Current brain science shows that a lack of consistent emotional nurturance in infancy and childhood, when the brain is being formed, can result in difficulties with self-regulation, causing us to seek comfort and nurturance outside ourselves, often in substances, such as food, and behaviors, such as overeating. The good news is that our history is not our destiny, and the brain can be rewired.
In When Food Is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating, author Julie M. Simon explains that, instead of turning to food for comfort, emotional overeaters can learn to self-nurture through the simple, easy-to-master skills she offers. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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Not a day goes by in my psychotherapy and life-coaching practice where I don’t hear a client say something like this:
“It’s ridiculous that I’m upset about this.”
“I know it’s wrong to feel this way.”
“It’s idiotic that I can’t stop a behavior that is clearly destroying my health.”
“It’s stupid to feel anxious about this at my age.”
“It’s crazy that I think about my ex-husband this many years later.”
“I shouldn’t feel this way — there is nothing I can do about the situation.”
How often do you say critical things like this to yourself? Be honest.
When you’re experiencing recurring unpleasant feelings or familiar unmet needs and self-defeating thoughts, are you generally kind and gentle with yourself? Do you unconditionally accept all of your emotions, sensations, needs, and thoughts? Do you give yourself the empathy, compassion, warmth, and understanding you’d offer a close friend or family member? Are you patient with yourself? Or do you have a tendency to invalidate what you’re feeling, needing, and thinking by criticizing and ridiculing yourself?
I am saddened when I hear the stream of invalidating, critical, judgmental, negative, unloving comments that my clients verbalize about themselves. Most of us have past or present situations, events, issues, and relationships that we find difficult to accept. It’s challenging to forgive ourselves for mistakes and perceived failures. Emotional states such as disappointment, frustration, shame, remorse, guilt, and regret are not easy to live with or process. We’re often hard on ourselves, not only for the states we find ourselves in, but also for not getting over them quickly enough.
Unfortunately, our self-invalidation doesn’t stop there. Most of us have aspects of our bodies and personalities that we would change if we could. It’s difficult for us to accept our excess body fat, double chin, wrinkles, cellulite, acne, or body parts we believe to be too big, too small, or out of proportion. We long to have been born with different genes. We might wish we were younger, smarter, funnier, or more entrepreneurial, driven, or athletic, and we find it hard to accept what we believe are our shortcomings.
We compare ourselves endlessly with others and envy those who have the traits and bodies we would like to have. We find it challenging to accept and love ourselves unconditionally — flaws, bulges, scars, inadequacies, and all. Like a 24/7 newsfeed, a stream of invalidating commentary plays in our heads:
“I’m unattractive and dumpy looking at this weight.”
“I look like a cow in this outfit.”
“My thighs are huge and disgusting.”
“I’ve never had a good body, and I probably never will.”
“My hair is thin and looks like crap.”
“My skin is a total mess.”
In addition to voicing these explicit self-criticisms, we invalidate ourselves in sneaky ways. We may deny that we’re upset about something, disregarding our true emotions and invalidating our feeling self with an assertion like “I’m not bothered by this at all.” We might minimize our feelings and needs: “It’s not really a big deal that I got passed over for the promotion.” We might ignore or disregard our feelings, needs, or thoughts by distracting ourselves with pleasurable pastimes like watching television or eating.
But whether or not we’re aware of the many ways we invalidate ourselves, our minds, bodies, and spirits register this lack of compassion. Our relationship with food will remain imbalanced as long as we continue to treat ourselves poorly.
What Self-Validation Means
We continue our practice of internal attunement by offering our feeling self the developmentally critical experience of validation. As you work on this skill, you’ll get lots of practice using your Inner Nurturer voice — that kind, wise, warm, empathetic, compassionate, ever-loving part of you that can help restore your feeling self to emotional balance.
Self-validation involves three distinct steps. First, our Inner Nurturer communicates unconditional acceptance of our internal experiences. This means that when you’re anxious about the presentation you’re about to give, worried that you’re going to blow it, and in need of reassurance, your Inner Nurturer makes space for you to be nervous. Rather than judging, ignoring, or denying your inner experience, or trying too quickly to cheerlead you out of it, she gently and compassionately acknowledges it and lets you know that it is real, valid, and okay to feel everything you’re feeling, and that it’s all right to have worrisome thoughts and need reassurance.
This means that when you’re beginning to raise your voice because of something your partner just said, rather than blaming, shaming, or judging you, your Inner Nurturer reminds you that it’s acceptable to feel anger and to experience agitation in your body when you feel misunderstood. Your Inner Nurturer reassures you that it’s okay to have angry thoughts and need quality listening from your partner.
Unconditional acceptance means that when you get annoyed, tense, and grumpy because your elderly mother asks you the same question for the fifth time in ten minutes, your Inner Nurturer, rather than criticizing and making you feel guilty, kindly acknowledges these feelings as acceptable, okay to feel, and a natural part of eldercare. When you are thinking that you’ll never be able to handle all of your mother’s needs, your Inner Nurturer lets you know that it’s all right to have that thought and to have your own needs.
In the second step of self-validation, your Inner Nurturer offers understanding to your feeling self. When you’re nervous before the presentation, your Inner Nurturer not only reassures you that it’s okay to feel this way, but also lets you know that it makes sense to feel this way, that it’s normal to feel anxiety when making a presentation to a large group. When you’re angry with your partner, your Inner Nurturer reminds you that not only is it acceptable to feel anger when you don’t feel heard, but it’s also understandable. When you’re frustrated with your elderly mother, your Inner Nurturer offers you understanding by saying something like “Of course you’re feeling frustrated — it’s exhausting to repeat yourself so many times.”
In the third step of self-validation, you notice what you’re experiencing in your body when you practice kind and compassionate self-talk. You may notice that your anxiety subsides and the agitation in your body is reduced. Perhaps you notice that your shoulders are relaxing, the churning in your stomach has stopped, and the tension in your jaw is gone. By noticing the effect your loving self-talk has on your body, you are strengthening the association in your brain between your Inner Nurturer’s soothing and comforting words and the easing of your unpleasant emotions and sensations. In the future, you’ll be able to calm down quickly just through knowing that your Inner Nurturer is on the scene, the same way a baby is soothed when she sees her mother’s face.
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Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, LMFT, is the author of When Food Is Comfort and The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual. She founded the popular Los Angeles–based and online Twelve-Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and offers workshops at venues like Whole Foods and UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles, and you can visit her online at www.OvereatingRecovery.com.
Excerpted from the book When Food Is Comfort. Copyright © 2018 by Julie M. Simon.