As we come into September, I’m moving into “when food is your mother” season.
This is the time of year when I explore this idea of how, when we’re under stress, we can turn to food as a ‘mothering presence’ – a place of care, nurturing, and understanding.
Why reframing our compulsions is so important
This idea of using food as a ‘mother’ is one that speaks to so many – and one that can touch some tender places in our being.
It’s also a really important one, because it’s easy to look at overeating – or any compulsive behavior – from a place of judgment – as proof of our badness, a moral failing, or a lack of character or strength.
This judgment can separate us from any sense of our wholeness, and embroil us in shame.
Ouch, it’s so painful!
But there are good reasons why you overeat. There are good reasons why we turn to messy coping strategies when we feel overwhelmed, disconnected, and frozen.
The motivation behind overeating – and any overdoing – is to offer ourselves care – to self nurture.
When this sinks in for people, what I hear is this: “Oh – I’m not a terrible person for overeating. I’m just overwhelmed and trying to care for myself in the only way I know how.”
What a relief!
Why stress and separation can lead to overeating
Here’s why this is so: in a very simplified explanation, when we experience something that feels too much to bear, we can feel overwhelmed, disconnected, anxious, and afraid.
We become locked in a sense of separation where we feel cut off, isolated and alone – cut off from others, from Love itself and even from our own wholeness – from our wisdom, our strength and capacity, and from new, different ways of responding.
We often feel very small, very stuck, and very young.
You’re wired to seek connection
When this happens, everything in our neurobiology is wired to connect.
We seek out refuge, and look for connection – places of safety, ‘holding’ and containment where we feel cared for, relaxed, and a part of the whole again.
For many, many of us in modern cultures this refuge is food.
Why change can feel so hard
This is one of the primary reasons why it can feel so hard to stick to your good intentions to soften compulsive behaviors with food: to eat more consciously, to stop overeating, or to set limits with sugar.
It’s not because you don’t care, are being ‘negative,’ or aren’t trying hard enough.
Rather, this primary need for connection – to feel safe, cared for and seen – is overriding your good intentions.
This is why many folks in the therepeutic worlds – especially in the fields of attachment and IPNB, interpersonal neurobiology (places that understand how our relationships shape our being) – say that ‘safety is the healing.’
How you can use this in your relationship with food
Here’s how you can apply this to your life: one of the most healing steps you can take in your relationship with food is to open to this understanding and change how you see overeating.
When you move from seeing overeating as a character flaw and really get the needs that drive it, you’ve taken the first step to healing the separation within yourself.
Softening shame, self blame, and self judgment nourishes your capacity to change.
This understanding also lays the foundation for growth. It’s what helps you take the risk and discover new ways of nurturing yourself beyond food – to embark on the inherent messy, lumpy, bumpy path of growth.
This includes the crucial and courageous steps of:
- opening to your neediness and vulnerability
- attuning to what you really need
- building an internal refuge
- and reaching out to others in connection, help and sharing.
It’s something bigger than you personally
I could write for pages about the cultural forces that make connection and life so hard today – the busyness, the distraction, the inhuman pace of life that makes true connection so difficult, cultures that are achievement focused and individualistic, and more.
As therapist and writer Francis Weller so beautiful said, when our primary satisfactions for connection, meaning, purpose, and play are not met, we look to secondary satisfactions – status, wealth, achievement – to fill the holes of emptiness.
That’s one of the reasons why I feel so passionate about this topic: for it’s something that matters individually – how you feel connected – and collectively – how we nourish these bonds and connections in our communitites and world.
Connection – with our bodies, our beings, with our souls, with nature, with Oneness, with our communities and loved ones, with the food we eat and the things we make and the things we use – matters. It’s the beating blood that nourishes life.
In closing, I’ll share a beloved quote on healing separation. It’s attributed to the Buddha, and to me, it’s a beautiful reminder of what’s possible – and what happens when we come together to heal:
“Our fear is great, but greater still is the truth of our connectedness.”