Drop the illusion of having to “fix” yourself
In my course When Food is Your Mother, I offer an explanation of how unmet attachment needs (and the vulnerability and wounding that arises from these unmet needs) can give rise to food compulsions like binge eating, overeating, sugar seeking, and the obsessive pursuit of a perfect diet or body.
Trauma, loss/separation and emotional wounding are the root causes of eating disorders and food compulsions, including a sugar addiction. This is what gives rise to the inner dynamics and the negative inner voice or persona that perpetuates and typifies an eating disorder, binge eating, overeating, or an obsessive relationship with sugar. These inner dynamics include chronic shame, guilt/self blame, self loathing, identifying with “negative” thoughts and emotions, and self attack.
Self attack, shame and self loathing (thoughts and feelings that say things like, “You’re a fat cow,” or “You’re disgusting”) are not really about the body, diet, or food, no matter how big the body may be or how out of control the eating may feel. These are attachment wounds, and point to something else.
The body, the diet, the food are red herrings, what the brain thinks is the real problem, and what the brain believes needs to be controlled, fixed or solved. It’s the brain trying to defend against pain that is too vulnerable to bear.
How attachment wounds can lead to arrested development
Emotional wounding that is too much to bear can impair the maturation and development of a child, leading to arrested development. This is especially true for children who are more sensitive, because their sensitivity brings more heightened vulnerability, more emotional “porousness,” where they take on the feelings of others, and therefore the possibility for greater wounding. It’s no surprise to me, then, that many of the people who attend my classes are empathic, intuitive, and highly sensitive.
Here are some common ways arrested development can appear. In scanning this list, you may see commonalities among those who struggle with eating disorders as well as those who struggle with addiction:
- black and white, either/or thinking instead of “and”/integrative thinking
- inability to temper impulses
- easily overwhelmed by strong emotions
- a need to do things perfectly and a fear of making mistakes
- lack of emotional regulation
- identifying with one’s emotions, thoughts and impulses (thinking they’re “you”) rather than something passing
- unable to handle life’s limits or “nos” (this often appears as overgiving and overdoing – not accepting the limits of time and energy)
- poor boundaries
- the inability to learn through trial and error, to adapt to what doesn’t work
These are not personality traits; they are signs of arrested development, of delayed maturation. These aren’t things to cut out or rail against; they are things to outgrow.
How healing unfolds
Thankfully, there is grace. What this means is that we can grow and heal. The container for all healing and growth is relationship, secure attachment. This enables us to grieve our losses and childhood wounds, what supports growth, new life and neuroplasticity.
Relationship – secure, loving attachment – brings the brain to rest. As we have what we need, as we feel safe and connected and attached, we can grow and mature – at any age. This growth and maturity appears as a shifting of the dynamics of the list above. For example, as we grow and mature, we experience greater integrative (“and”) thinking, we temper our emotions, and we learn from our mistakes rather than getting stuck in what doesn’t work.
An offshoot of growth are changes in how we relate to and use food. Rather than using food as our home base, as our attachment, we find attachment in our relationship with ourselves, in our relationship with others, and in our relationship with life or the Divine. These attachments replace the attachment to food or to the pursuit of a perfect body.
And as we grow and mature, the internal dynamics that feed an eating disorder are softened. In this way, we can outgrow food compulsion and eating disorders.
Why forcing growth doesn’t work and breaks your own heart
In reading this, you may be thinking that I’m telling you to pull yourself up by your boot straps; to work really hard at attachment so that you can grow, heal and mature. Far from it.
In fact, this idea – that we are in charge of our healing and growth process – lacks insight into the nature of growth and attachment’s role in it. We can only grow when we are at rest. And we are only at rest when we are not caught in the pursuit of attachment.
In other words, we can only grow when we feel free from feelings of separation.
A fixation on personal growth is a symptom of the eating disorder
I hear from so many men and women who have spent decades trying to work on themselves, trying to heal these inner dynamics, trying to change and fix their eating disorder behavior. I hear their exhaustion and frustration, and most sadly of all, the guilt they feel that they haven’t been able to make themselves better. This only perpetuates the shame of, “There’s something wrong with me” and increases feelings of separation.
