We should stop using the word addiction and shift to a new word – bonding.” – Professor Peter Cohen
In my signature course, When Food is Your Mother, I talk about what it means to be bonded with food: to use food to care for our relational and emotional needs.
It’s my view that most food compulsions are rooted in this bond – and it’s why healing from overeating is not a matter of will power or habit change, and why overeating can be so ‘sticky.’
The healing journey is not about behavior change, but about a change in relationship – where something other than food meets our emotional, relational and even spiritual needs.
What does it mean – to use food as a mother?
I wanted to take some time to explain what that means, as well as foreshadow the healing process. What does it mean to use food as a mother, or to have an emotional bond with food?
One of our innate human needs is for connection and bonding. We live and thrive in a web of connection, relationship, and belonging – “in the shelter of each other” as Mary Pipher beautifully wrote.
Beyond our heart’s desire for connection, relationship is also the very womb of human growth. It’s how we unfold, how we become, and how we heal. In developmental terms, relationship supports our human growth and development, step by step by step.
The vulnerability of relationship
But that is not all. While relationship is the womb of growth, because of relationship’s inherent vulnerability – when we open our heart to another, we also open ourselves up for the potential to be hurt – and because of our human imperfection – all of us can be hurt by and hurt the ones we love – relationship is also the soil of pain, separation and loss.
This paradox is often stated this way: “We are wounded in relationship, and we are healed in relationship.”
As we accrue relational wounds and experience separation, pain and loss, our hearts can close or harden in self protection. Our brains can erect a variety of well intentioned defenses in an effort to keep us safe.
As a result, our development can get ‘stuck.’
When we experience trauma, we also can experience changes in our brain, as trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has discovered.
We can lose our basic sense of safety – our trust in people, relationship, or life itself. We can turn away from the very things – relationships, connection, love and belonging – that we yearn for.
How relational needs get redirected to food
In the wake of this separation, our need for connection does not disappear – it merely seeks another expression.
It may come out in a drive to be the best or the pursuit of success, overdoing and overworking, perfectionism, the pursuit of fame or material comforts, and over responsibility and overcaring for others.
This drive can also find root in substances or things that we hope will fill the gap of disconnection and the pain of separation – like food.
In this way, food is a substitute relationship – a substitute for human connection and all the nurturing, support, connection, empathy, joy and delight that relationship can bring.
Rather than bonding with others, or bonding with ourselves, we bond with food.
How food brings comfort
Why food? Food brings feelings of temporary pleasure, warmth, delight, and relaxation but without the cost: it doesn’t have the capacity to hurt us in the way that people can. Food is a less vulnerable form of relationship, of safety and security.
So in times of overwhelm, fear, panic or pain, we seek closure, reunion, safety and connection – but we seek it in the safest place we can imagine: food.
Food becomes your mother, your friend, your comfort. Food holds and comforts you. Food soothes us when we are lonely, overwhelmed, or distressed, or facing more pain or separation than we can bear. Food is where we relax, come down, connect and feel safe.
In this way, when ‘food is our mother,’ we can become emotionally bonded to food, just as we can bond with people, with a favorite sports team, or a beloved town or part of the world.
I hope this perspective softens the shame, self judgment and self hatred that can cloud the heart when we struggle with something like overeating – something we ‘should’ be able to control.
Outgrowing the emotional bond with food
Thankfully this is not the end of the story. For while we all accrue experiences of pain and loss, we also have the innate capacity to recover from them.
And while we can form an emotional bond with food that turns painful and compulsive, with support, connection, and with love, this bond can be grieved, and softened.
This healing process involves a couple of stages and steps:
Building relationship and connection – Relationship is the ground floor of healing and is where the journey begins. Relational support can take many forms – relationships with friends and family, a therapist, support group, contemplative practices, and connective practices with the self (ritual, creativity/making art, movement, journaling, and more.)
These sources of connection both satiate your relational needs and support the growth process. Over time, as you feel nurtured by true connection, and as you feel held in safety, you outgrow your reliance on food to nurture your relational, emotional, and attachment needs.
Offering yourself acceptance and support – We all move through times of vulnerability and neediness. We cultivate acceptance for those times of need and the cravings for food that can arise – and we also create structures of support so we can move through the discomfort with confidence and greater ease.
This includes support from others – this may include a Listening Partner, a therapist or healer, a support group, loved ones, or spiritual practices of connection.
When we’re well supported, we’re stronger and have a greater window of tolerance for discomfort. (For those of you who love to study the science, James Coan’s social baseline theory is a wonderful exploration of why we’re wired for support.)
Grieving what was and what could not be – The grieving process is the catalyst of the healing process, and was beautifully expressed in the Serenity Prayer. Grief is how we unhook from trying to make things different: we mourn our losses and move from trying to create a different or better past to fostering a different present.
Supporting new life – the fruit of grief is resilience. This can include new life, new possibilities, new choices, courage, empowerment, and new ways of eating. It’s where you play with power – where you can effect change and make things different.
During this stage, your strongest, most capable self becomes the leader of your eating habits. This part of you moves to care for vulnerability with compassion, strength, and limits when necessary, while also embodying joy, freedom, celebration, pleasure, and levity with food.
Playing – this stage is surprising for most people, and was for me! You don’t have to try so hard to heal with food. Instead, you support your developmental process with an internal attitude of, “Step by step, I know I’ll get there – and there’s lots of help and support for me along the way.”
Bringing in this approach of compassionate, confident support means you can make mistakes and learn through trial and error. This softens anxiety and lightens the pressure to ‘get it right the first time.’ This is especially important when you’re dealing with the nitty gritty of the “what to eat” question and moving through the normal and often uncomfortable anxiety that accompanies growth.
Want to learn more?
May all our hungers be honored and fed.