Fattening Fixations

I received an email regarding my recent article about the overweight woman who continued to overeat even though she had lost her physical ability to taste. In the article I suggested that the motivation to overeat could be traced, at least in part, to self-loathing. The writer (who is, in fact, the woman about whom I was writing) responded: ‘I have something to say about the article you wrote about my overeating habits. I’m pretty sure that some of what you mention about self-loathing got me to the size I am now, but to be honest, I think I have an oral fixation. While I do miss the taste of food, I still enjoy the look, the texture, and how it feels on my tongue. I also like the act of chewing. I quit smoking over 20 years ago and though I don’t miss the nicotine, I do miss the oral aspect and the social element of smoking. About the self-loathing? That’s been in the past for quite some time. I’m a really neat person who has a lot to offer.’

Thanks for your thoughtful note. The root cause of overeating is not always self-loathing. Sometimes the self-loathing can be a result of the overeating, i.e., the disgust generated by eating so recklessly. As for oral fixations, I see them primarily as a way to reduce anxiety. Life can be a pretty anxious place, and some of us look at our daily lives with more anxiety than others. For example, some people have a fear of flying or driving over bridges. Others experience similar fears in everyday situations like performance at work, driving, and so on. It makes sense to seek out ways to soothe these anxieties — orally or otherwise.

If you suffer from an oral fixation (or any kind of fixation for that matter), take a look at how you handle anxiety. Do you have lots of anxious thoughts? Do you find yourself thinking, ‘Uh oh, something bad could happen. What will I do?’ Thoughts like this, though not always directly conscious, are often very close to the surface. Either way, they don’t serve any positive purpose. It makes sense to do the best you can to prevent pain and suffering, but sitting around stewing over anxious thoughts doesn’t change a thing. Preparation and thoughtful action are fine, but open-ended worry is mindless and solves nothing.

The first psychological theorist to use the term ‘oral fixation’ was none other than Sigmund Freud. He wrote that the ‘oral-receptive personality’ is preoccupied with eating and drinking; reducing tension through habits such as eating, drinking, smoking, and biting nails. These personality types are generally passive, needy and sensitive to rejection. They will easily ‘swallow’ other people’s ideas. The oral-aggressive personality, on the other hand, is (according to Freud) hostile and verbally abusive to others, using mouth-based aggression.

Freud’s views are still very controversial, but I do think he was right about one thing: Your personality traits tend to manifest themselves in your habits. While it’s not possible to claim that everyone who overeats has a certain personality, it does seem reasonable to consider that the oral habit is nothing more than a way to reduce anxiety. The anxiety could be triggered by self-loathing or deep-rooted traumas from the past, but it’s just as likely that it could be due to difficulty coping with everyday life. Don’t like the weather? Don’t like the boss’ attitude? Don’t like the economy? Your spouse gets on your nerves? Take a bite of something good to eat. Or maybe have a drink (or two ‘ or three). From my clinical experience, that’s the essence of ‘oral fixation.’

You mention that you like the act of chewing, even if you don’t care about the taste. Well, think about that for a moment. Chewing is motion, and motion tends to reduce anxiety. Though chewing is an inexpensive and easy-to-access form of motion, too much chewing can lead to extreme obesity and the associated erosion of self-esteem. The need for anxiety-reducing motion could be better channeled into things that might advance your life but don’t limit or harm you. These things could include career development, education, hobbies, a regimen of enjoyable exercise, or even the pursuit of personal relationships.

The physical and mental effects of overeating reduces the possibility of success at such endeavors. ‘I know I should stop visiting the fast-food drive-through window and put my energies elsewhere. But I just don’t feel like it.’ Aside from being an excuse, it’s also a vicious cycle: Of course you don’t ‘feel like it’ with all that salt, fat and carbohydrates in your system. That’s why you have to start channeling your anxiety-reducing motion into a direction other than something that makes you feel physically bad. You said it yourself: ‘I’m a really neat person who has a lot to offer.’ Give that person a chance by channeling your nervous energy into something life affirming and productive.