This very overresponsibility and fixation on working on the self is a symptom of the internal dynamics that drive the food compulsion – not what heals it. This often appears as a compulsive drive to seek out and learn about self help, personal growth, personal development, and even spiritual growth.
More than a doing or efforting, healing is an undoing, an unwinding, a letting go. It is a grieving and feeling process, an opening to hidden or outcast parts of the self, and it is a dying: letting these compulsive ways of being wither and die.
Who is in charge of your healing
Placing the burden of healing on your own heart is like asking someone with a broken leg to run a marathon.
If you have a broken leg, what you need is rest and care. Then the body can do what it does – which is to heal.
If you have a broken heart, what you need is rest and care. Then the body and heart and mind and psyche can do what it does – which is to heal.
If you have an eating disorder or struggle with food compulsion, what you really have is a broken heart: wounding, pain, or vulnerability that has been too much to bear.
What heals a broken heart? What brings us to the ultimate rest? What brings us to rest so the heart, and mind and psyche can heal?
Why, love. That may sound airy-fairy, so let me be very clear about what that means: love is the end of separation. Love is:
- secure, loving attachment
- unconditional acceptance
- an unconditional invitation
Love is the rest that leads to growth
Love is rest. The ultimate rest. It’s the rest from “hustling for worthiness,” as Brene Brown describes it. It’s the rest from separation, from pain that feels too much to bear. Jesus said it quite well: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
All spiritual traditions, all mystics, and many artists and poets have intuitively grasped this truth: we heal and grow through relationship, through connection, through the end of separation. Through love.
Trying to work on yourself to fix yourself only reinforces feelings of separation. It fundamentally doesn’t work because there is no rest.
So how do you heal and grow? You heal and grow through refuge, through connection. Through surrender.
Why surrender brings you to rest
In this vein, spiritual practice has been a time honored tool. That’s because when you engage in spiritual practice – including prayer, meditation, contemplation, forgiveness, and more – you’re surrendering to something greater than yourself. You are the beloved searching for your lover; you are seeking connection and what answers is the Divine, God, life itself.
In that moment, you are at rest. Rather than trying to heal through your own will, through your own power, you are, in the words of 12 step, submitting to a higher power, putting your dear heart into the hands of something greater; into the hands of something that loves you unconditionally. Into hands that are kind.
Releasing the burden of growth
This understanding can bring tremendous relief as you open to the idea that orchestrating your own growth is not your role and is not something you have to carry. You don’t need to (or should) work on yourself to heal, you don’t have to demand or force change (or growing up). Just the force and pressure of this idea/thought – “I need to fix myself” Oh, ouch! It puts way too much pressure, blame and pain onto your tender heart. It is a burden you were never meant to carry.
I appreciate that this idea is contrary to what’s taught in the majority of self help and personal development. I learned about why growth comes from rest (as well as my understanding of how unmet attachment needs impact maturation) from Dr. Gordon Neufeld, an internationally reknown developmental psychologist. Learning this truth from Dr. Neufeld created a lot of inner dissonance for me, too – oh, how I wrestled with it!
But over time I came to see Dr. Neufeld’s truth and wisdom. Any time we experience growth and healing, something much, much bigger than us – our ego, our personality – is doing that healing, is moving behind the scenes. As much as we’d like to be, we aren’t in control of that time table – where or how healing and growth occurs.
A metaphor for growth
For those of you who garden or who enjoy nature, I’ll offer a metaphor. In the spring, you may plant some vegetable seeds, with the yearning for a crop of tomatoes, some squash, perhaps some lettuces and carrots, in the summer or fall. To care for your garden, you till the soil, water your garden, and may even put a cage around your tomato plants as they grow.
You may start your seeds indoors until the soil warms to a sufficient temperature for your budding plants to move outdoors. But you are not in charge of the growth of your vegetables. You can’t force or make them grow. There is something else that is doing the growing. Something else is in charge of the harvest.
