Your Relationship with Food…and How You Can Heal It!

In a time when many are calling for better eating habits for ourselves and our children…when obesity and poor eating habits are a national epidemic…do you wonder why we eat the way we do? Why so many of us seem unable to keep good eating habits? And how we can truly make a lasting, sustainable change in the way we eat?

Food is a hot button issue today — summer, fall, winter and spring. We hear a lot about obesity in our nation, about diseases and conditions related to poor eating habits, but most of us still cannot seem to make sustainable changes to our eating habits, no matter how many times we resolve to “eat healthier” or “lose weight.” Why is this?

The way we eat is rooted in our own individual relationship with food. And most importantly, our relationship with food doesn’t usually really have to do with food at all. Rather, it has to do with our relationship with ourselves — our own thoughts and feelings, our own wounds or pains from childhood, and the memories that still live within us…within our minds, bodies, hearts and souls.

It runs deeper
Our relationship with food runs deeper than simply observing our parents’ eating habits, and either copying or rejecting them. It runs deeper than our own experiences with food and eating as children. And although it is definitely related to the feelings within us, and though we do eat to push down our feelings, the root of our relationship with food even runs deeper than eating to push down our feelings.

Did you know that we often transfer onto food itself feelings from our childhood…feelings about people and the experiences we had with them in our childhood? What do I mean by transfer? Transference means to unconsciously redirect — onto another person or object today — feelings, thoughts and perceptions you originally had in relation to important people in your childhood, usually an authority figure…parents, grandparents, members of your extended family, even older siblings. Sometimes it can be a neighbor, clergy person, teacher, or just another adult.

Although many of us know that you can transfer these feelings onto a therapist or even another person, most people aren’t aware that you can also transfer these feelings onto an object or situation in your present day, as well — for instance, money, power and even food.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you are a 5’5″ 115-pound administrative assistant and mother named Sandy. You celebrate reaching your weight loss goal of 100 pounds, only to give up your perhaps-healthy eating and lifestyle and regain the weight all over again…for the fifth, sixth, seventh time ’round? And how often in that situation are you — or is anyone else on the scene — aware that you are a hurt and scared little girl in the body of a 34-year-old woman, sabotaging yourself because of some memories and feelings from your childhood that you fear meeting and going through…yet may not even know about?

Let’s walk through a shortened version of a piece of healing work between me and this imaginary you…so you get a taste of the depth and breadth of the potential in this work. This work is not something to be done with people if you are not a healing arts professional who has been trained to work with someone’s psyche and soul. You don’t know what will be opened up for the person. Not only is it not ethical to do so, it can be dangerous if you aren’t trained to help them.

A sample session
You come to my office with a container of your favorite food in the whole world, just as I have suggested! After preparing you for the work — in both previous sessions and at the start today — I ask you to hold the food in your hands and talk to it. You begin.

“You are so important in my life. More important than anything. You are my consolation.” You stop, turn and look at me, and start crying. You look away. Cover your face with your hands, the food still held tightly.

Your crying continues until you finally say, “I don’t know what this is about. I don’t even know why I’m crying.”

At first I’m silent, but right here with you. I want to give you the space to see what comes to you.

Eventually I say back to you what you have said: “You are so important in my life. More important than anything. You are my consolation.” I ask you, “Other than food, who else could you say that to?”

“My father,” you reply spontaneously, and then continue. “When I was a year old, my mother died suddenly. My father became the most important thing in my life. Even though others in the family and neighborhood tried to help, he was my only consolation.”

“Do you see what you’re uncovering here?” I ask.

“Not really,” you say.

“You’re uncovering, and we’re discovering, that you have transferred your feelings toward your mother — who was your first consolation — onto your father and then onto food. For now, you have transferred your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, experiences, decisions, behavior, fantasies, body responses, and more from dad onto food.”

“So I’m eating to console myself?” you ask with a glint of understanding in your eye.

“Exactly,” I respond. “Good for you, Sandy. Want to take it a step further?”

“I don’t know how, Judith.”

“I’ll help. What are you feeling beneath your eating to console yourself, Sandy?”

“I’m terrified. I don’t know what I’m terrified of. I’m just terrified. Terrified.”

“And what do you do when you’re terrified, Sandy?”

“I want to console myself. I eat more and more and more, Judith. I manipulate to get food. I take it. I grab and hoard it. I sneak and hide it. I’m so desperate for it, I’m afraid I might steal it if I had to.”

“You’re getting the hang of this, Sandy. How are you feeling about what you’re doing?”

“This is amazing, Judith. How did we get here?”

“We followed you, Sandy. The clues that came from within you. Shall we go even further?”

“I don’t know if I can? Will you show me?”

“Of course I will, Sandy. Next step: What is the effect on you of your grabbing, sneaking, hiding?”

