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.
Karly, every time I start to wander away from the truth of why I overeat you write an article like this that goes straight to the heart of the matter and straight to my own heart. My progress feels achingly slow but you have reminded me that I am on the right road. Thank you foe sharing your wisdom with us.
Oh my goodness! You have done it again. Thank you so much for what you do, Karly. This post is beautiful and timely as usual. I liked OA…for a while. But, a year of consistent meetings still left me crying, raw, and feeling a deep grief that I did not know where to place, or how to handle. That was the gift of FINDING YOU! Thank you!
I have seen a tender, soft growth since I began following you. My "attendance" ebbs and flows from your blog but when I arrived I am ready and the lessons sit deep.
Thank you! Thank you!
I was chowing down on candy corn in the dark while everyone is asleep. I decided to visit your blog and started reading. I put the candy away. I didn't really want it. I remembered there were feelings underneath. And your words reminded me that I do have the tools to access them gently, fully and in love.
Ah Karly… you always hit the spot sister. I really love what you've written here.
I too, did time in the addiction/disease path, and whilst I learned some interesting stuff, it never helped me to relinquish my weird relationship with food. Probably because it truly isn't about the food. It's about loving myself – loving myself so thoroughly and so well that I move beyond the need to "shut myself up"… be it with alcohol/cigarettes/sugar/over-eating/trashy TV, magazines, movies, restless internet trawling/gym/obsessive cleaning/rescuing other people/work addiction/etc etc. All these behaviours are truly just a misguided attempt to staunch the pain of being human. I even wonder if the disease model for drug addiction is pertinent… obviously in the initial stages of recovery it IS physical and there is an addiction aspect to it. But once someone moves on from using and gets some perspective (and self-love), the need for the drug itself, lifts. (I used to smoke 3 packs of cigarettes a day, fourteen years ago and now I can't even imagine wanting to smoke. There's really nothing about it that appeals to me. I've come to believe that my smoking was simply a way for me to distract myself from my intolerable emotional pain.)
It's not about being "good" and just "cutting it out". It really is about embracing my sweet, soft, needy human nature and being okay with that. No longer shutting myself up with substances or behaviours that hurt me, but rather drawing closer to myself. Being kinder and listening, really listening to the childlike whispers of my heart.
Thank you for being such a wonderful path setter for us all on this astonishing journey of being human.
Thank you for this wonderful piece of work. I went to my local bookstore and quickly picked up Mate's book, "The Realm of Haunted Ghosts." While reading in bed today in the morning, I cried and it felt good. I remind myself if it's ok to cry… I am healing.
I find Gabor's book and work compassionate and wise – I'd love to hear about your experience as you keep reading. I see crying as healing, too – finding my tears about what I can't change is an essential part of my healing and growth. This Sufi prayer expresses the beauty of tears so well for me, and I thought you might like it:
Overcome any bitterness that may have come
because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain
that was entrusted to you.
Like the Mother of the World,
Who carries the pain of the world in her heart,
Each one of us is part of her heart,
And therefore endowed
With a certain measure of cosmic pain.
In love and care, Karly
Oh, my. Your words deeply touched me. I'm so grateful that my words can be an arrow to your heart, to your mercy, and to your truth. Slow progress can be so hard in a world of quick fixes – so I honor your courage and patience with your tender, tender self.
In love and care, Karly
Oh, my friend, it's always lovely to hear from you, and I trust that you show up just when you need to, as you live a full life.
I'm so glad that you've found tenderness and softness towards your self – that's my deepest aspiration for my work, what I want for people beyond healing with food. I feel tickled you've found this for yourself.
Thank you for sharing your story with the candy corn – it's a lovely example of your willingness to befriend your tender feelings, and your tender heart. I feel touched in reading it.
In love and care, Karly
You amaze me in your ability to grow and care for your self. Yes, it is an astonishing human journey, for sure.
