when those needs are not adequately, sufficiently or reliably met, it becomes humiliating to have them.  Needs and wants are then consciously repudiated and unconsciously displaced onto food or other things.  

Belinda craved more social engagement but her schedule was tight.  She wanted more fun, but had few interests.  She sought praise at work but her critical boss withheld acknowledgment.   

She met these needs for “more” by overeating and overspending, and then got rid of the perceived neediness by purging or returning purchases. 

If you struggle with unmet needs and wants, identifying and working through them is a crucial step in healing from disordered eating.

What’s the Empty Space?

“I’m embarrassed to tell you this,” said Karl, who initially sought therapy for binge eating disorder.  “I bought another antique beer stein.  I barely have room for the collection I already have.”

Loneliness may be experienced as emptiness, which can be symbolically filled by food or by things, such as Karl’s collection of beer steins.  Things take up space in one’s house, just as food takes up space in one’s stomach.  

Conversely, restricting food, and keeping your living space austere could express an underlying deprivation, isolation and loneliness. 

Responding to the ache of loneliness with comforting words, instead of food or items, can be an important part of healing from binge eating.

Is Life a Struggle?

“I don’t know where my money goes,” said Marina.  “No matter how much I make, I never have enough.”

She earned a good salary but spent it all, barely scraping by from one paycheck to the next.   Her relationship to food echoed this behavior; she binged, and then restricted.   In this way, Marina used both food and finances to enact her fears about affluence.   

If you often find yourself without enough funds, or on the financial edge, you may have mixed feelings about abundance.   Some people fear having “too much” or being “too happy” because they fear that having enough will lead to loss.  Others connect hardship with humility and equate prosperity with arrogance.

Recognizing and working through those inner struggles can help you stop the cycle.

In conclusion, in my experience I’ve found that behavior with food and money is usually a “symptom” of deeper internal issues, emotions or problems.  When you identify and work through these underlying conflicts, you no longer need these behaviors to cope with, distract from, or to give expression to your internal world.

*All patient names and identifying features have been changed.

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