I’ve been speaking to lots of women this week. It’s January. They’re trying to start the year positively – to finally heal this “food thing” (or sugar thing) for good.
These are bright, kind, loving, perceptive women. Women who’ve often been through incredible, heartbreaking challenges in their lives – challenges they’ve handled with remarkable grace and courage. These are women I’d feel honored to count as friends. Most of them see exactly where they get caught in food dependence – sugar, binge eating, overeating, emotional eating, bingeing and purging. They’re not in denial. They’ve been working on their stuff for years.
Many have healed from other addictions such as alcohol or cigarettes. They’ve tried lots and lots of healing strategies to heal their food stuff; they’ve done tons of inner work. They know – and have used – pretty much all the tools out there, whether they’re EFT/tapping techniques, psychotherapy, meditation, mindfulness, spiritual work, hypnotherapy, counseling, approaches that work with changing your inner dialogue (thoughts/beliefs/self talk), medication, nutritional supplements and more. They’ve read everybody on weight loss and food.
Many are in the wellness field themselves – they’re nutritionists, healers, naturopaths, therapists, coaches, nurses, yoga teachers, acupuncturists, spiritual teachers, massage therapists, sound healers, personal trainers, and more. They’re intuitive, sensitive, and empathetic. They’re fabulous at helping people.
They feel frustrated – and like frauds – because they feel absolutely stuck with food. They don’t understand - I know what to do. I’ve done all this inner work. Why can’t I just DO it? Why am I STILL overeating?
I’ve seen this pattern so much – and it was true for me, too – that this year I’ve listened, really listened to deeply understand what’s going on. For a while, I thought emotional healing (I’m limiting my discussion on this post to emotional healing, even while I understand that physical healing is equally important and part of the picture) was about other factors. Perhaps it was knowledge – if I just knew what to do, I could do it. Then I thought it was about understanding – if I understand the roots, that insight can heal me. I thought that changing my thinking or beliefs would do it.
Each of these things helped a bit, but they were not enough by themselves for me and for many of my clients. So what does create emotional healing?
Finding the clues
This weekend my children and I spent Friday night browsing Barnes & Noble. Because it’s January, the table at the front of the store was piled high with weight loss books. (You can imagine.) I thumbed through them in curiosity. This afternoon I was at the library, and browsed the latest weight loss books there, too.
I found some ideas I liked – things like practicing self compassion, relaxed intent (having an intention but holding it loosely), the importance of structure and rhythm, and even appreciating how certain foods like wheat or sugar can lead to addiction.
But there was 1 core idea where I strongly disagreed. At one point, I said out loud, “No! That’s not true!” (You should’ve seen the looks I got from the other library patrons as I argued with a book.)
I was protesting against the “take responsibility for your stuff” solution to healing food stuff. Here’s an example – one book said something like, “If you’re not losing weight, it’s your own fault. If you really wanted it, you’d do it. I’m sorry that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.” (This is when I started arguing outloud…) A cousin of this belief is, “just do the inner work so you can heal already. Quit making such a big deal out of it.”
These ideas, in my view, completely miss the point. If we could, we would. As I see it, everyone is doing the best they can. “Taking responsibility” or “just doing it” feels trivializing to people in real pain. So why is that for some people, their best is speedy progress? And why do others feel stuck and hopeless?
And here’s another biggie – if we recognize that our food stuff is not just about the body or brain, but is also rooted in the emotions, and we have all this self awareness, why do we feel unable to move forward and create change?
How attachment affects our inner resilience
The answer is attachment. We need to feel securely attached so we can grow.
I’m not going to go into an in depth explanation of attachment theory here, as this post would then be a book. But if this post rings true for you, I encourage you to read more about it. (I share my favorite attachment resources in the comments below if you’d like to learn more.)
In a nutshell, attachment theory says that our basic, fundamental need is to be loved and to belong – to feel connected, secure and safe. These needs are the basic ground floor level of our development. When these needs aren’t met, we get stuck. We have gaps in our development. We develop painful coping strategies – like overeating. (I think lots of addictions would fit in this sentence, too.)
These attachment needs are primal, and go very, very deep in the brain. When these unmet needs are triggered in our adult lives, we panic. We go into fight or flight. My guess is that when we binge, or overeat, we’re feeling this panic of feeling unattached – of being in pain and feeling alone, disconnected, getting zero emotional support or response. We may have felt this way as children. And we feel it in the present when we feel hurt – let’s say our boss says something unkind about us at a meeting – and it triggers all those old feelings of alone, in pain, rejected, abandoned, terrified.