This really touched me: "It really is about embracing my sweet, soft, needy human nature and being okay with that. No longer shutting myself up with substances or behaviours that hurt me, but rather drawing closer to myself. Being kinder and listening, really listening to the childlike whispers of my heart."
My deepest hope is that we all may find softness for our tender humanity.
I look forward to having that cup of tea with you soon, now that you're in my neck of the woods.
In love and care, Karly
First of all, I can’t thank you enough for your work. I have read your book and am working through the Untangled program and subscribe to your newsletter. Your kindness has been a huge help and reminder to me when I struggle.
I’m not yet through the Untangled program, so maybe you address this already, but I have found many times how frustrated and derailed I become when my partner says exactly what I don’t find helpful in healing my sugar addiction and overeating. He’ll buy foods he knows I binge on or he’ll say something like (when I reveal that I had a hard day), well, just pull yourself out of it. It would be SO helpful if you would create a video for partners or friends of people that are going through the journey of healing their overeating, so that they had a few tips (not coming from me) on how to respond to us appropriately and lovingly, what is helpful, and what is hurtful. I truly feel my partner has no understanding of what I’m going through and so he means well but just doesn’t get it at all. A few pointers would go a LONG way in helping me and our relationship. Just listening would be a start, and asking questions, acting like they care, taking me seriously and supporting my efforts. It is so hard to go through this alone emotionally. The virtual world is helpful but nothing compares to feeling loved and supported from home.
Just thought I would mention this for one of your future topics.
Thanks again for your great work,
First, I’m so glad that the Untangled program has been a help to you! Thank you for your kind words.
Second, you bring up a very important and very real point in your comment. You are not alone in your feelings – I’ve heard them from so many other men and women who struggle with eating disorders. I’m glad that you shared them here.
This is very true:
“It is so hard to go through this alone emotionally. The virtual world is helpful but nothing compares to feeling loved and supported from home.”
Yes, we all want support the closest to home: with our dearest loved ones. There is no way the virtual world can compete with that. (I would say, from an attachment perspective, that it’s not meant to. The virtual world can never be a substitute for our close loved ones. We are meant to be most deeply known by our closest attachments.) So your longing is valid and real.
You are pointing to one of the biggest challenges in healing an eating disorder – emotional isolation. In fact, I believe that the emotional isolation itself is often what is causing the disordered eating patterns in the first place! (I explain this in more detail in my course, When Food is Your MOther.) Emotional isolation is one of the primary roots of an eating disorder. When the emotional isolation continues, it exacerbates and continues the eating disorder itself.
The flight towards food and sugar can be an attempt to relieve the frustration and pain of emotional isolation. Our deepest need as human beings is to be seen, heard and known. To feel understood. To feel that someone else gets us. When this need goes unmet, we may use food as a substitute. We may use food to soothe the frustration of this need not being met. We may use food to comfort ourselves because this need has gone unmet. And we may use food as our emotional mirror – when we binge on sugar or food, we are looking to food to validate our emotions.
Yes, we can give ourselves our own understanding. We can give ourselves empathy. But in my experience, the only way to heal disordered eating or an eating disorder is to also receive this understanding from another – a sponsor, counselor, but ideally, a loved one. This makes healing – and eating disorders – something much bigger than the individual person who is affected. This points to an emotional environment that is leading to the eating disorder itself. The person with the eating disorder is simply the one displaying the symptoms. But the roots are in our very ecology of being, our very relationships, our very culture, our families and partnerships and way of relating to each other.
I’m working on my next book, a very different book than one I’ve written before. And this book will take into context and reframe the roots and causes of eating disorders. It will bring this ecological, environmental and relational perspective to healing.
Thank you for expressing your need here. I’m glad you’re bringing this conversation out in the open.
