In my last few blog posts, I’ve been talking about what it means to use food as a mother.
I’m writing this series so that you can have more clarity about whether When Food is Your Mother is a good fit for you, as well as to give you a taste of the themes that we’ll be exploring in the class. If you’re eager to join us, we’re opening the class up for registration later this week.
If you have questions on whether or not When Food is Your Mother is right for you, please send us an email, and we’re happy to talk with you. If my approach isn’t a good fit for you, we can recommend other good folks who are a better match for your needs.
Today I’m going to talk about what happens when we use food to care for our emotional needs – in particular, the need for attunement.
Attunement, emotional resonance, and the need to ‘feel felt’
Attunement is being received – the sense of feeling ‘felt,’ received, heard or understood. When others attune to us, what we often feel is being ‘held’ and supported in a compassionate container of caring. Our experience is reflected back to us in another’s eyes, body language, and mirroring.
Like a pair of musical notes that resound together, or a dance between lovers, attunement is a feeling of empathy and harmony: an internal sense of, “I see you. I hear you. I understand you. I can imagine how it feels to be you right now.”
Within this gaze of warm support, we can exist: we feel seen, invited, nurtured, and accepted. We feel known, and loved. Our vulnerability is supported, honored, protected, and loved.
Being heard – the feeling of being listened to by another – invites our true selves to unfold, and become.
How attunement shapes our development and builds resilience
This mirroring of our experience is crucial to our human development. Emotional connection helps wire and shape our brains, promotes resilience and recovery from life’s pain, and builds empathy.
Emotional support is particularly important when we experience stress, distress, or pain. When we receive emotional support during times of distress, our emotional brain calms, and feelings of alarm and overwhelm soften. We feel stronger because we have help and support on our side.
Attunement sends a message of, “You are not alone. I am here beside you, and together, we’ll get through this.” With this balast, we can weather strong feelings like fear, anger, or grief.
Attunement helps us move into our higher brain, where we have access to a wider perspective. We feel hope and trust again! We can trust life’s resilience and rebirth. We can think and act with confidence and assurance.
A story of when emotional support is missing
But what happens when this emotional support is missing? And how does this tie in with overeating? Here’s a story from my own life that weaves these threads together:
It was evening. At the time I had several young children at home, which can be an overwhelming experience for any mother – and often was for me. While I don’t remember the details, I do remember the longing to ‘let down’ – to have someone come close, fold me in their arms, and offer empathy for the painful feelings I was wrestling with.
So I reached out to a loved one. But as I began sharing my experience, I noticed tension and frustration building in my body: I didn’t get the sense that I was being heard.
In response, I kept talking and talking, trying to explain myself over and over. From the outside looking in, it probably looked as if I were ‘pleading a case,’ like a lawyer laying out evidence to justify their perspective.
I was looking for a cue – body language, a tone of voice, a facial expression or subtle signaling – that would reassure me that I was heard.
In the absence of these cues, I could feel myself becoming more and more agitated and panicked, and then, finally, moving to collapse. I remember the feeling of sorrow and despair that overcame me, and the weight of my neediness – an empty, aching pressure that ran down the front of my body, from my throat to my gut.
I also remember the errant conclusion that I came to in that rapid fire moment – “No one will ever understand me. Food is my only friend.” In a split second, I felt a wave of craving rush over me – a very strong impulse to eat raisins, granola and yogurt, tortilla chips and cheese – all my favorite comfort foods.
In the pain of separation, I had turned to food, ‘my mother.’
The hunger for connection
I share my story because I hear a version of it from 99% of my students. In fact, I imagine every human being has a story like this, whether or not it involves food, because we all experience times when we feel alone, separate, or disconnected.
Part of this arises from modern culture: our culture as a whole feels uncomfortable and ashamed about our emotional needs, human vulnerability, and neediness. This creates a social environment that discounts and minimizes our relational needs – and one that also pathologizes the duress that arises in our hearts, bodies and minds from living in this painful environment.