My friend, you are the gardener of your heart. You can help till the soil, water your plants, and may even erect a tomato cage or two. But like any gardener, as you yearn for the fruit of a harvest, that harvest is not in your hands. Believing that it is – and that you have to force the growth – is what leads to decisions like dumping toxic chemicals on our plants to force growth before its time, force vegetables to grow twice as fast, or force vegetables to grow twice as large as nature designed them to grow. There is a cost to force.
Compost, on the other hand, can nurture a bountiful harvest. I invite you to reflect on that metaphor, and the compost in your own heart that can fertilize your garden.
Growth without roots
We would never, ever attempt to grow a garden without roots. We would never uproot our vegetables and expect a harvest. When we try to fix and heal ourselves – a belief that creates separation – we have uprooted ourselves. We are trying to grow from the soil of disconnection. It is impossible.
When we try to grow while we’re uprooted, we tend to blame ourselves when it doesn’t work. In truth, we’ve merely attempted the impossible and “failed.” In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence puts it this way: “Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.”
You can only grow when you are planted in the universe; you can only grow to the degree that you feel connected and attached.
I invite you to test this truth for yourself, to wrestle with it in the quiet of your own heart, and to see what arises for you. What would it mean to surrender your growth and healing to something greater than yourself? To seek connection rather than fixing?
What you can do
In the wake of this surrender, you may feel frustrated – well then, what do I do? What do I do in the meantime – as I’m still growing and unfolding? What do I do when I feel the compulsion to binge or overeat? Do I just do nothing?
These are important, pertinent questions.
You can absolutely support and prime growth; you can be a steward of the garden of your heart. Surrender does not have to be passive. And there are things you can do to make your current relationship with food less frustrating and much more workable as your growth unfolds on its own time.
Want more hands on help?
This is a short summary of the themes that we’ll be exploring in When Food is Your Mother, our signature class. If you’re resonating with the topic and you’d like to learn more, you can sign up for the waiting list and learn more here.
This post is incredible – such words of wisdom. Particularly the metaphor:
“My friend, you are the gardener of your heart. You can help till the soil, water your plants, and may even erect a tomato cage or two. But like any gardener, as you yearn for the fruit of a harvest, that harvest is not in your hands. Believing that it is – and that you have to force the growth – is what leads to decisions like dumping toxic chemicals on our plants to force growth before its time, force vegetables to grow twice as fast, or force vegetables to grow twice as large as nature designed them to grow. There is a cost to force.”
Amazing. Thank you!
I’m glad the metaphor is helpful – it’s one that many of my teachers have used and one that resonates with my heart, too. Nature is a beautiful teacher, especially as we are a part of it, too.
In love and care, Karly
You said the thought right out of my mind: “this post is incredible.” I don’t even know which part to say resonated with me, because so much of it did.
I’m glad that this post was helpful to you and that it resonated so much with your experience.
You may also like this post here – https://growinghumankindness.com/emotional-bond-food/
beautiful, absolutely beautiful piece of writings, thank you so much Karly, you are life saver
Foxie, I’m glad this nourished your heart and resonated with you. It helps to understand the dynamics, to build a frame around something so confounding as eating disorders. With that understanding, we can make sense of the confusion and see the way out….
In love and care, Karly
Great blog post Karly! Exactly what I needed to read before we start Untangled. Letting go of the growth process and instead of trying to uproot the problem and fix myself; using the tools to tend the garden that will begin to grow in my heart.
I’m glad this was helpful to you Lindsay! Next week’s blog will address this issue of how growth unfolds – and how to play your part in it. So glad to have you in the class. In love and care, Karly
I wake up every morning with the intention of dieting..but being unhappy/depressed and going through the menopause drives me to over eat..seeking comfort…how can I solve this never ending problem?
