Over the years, many men and women have asked me a version of this question: “I keep looking for something in the food. I keep hoping. I keep searching. But what am I searching for?”
It’s a great question, and one that points to our deepest desires as human beings. The compulsive drive to consume is an expression of a longing – a longing for love, care, nurturing – and often deeper things, like safety, belonging, emotional intimacy, or validation. This drive to consume can take many forms, but in this case, we’re talking about food or sugar.
If we’re honest with ourselves, this longing for food is a symbol of our longing for the caregiver – the mother, the father, the parent – we never had. We’re looking to fulfill our deepest childhood wish, our childhood longing, hope and fantasy: to finally feel mothered, loved, and nourished in the way we wanted to be nourished.
We may hold an image in our heads of an ideal parent, so different than the real, human, messy ones we had. In our minds, we may hold onto “shoulds” about how our parents should’ve been different; how our childhood should’ve been different; how we should’ve been loved differently.
No matter what form the longing takes – whether we wanted to be seen, to be understood, to be valued, to be appreciated, to be validated, to be heard – this childhood longing drives many of our addictions, reactions, and compulsions today, including compulsions with food.
Our bodies and hearts and minds hold the residue of this pain; the residue of this longing. We yearn and long for the type of love and care that we didn’t receive, and so desperately wanted. We believe that when we find this love that the pain will finally subside. And so we search, and so we seek, and so we consume.
We can spend our lives attempting to satiate this longing for “mother” – for someone or something to finally complete these feelings of love. This love object can be sugar, food, a compulsive desire for body or diet perfection, a new dress, a new job, more money, a perfect relationship, another person.
But the quest is hopeless and fruitless. For in our seeking, we project all kinds of power and wish fulfillment onto the food, sugar, food plan, or perfect body. We imagine that the sugar or the perfect body will give us satiation – that it will fulfill our longings for love, approval, or belonging.
When it doesn’t work – when the food doesn’t comfort as we want it to – we may not recognize it. We may cling to the hope that someday, by God, it will fulfill our longing. So we keep doing what we’ve already done, only now we opt for more – more food, more pursuit of body perfection, more restriction, more sugar. The compulsion grows.
We keep hoping beyond hope that if we eat enough sugar, or lose enough weight, or find the perfect food plan that we’ll finally be at rest. We’ll finally fulfill this childhood wish. We’ll finally feel complete and feel loved in the way that we want to be loved.
We don’t want to give up hope, because to give up hope – to admit the food doesn’t work – means to feel the original pain, the longing that has us searching in the first place.
But oh, it doesn’t work, it never works, because it can’t work. As the years of attempting to make it work result in failure, we can get so angry at the food, at the extra pounds, at other people when they don’t meet our part of the bargain: when they don’t fulfill our childhood fantasies for love and validation. Ouch, this hurts.
We may continue this pattern for years. In my life, I continued this pattern for decades. And then we reach a turning point, a crucible of change.
The crucible of change is simple, but not easy. For it is surrender, concession, turning to see and accept that the seeking does not work. My friend, to heal compulsive overeating, you must surrender your childhood wishes. You need to gently release the hope that you can fulfill your childhood fantasies of perfect love. I know: this hurts. Perhaps the hardest task of life is to let go of childish things. And perhaps the hardest thing to let go of is our childhood fantasy of perfect love.
The food, the perfect body, the perfect other that you want to love you: they need to fall from grace. They need to fall so that you can release the misplaced hope and trust you’ve put in them. The pedestal we’ve put them upon isn’t real. You can’t eat enough, diet enough, or binge enough to finally feel mothered and loved in the way you want to feel mothered and loved.
You need to gently surrender the hope that someday, somehow, somewhere – if you just seek enough, eat enough, search enough, strive enough – you can find the perfect body, diet, food, food plan, food treat, mother, other, partner, friend, lover, or personal development program to fill the hole from childhood. You need to surrender, to feel the futility that it doesn’t work.
Sri Nisargadatta says it like this: “To imagine that some little thing – food, sex, power, fame – will make you happy is to deceive oneself. Only something as vast and deep as your real self can make you truly and lastingly happy.”
To surrender is to place yourself into the river of life, in particular, into the river of the grieving process: to feel and mourn and accept the sting of loss. In opening to your pain, you accept what happened, accept the futility of seeking, and accept the hurt you experienced. (Acceptance is not condoning the pain or hurt; it’s merely accepting that it did, indeed, happen, and is the first step to coming to terms with it.)
This is not to say that your childhood pain is insignificant or to minimize the pain or trauma you may have experienced. I’m not suggesting that you gloss over your childhood pain with a shrug of, “Just get over it.” The grief process is both more honest and more encompassing than that.
The hole – the longing for completion in food – needs to be tenderly acknowledged, faced, felt, grieved and released. This is not an intellectual process. This is an emotional one. You drop the reasoning, the wishing, the shoulds – oh, how you wished it could’ve been, how it should’ve been, if only it could’ve been – and you just feel the tender ache, the sadness of loss.
You feel the loss so you can let go.
Often, we’re wanting validation for the pain of our childhood wounds. We may long for someone to bear witness, to offer empathy, to understand what it was like for us. When we grieve, we complete the cycle, for in the very act of grieving we’re honoring and acknowledging our pain. Ironically, in giving ourselves the space to grieve – to feel the ouch and loss – we acknowledge our hurt far more honestly than when we eat to soothe its sting.
In the wake of this release, there’s relief. There’s new life, and hope. We open to life, to love itself, and soften our worship of the substitutes we mistook for the real thing. Rather than loving a projection of other people, we can give and receive love from the real people in our lives. They’re no longer objects to serve our needs but living, breathing human beings. This is true intimacy, and what can offer true nourishment.
Rather than imagining a fantasy where a perfect body or a perfect diet fulfills all our longings, we let it go. There’s relief as the clinging softens. The health of the body or of the diet moves from a compulsion to healthy caring. Food is just food, and sugar is just sugar – things that bring nourishment and pleasure; not life rafts.
So in a sense, yes – you need to fulfill your childhood longing for “the mother” so that it can be put to rest. But not in the way you think. You fulfill the longing by grieving what you didn’t receive; by coming to terms with life’s losses.
The paradox of the healing process is this: in opening to the grief of what you wish were different, you find the power to accept life on its own terms. And through this opening, you awaken to the love and life and nourishment that is available right here, right now; you awaken to the love and warmth and possibility that resides within your own heart. You simply awaken to Love.
Wanting more hands on help?
- If you liked this post, you might also like this post on how to heal the root cause of an eating disorder.
- You may also like this post on healing the loss underneath overeating.
- If you’re wanting to learn more about the grieving process that heals the roots of food compulsion, I invite you to explore my course When Food is Your Mother.