But to put it simply, feelings of neediness simply arise from unmet needs. In particular, here are some ways a hunger for emotional attunement may appear in your daily life.
Signs of a hunger for emotional attunement:
- trying over and over to be heard
- overattending to other people’s feelings and needs and underattending to your own
- going to the same ‘dead ends’ to satiate your emotional needs
- feeling small, little and helpless
- feeling like you need to be louder and louder to be heard
- strong feelings of frustration, irritation, or anger
- trying to control others – strong demands or bossiness of loved ones, where you’re trying to direct them to meet your needs
- envy of those who seem to have their emotional needs met
- self attack, harshness, and strong self criticism – this is where the frustration of unmet needs gets directed inwards, towards the self
- a shame of feeling “too much” – too sensitive, too needy, too emotional, too clingy or conversely, feeling “not enough” – not strong enough, not capable enough
- feelings of powerlessness, despair and helplessness
- heightened fear, anxiety and alarm
- and strong cravings and drives for food, sex, alcohol, social media, porn, shopping, status items, and beauty
How food calms the emotional brain
Like my night of mothering overwhelm, when we face overwhelming experiences without sufficient connection, it makes perfect sense why we can then go to the next step: where we turn to food (or alcohol, shopping, web surfing, social media, work, or any pursuit of pleasure) to fill the gap, to satiate this emotional hunger.
Comfort foods like mashed potatoes, cheese, or rich, creamy pastas; sugary foods that combine fat with sugar (like ice cream or pastries), or any food that that you felt comforted by as a child (for me, this was Twizzlers licorice) tend to be the most common ‘go tos’ for relational hunger.
Food does temporarily work – it can regulate and calm the emotional brain and the nervous system. For example, even the basic act of chewing moves you from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. Likewise, many foods release neurotransmitters in the brain that bring about feelings of warmth, soothing, and pain relief.
And – food is a far cry from the satiation of true connection. We are meant to find feelings of warmth, pain relief and soothing in connection, in relationship. In this post on why a binge is a cry for connection, I talk about this further – how food and addictions are “biochemical substitutes for what we’re meant to find in human relationship” (Dr. Gabor Mate.)
What heals the hunger
I think it’s crucial to bring our culture’s shame about our emotional and relational needs up to the light. When we don’t question it, this shame is internalized by each of us – a feeling of “there’s something wrong with me because I’m so needy.”
But when we question the belief itself we can come to a different conclusion: “What if my relational needs are okay, and can be honored in my daily life?”
For there are ways to ease and satiate this relational hunger and to foster greater emotional connection – both with yourself, and others. In other blog posts, I talk about fostering emotional connection with others. (You may like this blog post on why food compulsions are healed in relationship.) This is also something we cover in depth in When Food is Your Mother.
Today I’d like to focus on things you can do to direct some of your emotional energy towards yourself. I invite you to explore and play with these ideas below.
What you can do to support your emotional and relational needs
- Attune to yourself – give yourself lots of spaciousness and attention to attune to your own needs. This may take some practice, as you may find that you’re spending a lot of time in your head about how you ‘should’ feel or what you ‘should’ need rather than attuning to your body and what you’re really needing or feeling. Yoga, dance, martial arts and other body based practices can be very helpful in cultivating a ‘present moment’ relationship with your body. You can start with being more present to the signals of your body – use the bathroom when you need to go instead of waiting, stop eating when you first feel full, rest when you need rest.
- Grow attunement with play – one of my favorite ways to cultivate attunement is to play – to practice what one of my mentors Abby Seixas calls ‘doing something you love.‘ What brings you joy? What helps you feel capable and strong? What makes you feel alive? Play with these needs and desires – take up a class, make subtle shifts to your schedule, plan time for connection with friends, try something you’ve always wanted to try, learn a new skill or hobby.
