I am sitting in a cafe that actually announces when the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies are ready to be savoured. “Cookie time!” I hear them calling in the background, as chocolate chip cookies the size of my head are laid out on a tray on the counter fresh out of the oven, for all to ogle at.
Being around certain foods such as chocolate chip cookies can make some people feel out of control and powerless. It is as if a little voice in their head was telling them, that they HAD to have the food without ever understanding the feeling attached to the craving. I remember as a teenager, I felt powerless to refuse Chapman’s cappuccino frozen yogourt. Whenever I felt scattered or upset, I would open the freezer door and there it was waiting for me. The ice cream was temporarily calming and enjoyable, but once one spoonful led to the whole pint I still felt like I was missing something. It took me a while to realize that what I was really looking for was not contained at the bottom of the ice cream bowl.
Many of you may struggle with very strong unexplainable cravings for certain foods without understanding why, so my goal in this post is for you to understand that your own food cravings are there for you as an opportunity to better understand yourself.
There is an inevitable session that I expect will arise with a client which is the one I will call “the confessional.” It starts with my client admitting to me how “bad” they have been throughout the week. I proceed to ask why they feel that way and they reply with their “bad” food list. They tell me they gave in to their cravings for a McDonald’s cheeseburger, along with fries and gulp (their gulp not mine)- an entire chocolate milkshake. I imagine that when clients come to me admitting their “food sins”, they expect me to be the priestess who will sprinkle holy kale chips on their heads and tell them, “you are forgiven.”
First of all, I want to clarify the point I have made in earlier posts, that I believe it is pretty destructive to think of food in terms of good and bad because if we eat that “bad” food then it follows that we believe WE are “bad.” Just like punishing children for mis-behaving, we then punish ourselves for being “bad” by over-exercising, skipping meals, calling ourselves names I will not repeat (because I don’t want to give you any ideas.)
Notice that the food cravings people feel powerless to refuse are never salads, tofu or bran cereal, but they are the foods they think are ” forbidden.” What I’ve found in my clients’ experiences is that when they forbid food, they end up often craving it even more. Think of a vegan craving sushi, a Jew who craves bacon or an Atkins dieter craving mashed potatoes and baguettes.
Strange food cravings do not come out of nowhere, though it may feel that way at first. They are often rooted in memories we have where that particular food made us feel really good. When we want to experience that calming feeling again we don’t think back to the moment that elicited the feeling, rather we mysteriously develop a craving for the food itself.
For example, when it is crunch time at work and you are on a deadline you have a mysterious craving for a chocolate chip cookie. In deconstructing the craving, you soon remember that your mom used to bake you chocolate chip cookies whenever you were studying. Even though you are now an architect with a deadline at work and you live far away from your childhood home, you held onto the memory that cookies were a way that you used to feel calm under pressure.
I had a client who had odd cravings for any form of Chinese food, and found that no matter what she had planned to have for dinner, she was not “satisfied” until she had her General Tao chicken. She felt completely powerless to resist this very strong urge. Even though she felt completely out of control, she felt like she HAD to have the General Tao no matter how crazy it seemed and her boyfriend could talk her out of it.
To give you some background, this client was estranged from her father but recently was talking about getting married to her boyfriend. In our sessions, she was struggling with whether she would invite her father to her wedding. As she recounted to me how guilty she felt for eating so much Chinese food, I asked her, “what does Chinese food mean to you?” When she couldn’t come up with anything I asked more specifically, “What is your earliest memory of eating Chinese food and really enjoying it?” It took her a while to recall, but suddenly it hit her, her father used to take her out for Chinese food when she was a little girl. It was their special time together to catch up just the two of them. Suddenly she burst into a smile as she realized that her body wisdom was trying to remind her how good she once felt in his company. It was trying to get her to connect with him in a way that it remembered. When this “aha moment” occurred she told me that it was like the cravings for Chinese food suddenly disappeared when she realized she wanted to give her father a call instead of connecting with him through the food itself.
I have heard this story countless times in various ways, where what we are trying to feed is sometimes not our hunger, but something a little deeper. It takes scratching at the surface to see it, but when you do see it, it’s like Homer Simpson says, “Doh!” it was there all along, and you didn’t even notice it.
So I encourage you to scratch the surface. Sometimes it is easier to eat the food and numb the feelings than it is to explore and ask these open-ended questions that allow for wisdom to come through.
Like Leonard Cohen says so well, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light get’s in”- so let it in. The craving is often the crack, but instead of seeing ourselves as “broken” or “bad” or “guilty”, we can ask ourselves, where is the wisdom or light in this craving. Does it have something it wants to teach me?
Recommended reading: Geneen Roth’s new Book “Women, Food and Love”