The "Food-Family Connection": Letting Go at Last

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People can get caught up in emotional eating for many reasons, I'm sure, and at any age. For example, I knew someone who was slim until her 30s and then began compulsively overeating, and became fat, in response to extreme life changes. Everyone's emotional eating origins are uniquely personal; what you'll read here just happen to be mine.

My emotional eating and weight gain go back 50 years or more, to my childhood. Thus, the story of how I came to say goodbye, with love, to excess food and my fat is inescapably the story of saying goodbye to my anger and resentment toward the family who made my growing-up years so unhappy.

You won't be surprised to learn that changing these lifelong feelings was a painful journey. But it was also the crucial breakthrough in my understanding of how I came to be so dependent on food for getting through life. And it freed me to become the woman I am now: no longer alone, afraid -- or fat.

Like every child, I needed my parents' love to grow up loving myself. It didn't happen. Instead I became a target within the family, the child who was criticized and shamed -- usually without knowing why.

The trouble with this, of course, besides the devastating effect it had on my feelings about myself at the time, is that I grew up hearing my own voice, in my head, criticizing and shaming me.

Today I can see how doing this to myself became, over the years, an expectation that others were doing it, too, when most of the time they weren't. For example, I tended to think that people who really had other things on their minds were criticizing me, or just waiting to do so. (Reality check: I occasionally deserved it!) And I also allowed myself to be shamed -- read: victimized -- in some very unpleasant incidents even long after I grew up.

In response to these and other real and imagined fears, I learned to isolate myself from others -- if not always physically, certainly by seldom letting my real feelings show. But still, like everyone, I needed something to take the place of close relationships and the richness they add to life.


And while I was still very young, I found it. I formed, and nurtured, and above all defended the "relationship" that became my lifeline: My close, loving relationship with food.

I believe now that the food I loved and could never get enough of, at least while I was stuffing myself with it, was the family I never got enough of. I even had my own "family" of favorite foods! Our "family meals" -- of course eaten alone and if possible out of sight of others -- included such delicacies as pizza, coconut cake, and pasta with rich, creamy sauces and lots and lots of cheese.

I felt happy and fulfilled while I ate the food I loved. And then, naturally, I was miserable, hating myself for what I had done. See a pattern here? Food was feeding not only my need for close relationships but also my need -- oh, how it hurts to admit this! -- to feel sorry for myself.

To feel like a victim.

Do you ever feel afraid to lose your excess weight? I sure did. And no wonder: Losing the weight meant losing the one close relationship I could depend on to always be there and make me feel good. So even when I did achieve a substantial weight loss, I gained it back quickly, usually with a few more pounds for good measure.

I even remember sometimes feeling a sense of relief about regaining my weight, even as I despaired at seeing my body swell and become distorted with fat again. I wonder if that sounds familiar to you, too.

Well, that's how I lived, how I got through life, for so many years. Then, in therapy, two big changes happened:

1) I learned that I was a pretty nice person after all, someone other people would generally like if they had the chance. So I didn't have to put up "permanent" defenses like fat, humor at other people's expense, and isolating from others. I could relax and be myself, and most of the time things would be OK, just as they are for most people, most of the time.


2) I found within myself true loving feelings for my family, particularly for my mother and father, both now deceased. Most surprising was coming to love my mother, a beautiful and funny woman who apparently found it unnerving to have a bright, intuitive, and often rebellious child around. What did I see, or sense, that she didn't want others to know about? I don't know (although previously, in my role as "victim of the family," I thought I did). And it no longer matters. What matters is that almost certainly her harsh and unrelenting criticism of me was really directed at herself, not at me, a child who wasn't old enough to have done anyone any harm. Long before, her own family had unwittingly put that self-criticism into her head, and heart.

I understand now that my mother and father came to having children burdened with their own pain of unmet childhood needs -- and they lived in a time when professional help wasn't readily available as it is today. And so they passed their burdens along to me.

I also realize that as a mother, I burdened my own two daughters in similar ways. They're grown now, raising their own children -- my grandchildren. But by "giving back" my own emotional burden, and in the process becoming a more real and loving person, I'm very hopeful that their lives and relationships with their children will be stronger as well.

What do I mean by "giving back"? In therapy, I gave back the pain and defensiveness my parents passed along to me. I said, "I don't want this anymore. It was there when I needed it, along with food and my fat, when I couldn't see other ways of dealing with my life. Now I have the opportunity to understand it, thank it for being there when I needed it, and let it go, with love."

Here's something I wrote when I first began to stop holding my family responsible for who I became as an adult:

"Mother, I understand now, and I love you so much. I'm so sorry for the pain and fear that hurt you and shaped your whole life while you were still so young. And I celebrate your real qualities: love, giving, warmth, humor, that were there within you all along and that you passed on to me. I welcome them into my life and consider them your gifts to me. The false, manipulative, defensive qualities you and others before you passed on to me, I GIVE BACK -- not to you, for you endured enough, but to the Higher Power who set us on this path. He will know what to do with them.


"I love you, Mother -- the mother that you were meant to be and that now, in my newly understanding heart, you are."


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SOURCES: WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Healthy Eating." Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, nutrition consultant; author of Stealth Health: How To Sneak Nutrition Painlessly Into Your Diet. Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, nutrition consultant; author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids.

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