A child who is securely attached feels that there’s an emotionally responsive parent who is there for them – especially when they’re in pain. They may feel hurt at times – it’s inevitable - but they feel held in their hurt. This is what enables them to cope with it – as Dr. Sue Johnson says, “loving connection is the only safety nature ever offers us.” They’re able to adapt and work through the pain.
What insecure attachment looks like
The insecurely attached child doesn’t have this same resilence. They give up easily – very easily. They are easily overwhelmed because they “feel” alone.
A child who is insecurely attached to its parents can be anxious, needy, clingy, insecure. They don’t feel safe, they don’t feel like they can rely on their parent to be there emotionally for them; the bond is fragile. They don’t feel held. Their pain overwhelms them. (It’s this pain I see in my clients when their emotions come up in the present day. They feel the hurt – let’s say they have an argument with their spouse – and it feels overwhelming, like too much to bear. The pain brings up those threatened, fight or flight signals and the brain spins out. They eat to soothe the panic.)
How does that child survive? We cope. In my case, I coped by substituting an attachment. Yep, I attached to food Sugar in particular – sweet, creamy, fatty foods, foods like mother’s milk – became my source of nurturing. Here’s where the stuckness with food starts to make sense – if I use sugar to feel safe, to feel loved, to soothe that panic and terror, you can imagine that trying to remove sugar from my life would bring up these very same feelings of terror, and panic! No wonder it took me so long to unhook. No wonder I resisted it. I felt like a small child losing the thing that kept her tethered….
And it’s this panic that I see in my clients. We work very, very slowly together to help them feel safe so they can unhook from the dependence on food.
Insecure attachment and food
A person who is insecurely attached to food will often be anxious with food, needy with food, clingy with food, insecure with food. Or, they can be avoidant towards it – pushing it away, acting cool, like they don’t need it. This can show up as:
- We love food, and we hate it.
- When we’re not eating, we crave food, we want it, we feel anxious for it. When we’re eating the food, we feel terrified of it and gobble it down – like we don’t trust that there will be enough.
- For many of us, food is our mother. We look to it as we would look to a mother – to meet needs for nurturing, comfort, compassion, connection and understanding.
- We may avoid eating, skip meals so we don’t feel the insecurity, the lack of trust with food.
- We feel terrified (yes, absolute terror) about not having certain foods to eat, like sugar, or about setting limits on food.
- Hoarding food, like stockpiling love.
- Feeling panicky when there’s either too much or too little food.
Why separating from sugar feels so painful
For many of the women I work with, I hear words like terror, abandonment, isolation, deprivation, and panic when they even think about not eating sugar or not being able to eat as much as they want. Strong words! And yet it makes sense in the context of food = mother. If a small child is separated from its mother, that experience is incredibly distressing – nature designed in that way to keep the child safe! We feel the same sense of impending doom about separating from food.
These strong emotions make sense if we see that the reason their feelings overwhelm them – why they turn to food instead – is because they have long buried memories of being in pain and feeling alone, overwhelmed by their pain. That feels rightly terrifying. So they panic when they feel strong emotions. They feel like they hijack their bodies, like they take over, like they can’t handle it. The strongest emotion is often this fear of separation from food.
The pain I hear described to me over and over is a feeling of being completely alone, a feeling of “There’s no one there,” or, “I have to do it all myself.” This often show up in a family role of being the strong one – the person others count on to take charge and be responsible but who feels unduly burdened, that they can’t count on others when they need help. More than anything, they long to let down, to take off the responsibility hat, and to be held. To be cared for. To pass the baton to someone else. Some of them say that sugar is the only way they can do this – the only way they can give themselves a measure of let down, of mothering. And they consciously or unconsciously resist giving up this source of comfort – and understandably so! If their lives feel burdened – and they feel powerless to set limits against these burdens – then the only solution they feel they have is to comfort themselves in order to endure it.
As I hope you’re seeing, it’s not so simple as just “wanting it enough” or “committing.”
Why emotional connection – attachment – is necessary to feel our feelings
Is there anything more painful than to be in pain and feel alone? I’ve given birth to 4 children, 3 completely naturally, and the last 2, at home. Childbirth hurts. And yet, paradoxically, in my natural births, the pain was tolerable. The pain was tolerable because I felt safe – I was with a midwife and nurse I completely trusted, I was in my husband’s loving arms, and I felt surrounded by love and care. My emotional needs were met. I felt secure and because of this, I felt I could handle the pain. It didn’t overwhelm me.
