I receive emails from many people who talk about how food is one of many ways that they self soothe.
Netflix bingeing, excessive online scrolling, alcohol, shopping, overworking and overdoing, escape in spiritual practice, excessive caretaking and even reading are all ways that they care for themselves when they feel overwhelmed or alone.
The coping mechanism to seek out refuge can move, and it does – but the underlying drive – for a place of warm care, a place to soften the inner chaos within – is often the same.
Our bodies and brains are designed to co-regulate with others, to be nestled within a circle of warm, caring relationships. As I shared in the last newsletter, without this support, we seek out other places for relief – food and otherwise.
It’s much harder and more stressful on the brain to regulate on our own – it takes an extraordinary amount of energy. It’s also so much lonelier.
Many Western cultures esteem self regulation and individualism, and we feel the impact of this mindset, living within this implicit world. This varies from culture to culture, of course.
I was talking to my twenty something daughter the other day, who plays on several co-ed soccer leagues in town.
She was sharing how much she’s loved getting to know her Mexican teammates, and how warm and connected they are – getting together for a meal, bringing snacks and sharing drinks at games, welcoming in new people to the team, and coming together to rent boats on the lake on hot Sunday afternoons.
I smiled as I took in her experience, and I could feel the warm glow in her body as she talked about how good it feels to be nestled within a soccer community – to have friends who share her passion for soccer and who’ve also welcomed her into other areas of their lives.
I was reminded of my early years growing up in working class neighborhoods in the Cleveland area – towns filled with immigrants from a variety of cultures and countries – and how warm and welcoming those neighborhoods felt to me.
There was Bubba, my next door Polish neighbor, there were my Italian and Polish relatives, my aunts and uncles’ Puerto Rican, Polish and Spanish boyfriends and girlfriends, and the different churches on every block – the Latvian church, Russian Orthodox church, Greek church, Romanian church – and their annual festivals where they sold their native foods to raise money for the parish.
To me, being in a multi-cultural community feels like home – and like heaven, a warm glow, like an inner sun, that shines in my belly. If I pause and connect with my body, I can feel how these early memories and the way I felt ‘held’ by them lives in my nervous system, a steady source of support, co-regulation and warmth that I carry with me each day.
This is true for you, too. We each carry a sea of co-regulation within us, places of warm relationship that we’ve internalized and that now live within us – places of support that care for you daily. You might pause to notice where you feel these places of warmth and connection, and how they nurture and support you.
Consciously connecting to these places in our bodies is a way we can bring support to ourselves – and soften the feelings of isolation that so many people experience living in busy, modern, achievement focused cultures.
Often, this co-regulation of our inner loved ones fades to the background, where we aren’t actively ‘doing’ anything to co-regulate but are joined in company, together.
Think of baking or cooking alongside a grandmother or auntie, sitting in a circle with others, playing music, quilting, or sharing stories, or fishing side by side with a grandfather or older brother. Singing in a choir. Or playing on a team together – soccer, a pick up game of basketball, or a bowling league.
When I make my grandmother’s marinara sauce, harvesting the armloads of basil from the garden, I feel the long line of my Italian ancestors with and beside me. And when I eat the sauce, the warmth and welcome drips into every cell – a feeding that goes above and beyond the physical nourishment of the tomatoes and olive oil.
Of course we also carry places of rupture and loss, places of aloneness and isolation within our bodies, minds and hearts. When my family moved from Ohio to Indiana when I was 7 1/2, the loss of that warm community and my bed of extended family carried on throughout the remaining years of my childhood.
It was a shattering that rippled into the hearts and bodies of my parents, my older brother and me. My felt sense of many of my memories after that move are of this black, sucking emptiness: sadness, loneliness and isolation. Food became a way that I soothed what felt unbearable, the deep, aching well of aloneness, a swamp of pain.
Looking back, I don’t know how my mom and dad coped with so much loneliness and isolation, and how they managed to go on, day after day, and my heart aches for them. My mom has told me that returning to school – she got undergraduate, masters and doctorate degrees in psychology – is what saved her and gave her a community of belonging.
And I can understand why my brother and I soothed ourselves by watching program after program of TV after school, snacking and snacking, or escaping into a warmer world of books. And I can feel the shame we both felt when that snacking appeared on our bodies, the visible appendages of our inner pain.
In my body, I can feel the lonely mother and lonely father, the lonely brother and my lonely little girl, all there. Sometimes I say to them, “I see how lonely you are and how painful it was for you. I see you, and I’m right here.” I put my hand on my heart and I breathe with them, or I tell my listening partners about them, and we hold them, together.
When I offer these places in my body warmth and care, I feel my entire body soften in relief. These fractured places within start to heal, and feel held, and feel less alone.
It’s like laying your forehead next to another’s and saying, “I know. I know! I see how painful this is for you.”
Mother Teresa famously said that the greatest hunger in the world is not for bread or food, but loneliness: the ache we all have for love. It’s true: we can survive on little food. But we can not survive without love. Babies who are fed but not held or loved ‘fail to thrive,’ and even die.
In modern cultures that prize individualism and the self, we all die a bit each day from this underlovedness, from the pain of chronic loneliness.
One of the reasons why I’ve committed myself to sharing the basic principles of relational neuroscience is because it softens the shame and self hatred we feel about our messy coping strategies – the overeating, escape strategies, drugs and alcohol – when we’re confronted with pain that is too overwhelming to carry on our own.
We are here to help and support one another, to live within a sea of warm relationships. Sometimes the safest relationship is a tree, or a beloved pet, or a grandmother who is long dead but who still lives inside us, whispering words of encouragement and affection to the dry river bed of our hearts.
Sometimes it’s a spiritual figure who holds us unconditionally, like the 6 foot tall Kuan Yin statue that lives down the street from me in the Vietnamese Buddhist temple.
As a culture, as a human family, as a world, as our understanding of this need for connection deepens and grows, it’s my hope that we become more of a beloved community, and find ways to connect and hold each others hearts.
This yearning lies underneath everything we do here at Growing Humankindness, and I hope you feel it in every blog post, every newsletter, every class, every webinar, and every repaired mistake, for we make many.
And I hope that this newsletter has connected you to some of the richness of the inner community that lives within you – those places of co-regulation that nurture you daily, as well as those places of rupture that long for holding. I wish you many, many hands to hold those ruptured places together – a warm, welcoming sea – so they can come back home.
And I lay my forehead next to yours and say, “I know, I know.”
A note on the image: I made this collage to express what a circle of warm, loving relationships feels like in my body and mind. I especially love the little cheetah playing on her mother’s head.