I hear from so many men and women who are feeling caught in painful, repetitive patterns of binge eating, compulsive overeating, or some form of food/sugar addiction. Because feeling stuck in these patterns of overconsuming is painful and can lead to health problems, it’s understandable that we equate healing with behavior – how much we are or aren’t overeating, or how much sugar we are or aren’t consuming.
I see it differently. Healing isn’t about cutting out the overeating / bingeing but outgrowing the compulsion – the need for it in the first place. In fact, in my experience, focusing on behavior – how well we’re managing our compulsion or if we’re abstinent or not – only exacerbates our shame and fuels our inner critic/judge, keeping us stuck in the very behaviors that we’re trying to change.
It’s not about behavior, but hurt
Let’s say you have a dear, dear child who is acting out in ways that are hurtful to himself or others. And let’s say you are the parent of this child. To nourish and support this child, you would draw him close, lean in and listen. Your higher wisdom would recognize: something else is going on here. You’d look underneath the “bad” behavior and recognize that he’s acting out for a valid reason. There’s hurt there, and that hurt is coming out sideways – as resistance, fighting with siblings, arguing with parents, aggression, self attack (‘I hate myself’) and more.
To help the child, and to help him grow, you wouldn’t simply say, “Cut it out!” and expect compliance. (Although this is what we can do in the heat of the moment, myself included.) Ideally, you’d look to see where the child is hurting, and help the child express his hurt. There may be a relationship repair that needs to be done.
Then, as the hurt is cared for, and the relationship is repaired, the behavior can be addressed. The child can hear your no about not hitting, or about helping with chores. Some times, the behavior corrects itself. (This is beautiful to observe, like a flower coming into bloom.)
Why the disease model of overeating is painful and invalidating
My friend, you are also a tender child. You are also a flower wanting to come into bloom. And any time you indulge in overeating or binge eating, you’re also doing it for a valid reason. There is hurt there, and it’s coming out sideways.
For you to heal, your hurts need to be heard. They need to be attended to. It’s not a matter of telling yourself, “Cut it out!,” but about listening for (and caring for) the needs and feelings that are underneath your longing for food.
Dear one, what you may hate or label as bad is merely something helpless that wants your love. (The words are Rilke’s.) When we tell ourselves to “cut it out,” what we’re trying to cut out is our very humanity, our very vulnerability, our very hearts.
Some view overeating/binge eating as an incurable illness or a disease. I disagree. If we look at our human tenderness and vulnerability as a disease, as an enemy to eradicate, we will vilify it and in doing so, we vilify a part of ourselves. We will hate our pain. We will go to war against it. We will try to destroy it.
And as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Overeating as a sign of arrested development
In his book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Maté says that “all addiction is a case of human development gone askew.” I agree with Dr. Maté – I view patterns of overeating, food addiction, and sugar addiction as evidence of arrested development. These habits point to places where we got “stuck” emotionally or psychologically. So our addictions are coping strategies of the very young self.
Here’s what I’ve learned about stuckness from one of my teachers, Dr. Gordon Neufeld (a peer and co-author of Dr. Maté.) We don’t force ourselves to move out of stuckness. In fact, it’s not something we have to or can force. Moving out of stuckness – what we can also call growth – is the natural byproduct of development. It’s something that happens organically on its own, when the conditions for development are met.
So to heal food suffering, we don’t “fix” or “cure” an illness or disease. We help ourselves grow – and grow out of the overeating. There is hope: overeating does not have to be a genetic illness – something we’ll cope with for the rest of our lives.
What fosters growth
So this begs the question: what conditions foster growth? We can go back to the example of the hurting, acting out child. What fosters growth in the child is the safety of a securely attached relationship to the parent, which is also the safety of unconditional love. It is love that invites change. It is love and security and safety that invite growth.
It’s a little different with ourselves than in a parent-child relationship, but the essence is the same. Yes, we can find secure attachment in our closest relationships with our loved ones. These relationships can also be a container for growth.
And we can also foster secure attachment in two other important ways – with ourselves, and with the Divine (however you think of God.) Do we feel safe with ourselves? Do we feel securely attached to our own hearts?
And do we feel securely attached to God, a higher power? As Rilke so eloquently wrote, do we trust that “life holds us in its hand and will not let us fall?”
Why attachment is so vulnerable
It may sound simple to attach – to trust and depend in others, to trust and depend in God, to trust and depend in our own love.
But it is not easy. In fact, it can be one of the most difficult things that we ever do.
To surrender to the Divine – to surrender to something greater than our own egos, impulses, or personality is to depend. It is to invite attachment. It is to open our hearts to love, to the feeling of being loved and cared for.
For those of us who have been deeply wounded in our attachments, for those who feel insecure, for those who have not felt loved, to depend – to open ourselves up – is one of the most vulnerable, and most courageous things we can ever do. In opening to this desire to be known and loved – the deepest desire we share as tender human beings, we also open ourselves to the fear that the need won’t be met.
We open ourselves to the possibility of being hurt: will I get hurt? If I leap will there be anyone to catch me? Will I be held? Will someone be there?
The Sufi poet Hafiz says it so beautifully here: “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise, we will remain too frightened.”
Why you can’t force growth
We grow when we feel the encouragement of light against our being. And yet to feel this light we have to open ourselves to it. This means feeling the ache, the longing, as well as the vulnerability.
This is one reason why we can’t force growth. Because the biggest obstacle to growth is not intention, knowledge or know how, desire, willingness, will power, or even skill. The biggest obstacle is the tenderness of the human heart.