With my first birth, the pain didn’t feel tolerable. I absolutely did not feel safe. I didn’t like my doctor. I’d seen him once for a 10 minute doctor visit, as we’d moved when I was pregnant, and the OB clinic had 6 or 7 OBS that you rotated through on each visit. He didn’t know me from Adam; I was giving birth – a pretty intimate thing! – with a total stranger. He ignored my birth plan and wishes. Same with the hospital staff. I was in a big hospital where nurses walked in and out and I never knew if someone would stay with me and help me through my contractions. I was in pain, I was a first time mom, I felt scared, I felt ignored, I felt overlooked, I felt abandoned! So the pain felt unbearable. I had a last minute epidural when I was fully dilated at the end of labor, even with the risks of getting an epidural so late in the game, because I felt like I was going to go through the roof in pain.
It is contact and closeness – feeling safe, feeling held – that allows us to feel those painful feelings instead of feeling overwhelmed by them and eating them. And it is contact and closeness that helps us feel loved, that helps us feel belonging, so we don’t walk around with such a deep, aching hole in our hearts.
I’ll never forget what one tender woman, a coaching client, asked for in our first call – “Karly, I just want to feel held.” If I do anything for my clients and readers, this is how I believe I help them – I help them feel safe. I help them feel held. I help them feel connected so that the pain doesn’t feel so overwhelming.
We are remarkably brave when we feel cared for. When we feel connected, when we feel “held,” when we feel validated, understood, and safe, we can do what feels really painful, like step aside from the cookies. In fact, it’s how we’re able to say no…
Overeating is an attachment cry
Overeating, sugar bingeing, emotional eating are attachment cries, no different than a baby crying when it’s in pain. At the most basic, basic level, we don’t feel safe. My guess is that people who are able to work through their food stuff with relative ease are securely attached. They have more of a base from which to start. Those who struggle have some degree of insecure attachment.
Fortunately, we can heal the attachment brain. Our childhood pain is not a sentence of hopelessness. Likewise, insecure attatchment is *not* a sign that we had abusive or unloving parents or that our families are “dysfunctional.” As Judy Scheel says, “Many families are enormously loving. Attachment Theory has nothing to do with the absence of love in a family.”
As we heal the attachment brain, we can grow. As I see it, secure attachment is the foundation for growth. Not enlightenment, not spiritual evolution, not conscious attainment, not responsibility, not even effort. I think we put the cart before the horse – and make the road much, much harder – when we focus on fixing the behavior before we heal the relationship – the relationship we feel with ourselves, with others, and with life.
When we feel safe, when we feel held, we can do things that are really painful, like sit with our painful feelings instead of eat them. We can do the emotional work – feeling our feelings, crying our tears, opening to feelings that we’ve experienced over and over again – that frees us from food. That has been my experience these past 2 years, and this is how I’ve been able to make great strides with food, even as it was not easy, comfortable, or fun. (In fact, the past 2 years have been a very difficult time for me – so attachment was crucial.) Not skills, not knowledge, not will power, not responsibility, but safety.
How we find secure attachment
I’ve found attachment in forgiving my friends and loved ones and letting go of years of bitterness, resentment and hurt – allowing myself to be loved by imperfect people and to feel their love. I’ve found attachment in a dear therapist who helped me feel safe to touch pain that felt too painful to touch on my own. I’ve found attachment in the mucky work of sitting with and feeling my feelings – crying my tears – and not abandoning myself when I felt overwhelmed or in pain. I’ve felt attachment in reaching out to others instead of isolating myself. And I’ve found attachment with my own heart in self compassion, self forgiveness, and self acceptance. (I forget. A lot.)
So let’s unpack this a bit so we can clearly see the map of what I did. I focused on meeting my deep attachment needs for:
- contact and closeness
- emotional responsiveness
- attunement to my needs
- unconditional love
I met these needs through practices like:
- compassion (offering myself care, a nurturing inner voice, and more)
- prayer/spiritual practices of connecting with the Divine
- sitting with my feelings and feeling them
- listening to myself/connecting with myself
- reaching out to others and creating connection
- support! – letting a few people (people whom I deeply trusted, it was only 3-4 people) be with me when I was in pain and was feeling overwhelmed. For me, this included a therapist.
