This evening I had one of those nights where all my intentions went out the window. I was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed – always a stressful combination for me – and was impatient, crabby and short with my children. The night ended with my daughter tearfully telling me, “I feel like you don’t even want us around!”
I walked downstairs to the laundry room, sat on the piles of unwashed clothes (it’s a small mountain right now) and cried in frustration. I noticed how angry I felt, and how much I wanted to eat in a “Screw it!” gesture of hopelessness (It doesn’t matter what I do…it’s never enough….can’t they see how hard I try?)
I also realized that while a part of me wanted to apologize and set things straight with my children, another part of me was incredibly resistant to saying I was sorry.
What was that about? As I sat with my feelings, I realized that I couldn’t meet my children’s needs until my own needs were attended to. And what I most needed was empathy.
In my experience, the need for empathy is foundational. We need it like we need air to breathe and water to drink. Without empathy, we feel neglected, alienated, like no one cares about our pain or understands that we’re doing the best we can. Like wounded animals, we may even lash out, resenting other people’s happiness and preventing our own.
The need for empathy runs so strong that we will persist in “bad” habits or painful patterns until this need is met. We may do to others the very thing that hurt us so much, becoming the perpetrator. Of course, we do this to ourselves when we continue to binge even though our heart says, “Stop!” This only then adds a layer of guilt to our pain. Ugh.
The way out is to stop, pause and offer ourselves empathy when we’re hurting. We can easily do this for children, as we see their innocence. It’s much harder to see this innocence in ourselves. How we judge ourselves so harshly! As I sat in my laundry room in my tears and frustration, I felt like witch Mommy. My belly and throat were tight and tense, a sure sign that I was pushing a part of me away.
I knew that if I wanted to heal, I needed to turn towards my pain – not resist it, run from it or eat it. So I turned towards my hurt and poured out my heart.
I asked myself, “Oh sweetheart, what’s the matter? What’s really going on?” and it came whooshing out, in a torrent: “I’m so tired and overwhelmed by moving (we’re moving across the country in a few weeks), and I haven’t had a good night sleep in nearly 2 weeks, and it’s so hard to work with children home on summer vacation, and it’s hard for me to parent by myself with Patrick out of town (my husband’s been gone for much of the past 8 days), and I’m trying to meet my business goals for the month…”And on and on it went… I felt a release of pent up emotion as I poured out my frustration.
Then I asked that part of me who felt so angry and wanted to eat the entire refrigerator, “What do you need?” It replied, “Rest. I need rest and a break and I don’t feel like I can get it with Patrick out of town. I feel like food is the only way I can meet my needs.”
As I listened to myself, I felt my heart open a squeak and felt the first inklings of compassion for my exhaustion. How human of me to feel stressed and snap. How human of me to want to soothe myself with something quick and easy – food. How human of me to feel regret about how I treated my children. As I listened, and validated – letting this exhaustion and frustration feel seen, heard and understood – I felt my body softening. I felt my soul relax as the grip of “Bad Mommy” softened around my heart.
I put my hand on my heart and whispered, “Forgiven. It’s okay. I understand.” With my needs for empathy met, I could walk upstairs and willingly, openly tell my children, “I’m sorry. This isn’t what I want. I’d like to try again.”
And with this softening, I was able to watch the impulse to eat arise without acting on it. In retrospect, that by itself feels like a small miracle, as the feelings were incredibly intense.
I invite you to try this out for yourself. The next time you have a strong urge to eat, or when you find yourself losing it with a loved one, see if you can offer yourself a kind attention. Tell those hurting parts of you, “Sweetheart, tell me all about it,” just as a loving friend would, and let their hurt pour out into your deepest heart, in safekeeping. Give yourself all the care you can muster, your kind attention, your loving presence, your compassion.
Put your hand on your heart and whisper, “Forgiven.” Offer yourself mercy, and go in peace. I’m guessing you’ll find it much, much easier to offer the apology, to walk away from the fridge, and to feel safe, whole and good.
To learn how to use these tools to stop a bingeing habit, I offer guided visualizations, exercises and more in Heal Overeating: Untangled, a 12 session audio program to heal the emotional roots of overeating.