One thing most emotional eaters have in common is that their childhoods didn’t feel particularly nourishing. Even if their caregivers were loving and kind, often there just wasn’t enough quality attention and listening, good attunement, soothing, comfort, empathy or consistent compassion. Even well-intentioned parents can miss the mark if they themselves didn’t learn these skills somewhere along the way. Perhaps they baked you cookies or took you out for ice cream when you were upset.
Parents struggling with illness, financial or social challenges or single parenthood may find it difficult to consistently meet their children’s emotional needs. Depressed or anxious parents will inevitably have a more challenging time comforting and soothing their children.
When the adult voices of our childhood are primarily warm, kind, validating, soothing, comforting, encouraging and hopeful, we begin to develop a supportive voice within that can restore us to emotional balance when needed. As we mature into adulthood, this supportive voice becomes the voice of what I call our Inner Nurturer, our main source of validation, comfort, soothing, approval and reassurance.
When this Inner Nurturer voice doesn’t get properly internalized, we will find it difficult to comfort and soothe ourselves. We are much more prone to look outside of ourselves for comfort and use things like food, alcohol, drugs, sex, busyness and even drama and work to distract ourselves from the pain.
To add insult to injury, if our caregivers were judgmental, critical, unkind or shaming, the dominant voice inside our head will most likely be that of a harsh Inner Critic. By taking on our caregivers’ critical voices, we’re adopting a distorted view of our selves and others. This voice beats us up and leaves us feeling lonely and unworthy. This voice tells us that we are basically inadequate and never “good enough.” We enter adulthood with a sense of insecurity and low self-esteem. We regularly feel unworthy, inadequate, lonely, anxious and depressed.
What does the dominant voice in your head sound like? Nurturing, most of the time? Critical more often than not?
If you find, like so many emotional eaters I work with, that the dominant voice inside your head is that of the Inner Critic, and generally not that nurturing, here are a few steps you can take to develop the Inner Nurturer voice:
Step #1: Think of someone (you don’t even have to know them personally) you find nurturing. This could be a mentor, teacher, spiritual guide, friend (past or present), or even someone on television or radio. What about this person’s voice or demeanor was or is nurturing? Is it their caring tone, eye contact, kind face, affectionate manner? Write down exactly what you find nurturing.
Step #2: Now think of a situation in your life that you are struggling with–it might be your eating, weight, self-image, work, relationships, etc. Try on this nurturing voice and say something to yourself that is kind, validating, comforting, soothing and uplifting.
Situation causing distress: You’ve been overeating lately and have gained weight. You’re beside yourself with frustration.
Inner Nurturing voice: “I know you’re feeling frustrated right now over this weight gain. And that’s understandable. It’s natural to feel a bit out-of-control when the scale is going up. We’ve been going through a difficult time these past six months and food has always been a quick and available form of comfort. But I want you to know that I’m here for you and I can give you the comfort and care you need. You don’t have to turn to food. I love you and you’re very important to me. I can and will take care of your needs.”
Situation causing distress: A long-term work project is ending and you’re feeling anxious about finding another great gig.
Inner Nurturing voice: “I know you’re really worried about the future. This project was wonderful and it always feel like it will be difficult to find a another great job. This is a transitional period and it’s normal to feel anxious. I’m here with you, and here to tell you that we’re going to find a really incredible next job. You’re very talented and good at what you do. And you’re doing all the right leg work. I believe in you. It’s only a matter of time before we ‘call-in’ the right next project.”
It will take consistent practice to internalize an inner nurturing voice. It will not magically appear in your skill set. The part of you that turns to food (or other vices) is very, very young. Take the time, daily if you can, to write down the words of your Inner Nurturer. Over time, this voice will be the dominant voice in your head. This voice can quickly restore you to emotional balance and reduce the tendency to turn to external sources for comfort.
If you’re having trouble coming up with nurturing things to say to yourself, it may be because the dominant voice in your head is that of the Inner Critic. Here are a few steps you can take to silence the Inner Critic voice:
Step #1: When you attempt to “try on” the voice of the Inner Nurturer, catch any critical, judgmental thoughts that pop up and write them down.
Step #2: Reframe these thoughts with energizing, positive, uplifting thoughts.
Critical thought: “I’ll never get this weight back off.”
Energizing reframe: “I’ve lost the weight before and I can do it again. I can start with being kind and loving to myself. That relaxes me and I eat less when I feel more calm.”
Critical thought: “I’ll never find a project as good as this one. It was a fluke that I found such a good gig.”
Energizing reframe: “There are many wonderful projects out there. There is no shortage of good projects. The universe is abundant. I am skilled and talented at what I do and will find the perfect next project.”
Step #3: Notice how you feel when you think more positive thoughts. Most likely, you feel more relaxed and hopeful. This translates into eating less.
Take the time needed to build the voice of the Inner Nurturer and shrink the voice of the Inner Critic. The results will show up in all areas of your life.
Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual and When Food Is Comfort. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to https://overeatingrecovery.com.
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