“Uh. I feel out of control and scared…and a little crazy. I scare people around me. Some want to help me and try to take over my life to fix me. Others don’t want to get close to me. I feel like I’m a monster. And that scares me.”

“Wonderful, Sandy. It takes you right back to feeling scared. And what is the effect on those around you — you’ve just said it — I want to be sure it’s clear.”

“What did I say, Judith? That I scare them and they don’t want to get close to me?”

“Yes, Sandy. In addition to that, may I share what I see with you?”

“Yes, please, don’t hold back from me now, Judith.”

“Your manipulating, hoarding, doing anything to get food with which to console yourself scares other people, and probably triggers fear in them from when they were children. That’s why they either try to control you or cringe and hide and withdraw from you instead of lovingly telling you to stop it or being with you compassionately.”

“I see. So here we are, I’m an administrative assistant in an international corporation and the mother of a beautiful 3-year old daughter. And we — I and the other adults around me –are in these big bodies but we’re children inside, just like my 3-year old — all of us?”

“Right! Sandy. That’s the heart of it. So if they do their jobs like children, without even realizing it, they impact all the customers you serve all over the world. And when those customers are affected, the child in each of them gets scared and angry and reacts in ways that aren’t grown up. And that affects the next people and so on. You see, Sandy, the effect of your childhood loss — the feelings you’ve buried inside you, the childhood decisions you made about consoling yourself, the actions you’ve taken and will take as a result — acts like a line of dominoes causing everything to tumble into a regression.”

“That’s mind-blowing, Judith. Why don’t we all know that? Why aren’t we taught that?”

“A story for another time, Sandy. In essence, people are afraid of their memories and their feelings, and because of the fear, they try to keep it all buried. But as with you, Sandy, when we try to keep it buried, it somehow explodes out into the world and affects everyone. But let’s come back to you, Sandy…okay?”

“Yes, Judith. But what do we do with me?”

“One more step for today, Sandy. Are you aware of what would happen if you were not able to console yourself? With food? With your father?”

“Hmmmm. No, I guess I’m not aware. I just know it’s terrifying.”

“Yes, Sandy. Because if you can’t console yourself, you will feel i-n-c-o-n-s-o-l-a-b-l-e. You will feel the inconsolable grief you felt at 12 months old when you lost your mommy.

“Imagine, you then slowly fall into a layer of the grief…a layer of the feelings of inconsolability. At first your lower lip and chin tremble, much like that of a baby. And then you cry and cry and cry. I stay right here with you, welcoming and honoring the leap of faith you have allowed yourself to take. And knowing this is the beginning of your healing to the root.

“When the waves of your cries subside for today, I ask you how you’re doing.”

“It was scary at first, Judith, but I trusted the work we had done together, the connection we had made between us, and my own ability to feel that we have been growing. So, I was able to allow it. And now I feel huge relief. I know this won’t change my relationship with food like that,” and she snaps her fingers together, “but I trust that over time I’ll be healing both my early trauma from my mom’s death and my relationship with food. Thanks so much, Judith. I look forward to our session next week to continue this work.”

We’re both aware it’s time to end the session. You stand up, put your hand on your heart, and mouth the words “thank you.”

You stand at the door on your way out, and I offer, “By the way, Sandy, you did such great work today. And just like your feelings, decisions, and behaviors have an impact on the world, so also does the work you do to heal yourself.”

You smile, wave goodbye, and walk to your car with your step a bit lighter than it was on the way in.

Not just dieting
After reading the above example of our hypothetically working to find the underlying roots of your relationship with food, I hope you have a glimpse of why we can’t just diet…why we can’t just change our behaviors…why we can’t just control our feelings, our actions, our physical or our emotional hunger. If we try to manage, repress, or ignore the feelings at the root of our relationship with food…if we don’t do the work to heal at the root, those feelings that are so alive inside us will keep returning to the surface to haunt us.

And while we continue trying to keep them at bay, those feelings will cause us to make choices from the wounded child inside us — even if we are not aware of it — and will lead us to act out in counter-productive, perhaps even destructive ways…including overeating, starving ourselves, making very poor food choices, and using food for something that is not its true purpose — simply, to nourish us.

Remember…we can heal our relationships with food…to the very root. It just takes a deep longing to heal, a fierce commitment to heal and to follow through, finding the right match in a therapist to guide you, support you, and walk with you, and the time and patience to move layer by layer to the root.

Judith Barr has been a depth psychotherapist in private practice for over 30 years.  Her unique and innovative work helps people make a connection between our own individual relationships and experiences, and the state of our nation and our world. Through her book Power Abused, Power Healed, her dozens of articles for both professionals and the general public, her blog PoliPsych, and her speaking engagements, media appearances and teleconferences, Judith teaches about how we can help heal the misuse and abuse of power in all arenas of life -- from the inside out -- and how we can help to create sustainable safety in our world. For more information, please email, call or visit her website.

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