- being honest about my needs (vs hiding or pretending)
- being open/accepting to my needs (not judging, minimizing, editing, suppressing or shaming them)
- allowing myself to be my own person (not having to take on other people’s thoughts or beliefs/agree with them in order to be close)
- setting boundaries (these were primarily emotional boundaries – not making myself responsible for other people’s feelings, not feeling responsible for other people’s happiness, as well as setting limits)
Learning these new skills is still a process for me, and yet looking back, I can see that practicing these skills yielded change and growth. That growth – the fruits of a strong attachment – are things like:
- personal power – being your own person
- integrative thinking (the ability to mix emotions, to hold two opposing thoughts at a time and honor your values rather than your instincts. This is also known as impulse control.)
- “and” thinking vs. either/or thinking
- being able to set boundaries and honor your limits
- to rest at the deepest level, to know that you are enough
- inner resilience regardless of changing external circumstances (a feeling of, “I can handle this” instead of a feeling of hopelessness/despair)
- comfort with strong emotions (not so scary feeling)
- the ability to care for and move strong emotions
- efficacy – feeling capable of making changes in your life
And these fruits are what enable me to say no to food. Holy cow, attachment heals. As Dr. Neufeld says, “It’s how we reach our human potential.” I would say it’s how we live what we are – our goodness.
(Stay tuned – this will probably be my next course – walking you through this outline so you can create healing in your own life. If you’re wanting something like this, please let me know, as I work to serve and it helps me plan my priorities for the year.)
So if you’re tried everything to heal, if you know what you need to do but are having a hard time doing it, oh dear one, it’s not your fault, and it’s not hopeless. If you’re stuck, that simply tells me that you don’t feel safe. That you need to create a container in which to unfold – a container of secure attachment. That’s why I say that the real relationship we’re changing is not our relationship with food, but the one we have with ourselves. When we feel safe with ourselves – and feel safe with the Divine, with life, and with others – we can grow.
Why this is so prevalent today
This is one reason (there are many) why so many people are struggling with eating disorders – and other addictions – and why we’re the most overweight people in history (unmet attachment needs + highly processed, highly addictive, unnutritious, readily available food = a perfect storm for weight problems.) We feel so isolated, cut off, separate, alone, and lacking in belonging with each other – even with all our fancy technology. We feel like baby birds flailing around, kicked out of the nest, with no shelter. It’s why we eat…and shop, and have casual sex, and go online, and drink, and gamble, and watch reality TV, and live in virtual worlds, and work, and compulsively check our email, and twitter, and Facebook, and texting….
And it’s why our children are doing all of this, too, and at younger and younger ages…..
We are all desperately needing connection. Our hearts and souls are starving. Dying. Thirsting. Hungering. Literally. We can not live, we can not thrive, we can not survive without attachment.
Our overeating is our protest. Our hearts and bodies saying, “NO. I can’t bear this isolation.” Our hearts saying, please, please, give me belonging! Give me shelter. I need safe emotional connection.
They are protesting. The question, dear ones, is will we listen? Will we give our hearts what they’re thirsting for?
I invite you to start, oh, so simply, with a gentle bow, an acknowledgement about how much you’re hurting. Hold yourself and cry your tears and open your arms to your pain. If you have a place where you feel belonging – a loved one, a therapist, a tree, a pet – go to them. Let them comfort you. Let yourself feel held. Forgive yourself. You’ve been trying to fight against your human biology, your most basic need. You were never meant to try and tough it out and live without belonging. Don’t feel like your human neediness is a flaw, a character stain that you just need to work on to erase….
Instead, open to it. Come home. Rest in the shelter of your heart. Attach.
Reach out to others. We can not survive without contact and closeness. Seek support. Seek love. Create bonds. This is crucial for your healing. In fact, in my humble opinion, I don’t think we can heal without it…we can’t heal in isolation. We need to heal in relationship, in belonging, in community.
For we belong to each other. We belong to ourselves. We belong to the earth. And we belong to the Divine. Thank God.
Resources for you:
- If you this post resonates with you and you’d like to learn more about attachment theory and how it effects our development, I invite you to peruse the resources in the comments below. I highly recommend the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, the person who has taught me the most about attachment.
- For help with overeating, this free worksheet is a map for using compassion, emotional connection and attunement/attachment with ourselves to walk away from a binge.
- Heal Overeating: Untangled is an audio program that heals the roots of overeating by healing our relationship with ourselves.
- You can also find support and connection in our free support forums.