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.