Recently I sat at a local park and watched two toddlers playing in a sandbox, scooping sand into a pail. One of them suddenly ran off with a shovel. The other burst into tears.
Her anxious mother ran up, saying, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, it’s okay.”
The little girl continued to bawl.
Her mother hurriedly reached into her bag and pulled out a box of animal crackers. “Here,” she said, shoving the cookie towards her daughter, “Have a cookie.”
In that moment the girl learned her feelings upset others and she either shouldn’t have them or show them, but if she absolutely can't stop the feelings, a cookie will resolve the problem.
As I watched and listen to this exchange, I realized it replicated the internal process of disordered eating. Sometimes when people start to feel something - anger, sadness, hurt, resentment, and so forth -a part of them resists the feeling, as if saying, "Don't feel that! It's too uncomfortable! I can't deal!" And that's when people might turn to food to cope or distract, or start attacking themselves or their bodies in some other way.
Other possible responses to this situation:
A dismissive parent might not notice that the girl was crying or might glance over and say, “You’re okay. It’s not the end of the world.” The girl learns her feelings are of no interest to others.
An angry parent might snap, “Stop crying, already!” The girl learns her feelings upset and irritate others.
A supportive parent would say, “Of course you’re upset, it’s okay to cry it out. Your feelings are hurt.”The girl learns that her feelings are worthy of her attention and that it's okay to express them.
How do you soothe yourself when you’re upset?
Where did you learn to relate to yourself this way?
A note on mothers (and fathers): Parents usually do their best, given their circumstances and their upbringing, but sometimes their "best" can be harmful to their children. It's not helpful to blame parents, because that can keep people in a victim stance (ie, "It's their fault I'm this way!"). Explaining why you feel or react in certain ways can be healing, as it helps you understand why you react to yourself the way you do. Considering a different response leads to empowerment (ie, "I understand that my upbringing impacted me in a particular way, but now that I get it, I can work to change it.")
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