- Practice self compassion. Feelings of neediness often arouse strong feelings of shame – for whatever needs, emotions, or parts of ourselves are not welcomed are experienced in the body as shame. These outcast parts move underground because it’s too painful to expose the need – lest it be criticized or neglected. I like how Francis Weller talks about this – to approach shame as an invitation for us to come close to these abandoned, unloved parts. Self compassion offers a space where we can bring in gentleness – “Ouch, this really hurts. May I bring some care to this unloved part.” It moves us to care for these tender parts rather than to shut them down, neglect or silence them.
- Play with desire and your imagination. It’s easy for us to get stuck in feelings of intensified pursuit – where we keep pursuing the same solution (like food) over and over to meet our emotional needs, even after it’s obvious that it doesn’t work. Use your imagination to come up with an abundance of ways to meet your emotional needs, to think of many, many possibilities. This may encourage you to deepen some friendships or relationships, to stop pursuing those that don’t work, to speak up more for your needs, or to seek out other solutions, avenues or interests.
- Play with power. One of the most painful consequences of a lack of attunement is a feeling of powerlessness. Because attunement is something that we first receive from and depend upon from others, a child with attunement hunger often feels powerless – because they are essentially waiting on the adults around them to give to them. As adults, when we have a storehouse of built up attunement hunger, the feelings we experience in the present are often the same feelings we experienced as a child, where we are waiting to be found – for someone to see our hunger and to respond to it. If no one sees us or responds to us, we can fall into the same feelings of despair, powerlessness and hopelessness that we felt as a child. That’s why playing with power – to play with effecting change, to feel empowered and powerful – is one of the most important and necessary steps to heal overeating. I talk about playing with power here and here, where I talk about moving through collapse.
Want to learn more about attunement and emotional connection?
If this post sparks a desire to learn more about this topic, here are some excellent resources where you can learn more about attunement, emotional connection, and secure attachment in romantic relationships, parent-child relationships, brain development, and more.
There is so much powerful research, dialogue and study around these topics.
Emotional connection and parenting – I highly recommend the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld and the Neufeld Institute (this is where I studied), Lori Petro’s Teach through Love, and Hand in Hand Parenting.
Brain development – the work of Dr. Dan Siegel. Also this book, Becoming Attached by Robert Karen, is a good read and introduction to attachment.
Attachment, emotional connection and addiction – the work of Dr. Gabor Mate. Also see this video here and this article about Dr. Mate. Johann Hari says that the “answer to addiction is connection, not sobriety.” Learn more in his TED talk here.
Emotional connection in romantic relationships – Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotion Focused Therapy and her book, Hold Me Tight; Dr. Stan Tatkin’s work and his book Wired for Love.
Nora Samaran has done some beautiful and thought provoking synthesis on our culture’s shaming and disavowal of men’s emotional and relational needs, and how this impacts their capacity to give and receive nurturing. You can read her powerful essay here, “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture.”
Emotional connection and empathy – The gorgeous book A General Theory of Love; Marshall Rosenberg’s work, NVC, or non violent communication; Born for Love by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz. (They’ve also written articles for Psychology Today here.)
Attachment and trauma healing – Deidre Fay combines attachment theory with somatic yogic practices and yogic philosophy in her work. You may also want to explore Bessel van der Kolk’s work, Bonnie Badenoch’s gorgeous book, The Heart of Trauma, and her talk on the myth of self regulation.
Thank you, Carly. I have risked turning to people only to find them unavailable. It’s a very painful moment. I am trying to trust Love always and from there learning to support myself and accept gifts of connection from others who are in a position to connect. I’ve learned so much about all of the above from you.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts – you poignantly articulate the vulnerability of reaching out, and, yes, the painful ouch when we aren’t received. You may like how my friend Isabelle Tierney talks about “keep asking until you get a yes” – trusting that help and support is available, and not giving up after the first no. What courage, Karen, to trust and to keep your heart open to accept the gifts of those who can connect. It’s inspiring!