Hi. I am new to your website and so far there is much that resonates with me. I grew up with an alcoholic parent and have been ill myself for as long as I can remember with low mood and low energy. I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue when I was 40, eight years ago. I have gone some way to ‘fix’ myself of the CFS but I search everyday to find solutions to fix my gut health, to give up all sugar, to help my mood and to search for answers as to why I feel low, helpless and a failure. I have a mother who needs ‘mothering’ yet does not seem aware that I have felt bereft of having a mothers care (my mother was codependent) Having read this post I have been made aware of how I have always felt that my health is my fault and I have to fix it! As a child I apparently had a reputation for eating a ‘bit of everything’ of the goodies my grandma baked and of sneaking chocolates in my room! Food is on my mind every waking moment yet I don’t over eat and I am slim. However, I have problems with gut health and I crave sweet tea and once I start eating a bit of cake or something sweet then I struggle to stop. I don’t think I have much compassion for myself but your website is going to help me a lot. Thank you so much. X
My marriage is very unhappy and I don’t know what to do with my feelings towards him- so I hide them & eat for comfort. I can’t leave him- 64 years old- eating problems most of my life- My Mom was anorexic and bulemic– she died in 1995. I’m so messed up around food—
It can be so painful when our relationships aren’t working! And yes, food can often become a secondary source of comfort for such painful feelings and inner conflict.
Marriage counseling may be a helpful support for you and your beloved.
As for support with food, you may find this article helpful – https://growinghumankindness.com/binge-cry-connection/
Some interesting thoughts here. I like your idea that my maladaptive self-comforting behaviors are all rooted in fundamental mistrust of the outside world–since nothing outside of me can be trusted, the only reliable source of comfort can be found in the inward-looking project of sensation-seeking. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
But I’m having the same trouble with your solution that I’ve been having with 12-step programs: At the risk of alienating you–but I feel I have to be frank about this–when it comes to therapy, metaphysics/mysticism/spirituality/religion is truly nothing more than a make-believe relationship with an aspect of my own imagination.
And I’ve been trying for years to suspend my disbelief, but I’ve prayed and meditated my way down to a bedrock atheism. There’s simply nothing there. (Why does “God” always use my own voice when it finally “answers” a prayer/request for insight? And why do these “answers” always just repeat truisms/facts/approaches that I’ve already heard of? Because prayer is simply asking one’s own subconscious for guidance.).
After a long, long time of dutiful spiritualism in A.A., I finally came to the crushing admission that, if you’re counting on a big fat nothing floating in outer-space to solve your problems for you, you’re actually just adding one more problem to your list of problems.
“Faith” is perfectly fine for as long as I never ask “It” to manifest in reality, but as soon as I need some real-world assistance, the payoff is zilch and the emptiness and alone-ness that was always there comes back like a ton of bricks.
There’s got to be a better answer than this.
I appreciate your story and the thoughtful discussion, and the sincerity I hear in your words. And you have not alienated me at all – quite the opposite! I’m glad to hear your thoughts, and I hear that a spiritual approach doesn’t work for you.
Have you heard of the work of Lance Dodes? His approach is pyschological and empowering, not spiritual. I have a hunch his approach would be a good fit for you.
He and I share many similarities, in particular, how emotions – and in particular, a feeling of despair and hopelessness – can drive addiction. I think he’s on to something.
In studying with my mentor, developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, and in listening to the stories of thousands of people who’ve felt caught in food and sugar addiction, I’ve seen how feelings of collapse, despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness drive the attraction and addiction to food and sugar.
One of the ideas that I’m going to be writing and podcasting about over the coming year is the importance of having a working relationship with the emotion of frustration and our power center – for frustration is the emotion that drives our sense of power/the ability to effect change. When this emotional system is not working, people tend to feel stuck in collapse/despair/futility about the things in their lives that they could change. Hence, the feeling of powerlessness, and hence the relief from these painful feelings in some sort of addiction.
Likewise, when the emotional system of frustration isn’t working, we aren’t moved to futility – to a “stop, this doesn’t work” – about the things that don’t truly work, that we truly can’t change, and that need to be let go. This creates the feeling of doing the same thing over and over and feeling stuck in what doesn’t work.
