Many of us who overeat find that once we start eating, we can’t stop. This is particularly poignant and problematic at the end of the day. We may be able to consciously manage our food intake at breakfast and lunch, and even make it through the afternoon without bingeing.
But once dinnertime and evening hits, watch out! We eat dinner, and then another dinner, and then several more meals before bed. This pattern is so incredibly frustrating – particularly as we wake up the next day determined to do differently, only to get stuck at night time again.
What gives? Night bingeing is not evidence of a lack of will power, control or even hunger. It’s not a symptom of a spiritual deficit or a “bad” ego. Rather, it’s the sign of an unmet developmental need. We binge at night because we feel a terror and fear of separation – in this case, the separation from food.
For many of us, food is our “mother,” our substitute parent. It’s how we feel nurtured, loved, and soothed. To turn this source of soothing and love off – to stop eating for the day – feels like a void, what psychologically feels like death. It feels like being separate from the mother; from safety, from love itself.
Some of us are extremely vulnerable to feelings of separation. It often goes hand in hand with chronic, high anxiety, as we walk around in the world feeling somewhat “unsafe.” The roots of this are in early childhood. As infants and small children, we experienced either a physical or emotional separation from our caregiver. Either the parent wasn’t physically or emotionally there.
The need to feel attached – connected and safely rooted to an emotional available, non stressed, attuned caregiver – is a primary need of all human beings. According to one of the world’s preeminant developmental psychologists, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, it’s the foundation for all human development.
I hear from many women who were raised in the “cry it out era” of child rearing – where it was believed that a crying baby was trying to manipulate you, and should be ignored. Their mothers left them in cribs and playpens to cry it out, as that’s what they were told was best. Some women experienced abuse or childhood trauma. Other women were raised by mothers who were depressed or stressed and therefore emotionally unavailable. This was true for me.
Can you imagine the frustration and terror of that infant as it is needing something – food, comfort, a diaper change – and its needs are continally ignored or not able to be met? Can you imagine the terror of the abused infant? At some point, the infant gives up. I see this tendency in adults who’ve learned to suppress their needs. They have a hard time needing and tend to deny their needs and feelings, minimize them, ignore them, and “should” over them – “I shouldn’t feel this way.” At a very tender age, they learned that no one is there. They’re on their own. So they learned to suppress their needs, becuase it felt too painful to need and have them go unmet.
(I’d like to make an aside and say that pointing out our developmental gaps is not an exercise in blame, guilt or judgment against our mothers. I am a mother. My children have gaps. I have gaps. Rather, it’s an exercise in understanding. If we can understand why we’re doing something, then we can move to care for ourselves and heal the places where we got stuck. We pair awareness with kindness in order to foster growth and healing.)
So let me normalize this for you: all of us carry wounds from our childhoods, to one degree or another, because we were raised by imperfect parents and live in an imperfect world. No parent, no matter how loving, can be 100% attuned to their child’s needs 100% of the time. You can have incredibly loving parents and still have gaps. That’s because a parent can love you tremendously and yet still be emotionally unavailable due to stress, their own emotional wounds, family challenges or circumstances outside of their control. None of us does life perfectly, which is why I’ve found forgiveness of both self and others to be foundational – I would say essential – to healing.
If you didn’t feel attached to your caregivers, or had childhood trauma, or simply got hurt (which means all of us!) you may carry this feeling of “I’m separate and alone and unsafe” in the implicit memory of the brain. What happens is that these memories get triggered as adults in our present day lives, and we live them out. Here are common ways we live out a fear of separation:
- once you stop eating, you can’t stop because not eating feels like a void, a separation
- you can’t stop eating your favorite binge foods; you’re “attached” to them (In this case, instead of being attached to a loving caregiver, you learned to become attached to food as your “mother.”)
- you avoid going to bed at night (night time is a huge separation, and was so for the infant and small child)
- you avoid being alone with yourself and your thoughts – it feels too scary
- you are highly distractible
- you are highly susceptible to rejection – for example, if someone averts their eyes while they’re talking to you, you feel rejected
- you have fears of intimacy
Our coping strategies – keeping ourselves constantly busy, overeating, staying up late, sabotaging relationships or intimacy – are attempts to care for ourselves, to avoid this terror, this feeling of psychological death. They are attempts to avoid what is too vulnerable to bear.
When our vulnerability is high, we often can’t reach out to other people – the very thing that can help us feel connected, loved and attached. So we seek out substitutes. One reason why we cling to food is that it doesn’t ask us to be vulnerable. It just loves us. It gives us feelings of love and connection by amping up the brain chemicals that create these feelings, like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. It’s the same with pets, books, the computer, computer games, and even virtual communities like Facebook. We go to them for connection because they don’t ask us to be vulnerable.
I hope that reading that helps you drop the judgment of “I’m a bad person because I go to these unhealthy things for connection instead of to real people.” As Sri Nisargadatta says, our flight from pain “is a sign of the love we bear for ourselves.” It is based in self protection, in love, in your tender, precious humanity – not a character flaw.
Thank God that we can heal – that the story doesn’t end here. Thank God that we can heal our brain, our bodies, and soothe this hurt part of us that feels so vulnerable and alone. How do we heal? Safety and belonging are crucial. We can’t drop the food unless we feel safe that something else will step in to take its place.
We can support ourselves through the healing process by creating safety in our own hearts, building up our sense of connection and belonging. This is why self acceptance and self compassion are foundational – they allow us to create a feeling of belonging – of sanctuary – inside. This internal belonging is always, always there; it is always available.
Tools that I use to foster self acceptance and self compassion are:
- Putting my hand on my heart and connecting with the feelings that are arising in me. Offering my feelings care, love and tenderness: “I hear you.”
- Mindfulness practices – noticing when fear or anxiety is arising in my body and looking to see what’s there.
- Offering myself self forgiveness at the end of the day or when I’m feeling small, separate or ashamed.
- Doing something that helps me feel held, soothed, or nurtured like rocking in a rocking chair, going outside and listening to the birds, or cuddling with a stuffed animal.
- Being curious about why I’m doing something unhelpful to myself rather than jumping on my case about why I “shouldn’t” have done it.
- Playing! Letting myself have a portion of my day for my enjoyment.
And lastly, my favorite technique for soothing my fear of separation: I put my hand on my heart, close my eyes, and tell myself, over and over, “You belong to me. You belong. You belong on the earth. You are safe with me.” It’s so powerfully healing. It’s a form of self parenting, reassuring that scared small part of me that she is safe, that I will never leave her, and that she belongs. I feel my body relax as I feel calmed by this self love.
I also encourage you to find all the support that you need to move through vulnerability. I agree with Dr. Harville Hendrix, who says that “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship.” Loving friends, support groups, therapists and counselors, and supportive family members are crucial because they help change this belief that “I’m all alone.” They come alongside you so that you can heal those spaces inside that are too traumatized to touch on your own. In order to find lasting healing, I think we have to experience both internal healing with ourselves and external healing with others. Reaching out to others, then, is a necessary step, even as it can also be a scary one.
You belong, dear one. You belong. You are safe.
Needing more hands on help?
- To learn more about this topic, I invite you to explore my overeating program, Heal Overeating: Untangled. You’ll learn tools to heal this fear of separation that shows up with food.
- You may also enjoy reading this post on how your attachment style affects your relationship with food – http://www.firstourselves.org/missing-link-overeating/
- You may also enjoy reading this post on 5 reasons why you overeat – http://www.firstourselves.org/5-reasons-why-you-overeat/