All the way from Australia – after a tricky Christmas and a very tricky last 4 months of having broken through so many barriers this year, only to find my body and mind back to where is started (or in some way further down the depressed route than it was). This is the hardest and worst part – coming back to binges, gaining all the weight I had lost (and most emotionally) and on my travels grown so much to come back to the family home (where it all began) and have a few triggers set me up for some rocky times and more shame.
I love your posts as they fill me with sparks of hope. I am at rock bottom it seems. Having thought I’d been here before makes it more frustrating. The pain of self hate and the pain of patterns – particularly when I can almost see life and others waving at me from their relatively controlled state over festive period is tough, very saddening.
I guess I don’t feel understood and so what you said about emotional isolation is huge. I have become a little agrophobic and embarrassed with the weight I’ve put back on (I like to be athletic inclined) and the lack of motivation in exercise. It makes it hard for me in my work places and socialising as I feel the lining of my skirt rub against the soft belly.
The hurt that you talk of is paramount to healing and I need to express it in art or something tangible to release in addition to a BDD psychologist. I also like your model of learning which is more wholistic and so I will start that.
Nothing else can be achieved with this brain fog and that’s what gets a gregarious person like myself down. I relied on a man I liked (and the first to seemingly like be back mutually) to give me validation. It helped my journey, finally having that way to ‘grow up and out of bingeing, to get some self respect and to make it last so I could care and feel proud about myself, to let him close and to let him like me’ and so when he met someone else on my holiday and then when I came back he was quiet and tried to ghost away. The self hate and the grief of being lonely again and having that warm serotonin crazy connection with someone go immediately on my return was hard. It fuelled that thought that you were right, nobody will love you and your body, she was better, now he’s happy and you’re not again.
All those silly things.
Not many people appreciate what it’s like having a partner when you binge or when you have an eating disorder/depression/weight issues. It’s pretty special. Because that huge element of support and love is at least taken care of. Someone loves you. When you’re single and Finding it hard to go out or even connect with people – let alone get them to stick around – you’re really fighting two battles at binge time.
I guess my random thoughts are being written to say, you’re a beacon of light Karly. Thank you.
How nice to meet you – I’m glad that growinghumankindness is nourishing to you.
Yes, it can be so frustrating when we seem to double back or “go backwards” – this can bring up lots of feelings of discouragement, or even self hatred towards ourselves.
Our culture is a striving one, and it likes to believe the healing journey (or our human journey) should only be onwards and upwards. This creates tremendous pressure on the heart to always be “moving up.”
In truth, I think much of the healing journey is a going back to integrate what hadn’t yet been integrated. Sometimes the going back is necessary, even as it can be painful. Ah, can we feel loved even in those times?
I joined Overeaters Anonymous a few weeks ago. Although it has helped a little, I still find it very difficult to cut out completely all my binge foods. Yes and the word disease is very hard for me to accept. Can you tell me your thoughts, or views on why your ways of seeing overeating is different than that of Overeaters Anonymous? Thanks Martha
This is a good question! I hear that you’re wrestling with some of the concepts of OA and how to apply them to your relationship with food.
Darn, I haven’t had experience with OA, so I can’t speak to what they speak or teach.
I can share how I see overeating – I see overeating as an adaptive coping strategy, a way to care for overwhelm, trauma, or other overwhelming emotions, sensations and experiences.
I talk about this idea in this post here – https://growinghumankindness.com/binge-cry-connection/
There are two reasons why this perspective feels important to me.
1. Viewing overeating as a coping strategy – something based in self protection, as a way to preserve functioning – brings a feeling of empowerment. It’s something we can gently outgrow, not a burden or illness we carry indefinitely.
2. It also brings reverence and respect. While overeating can have negative consequences and can be messy, it also serves a positive function – self preservation – until there’s sufficient safety and resources for healing. With this idea in mind, we find that we approach overeating with gentleness, compassion, and understanding – a deep kind of listening – rather than judgment or shame.
I’ve also found this paradox to be true – that viewing overeating from a space of wholeness, from a place of positive intent, helps us soften and heal.