When we have a working relationship with frustration, we are moved to try and effect change – to have a sense of agency, and power – about the things we can change. This is a much needed antidote to the overwhelming feeling of despair and hopelessness!
And when we have a working relationship with frustration, we can also be moved to stop doing what doesn’t work and come to rest in that way. This is what my mentor calls the adaptive process, and how the brain rewires itself in the face of something that doesn’t work. It’s the bedrock of resilience.
Lance Dodes, I believe, is also pointing to this. I hope you find help and support in his work!
Loved the article, thank you.
As past believer & after much soul searching, I am in agreement with Al.
No one is coming in our aid in any shape or form,
We are the ones doing saving & healing by looking for answers & by doing what it takes.
I am really sick of my loneliness & my hunger for love.. I just want to feel some peace,.
Loneliness and love hunger can be so painful – thank you for writing so poignantly of your feelings here. And I can imagine why you feel the way you do about anyone coming to your aid. I also hear the yearning and desire for peace in your words – may this yearning be a good friend to you on your journey.
Thank you so much for posting this. You just described everything about me in the post above, and now I have a better insight on how to grow.
I’m glad that this was helpful to you in making sense of your experience with food. Thank you for writing and for sharing!
I think you are a good, clear writer but is it always moms who have to blamed and put in a light of causing their children pain? I mean seriously, the pressure on moms to be perfect is insane. There is no room for compassion and empathy when the mom is cast as the imperfect causer of your problems. Was the father present or was he controlling? Was there job loss? Car accidents? Financial or health problems?
Thank you for writing and sharing your experience. I can understand your feelings and hear your desire for empathy and compassion for mothers. I agree with you: I think we put way too much pressure on mothers, blame them when children go awry, and do not give nearly enough cultural, emotional, social and psychological support to parents of any gender.
While yes, it is true that our relationship with our primary caregivers has a deep impact on our development, to blame mothers or fathers for this is a separate issue. I think it’s very important to separate these two ideas – understanding impact, and assigning blame – and I hope I do so in my writing. If I do not, then I am wrong.
I think blame often arises in the healing process as a form of anger – a sense of injustice about what ‘should’ve been different.’ In my own journey, I went through a period of blame where I felt a lot of frustration about ways I was hurt. Ouch, it was so painful. I had to move through the blame and anger until I found the more tender grief and vulnerability underneath – the poignant place of, “Oh, ouch that really hurt.” I find that moving through this grief process – being willing to touch this pain directly – helps soften the blame – whether it’s towards ourselves, or another.
I also agree with you that trauma and wounding can arise from many sources. In my article, I speak of unmet attachment needs, trauma, loss, and too much separation as the root cause of food compulsions. Trauma can include all the things that you mentioned – job loss, financial or health problems, accidents, injuries, and yes, all family relationships – mother, father, siblings, grandparents. It can also arise from racism, generational trauma, poverty, social injustice, cultural loss, mental illness, and more.
Most of these things – like illness, generational or cultural trauma, poverty, and racism – put more pressure and stress on parents and families, making it harder for parents to be emotionally present for their children. So yes – there are many factors that impact a child’s development, and many of these factors are much, much bigger than any one mother or father.
Lastly, my course is titled When Food is Your Mother not to blame mothers, but to explain the dynamic of using food as a relational substitute – a substitute mother, father, or friend – a place where we’re turning to meet our emotional and relational needs. For many people, food is a relational substitute for needs that we associate with a mother or mothering presence – qualities like listening, caring, comfort, compassion, nurturing, empathy, and tenderness. It’s these things that we’re seeking when we turn to food – food as a mother.
What I most deeply yearn for is that this mothering presence – the qualities of love, acceptance, connection, caring, empathy, and relationship – be felt more deeply in our world. To me, attachment, relationship, and love are one of the solutions to soften things like overeating on both an individual and a cultural level. I hear that same desire in your words, and join you in this shared dream.