You can’t force the heart to open. You can’t break it down. (Well, you can, but I advise against it. The heart is so easily bruised.)
You can only shine the light until slowly, it opens, bit by bit.
You can’t force yourself to grow out of overeating. You can only support your unfolding.
A heart that “is in safekeeping”
To grow out of overeating, your first need to offer your overeating your openhearted acceptance. It needs, simply, to be allowed to be there. To be accepted. To be invited. To be allowed. (Not condoned, not, “Oh, it’s okay,” just accepted: it is. It’s here.) Your heart, your humanity, your pain – all of it, the good, the bad, the ugly – needs to be invited inside the circle of compassion.
This is shining the light. This is how the door of the heart slowly opens.
It is this radical love, this radical acceptance of ourselves – “beloved, nothing will keep you away from my love” – that blooms us, that opens our hearts, that opens our petals, that leads to new life, to peace, to understanding, to change….
This speaks to a deeper truth – why looking at ourselves as having a disease is counterproductive. Looking at the overeating part of ourselves as “diseased” cuts us off from our own hearts. One of the deepest wounds of binge or overeating is this belief that there are parts of us that are so bad, so shameful that we’re unloveable. Calling our overeating a disease reinforces this idea that there is this big, bad monster inside of us that is too much.
It pits us against ourselves, caught in a war between our “hated” parts and our “beloved” parts.
Calling our overeating self a disease also cuts us off from the inherent intelligence of these “bad” parts of us. It misreads our intention, which is to love and care for ourselves. As Sri Nisargadatta wrote, “Your constant flight from pain and search for pleasure is a sign of love you bear for yourself.” Our overeating is a sign of the love we bear for ourselves. We don’t overeat from hatred or ill will, but out of love.
This part of us is not diseased, it’s merely a very, very young tender part of ourselves that is stuck in a young way of coping and caring for our needs. If we lean in and listen to it, our young, stuck, overeating self has much wisdom to share.
The wisdom of your overeating self
I’ll try to make this concrete with an example from my own life. When I listened to the young part of me that sought soothing in sugar and food, it had this to say:
- My emotions feel so deep and so scary that I don’t feel like I can touch them on my own.
- My emotions make me feel so bad inside – like there’s something inherently bad or wrong about me – that I would rather eat (and feel guilty about eating) then feel bad about my feelings (and my very self.)
- I don’t feel like I have a voice in my life. I feel afraid to express myself or my power.
- I’m so afraid of doing “it” wrong – it being life, food, parenting, work, anything really. I need to know the “right” answer (the right food plan, the right way to parent, the right way to be a human being) so that I don’t screw it all up.
In reading these examples, I can hear my arrested development: in particular, a harsh inner judge that had me walking a tightrope to get life “right,” a huge fear of making mistakes (and being punished for them,) and a discomfort with my emotions.
Simply saying “cut it out” to the overeating doesn’t address any of this pain. It only covers it up. What these young parts need is belonging – acceptance, the invitation to exist, love, care, understanding – not exile.
Is there an alternative?
So if a disease model isn’t the solution, what is? Over the years, I’ve heard from many people who disliked the disease model of overeating. But they didn’t know where else to go or what to do.
I’d like to propose an alternative. To go back to the parenting model, we can heal overeating by becoming the secure, unconditional loving parent to our own hearts – to the young, young parts of us that act out in food. In this way, we support ourselves to outgrow our attachment to food. This is a compassion based, developmentally based approach rather than a medical or disease based approach.
A compassionate, unconditionally loving, secure relationship with every part of you – your needs, feelings, hurts, “flaws” and more – is the container for healing.
Loving relationship fosters internal healing – changes in how you relate to your needs, feelings and hurts.
With loving relationship, your heart becomes tender, soft, and open. You’ll feel:
|You can validate, feel and care for painful emotions instead of editing, minimizing, suppressing, or running from them||Greater emotional tolerance you’ll feel more comfortable with all your emotions|
|A softening of self judgment||More accepting of your humanity (your inner critic will lose its power)|
|Healing false, outdated beliefs/stories about the self||More grounded, centered and calm|
|Releasing painful emotions and trauma||More connected to your true self|
|Greater integration of your many different parts: “I love all of me.”||Less shame|
|On a brain level, you come to the deepest rest of unconditional love, the parasympathetic nervous system.||A greater sense of belonging and love, as if youre held by life itself|
|A softening of self blame||
More compassion towards yourself and your many parts
Self loving relationship + an open heart fosters external healing – changes in your behavior and responses. This can appear as:
A shift in how you change from a place of love rather than self hatred
A softening of painful habits that aren’t working, such as overeating or binge eating
Structures and daily rhythms that support and nourish you in feeling cared for
New life growth and momentum
The freedom to move forward and make changes that empower you
Greater impulse control
Dr. Neufeld writes that the essence of parenthood “is to invite a child to unconditionally exist in your presence.” For a child to feel free to bring every part of themselves – their anger, sadness, joy, pain, sorrow, frustration, ugliness and goodness – to the parent, and know that they will still be loveable and okay. This brings tears to my eyes.
This is the same invitation we need to extend to ourselves. To love every part of ourselves – the good, the bad and the ugly. To be at rest with the full range of our humanity. This – not cutting anything out – is how we embody the “better angels of our nature.” This is how we grow out of overeating.
This is how we become all we can be, and rest in who we are.