One of my clients mentioned that she feared letting down her guard around people because of the many abusive people who’ve been in her life. Although she understood that she could pick more appropriate, mentally healthy people now, she wasn’t quite sure she was ready to. What she said she was ready to do is to give up her emotional eating when these people got her upset.
Her comments led me to thinking of how many dysregulated eaters I’ve met are often too trusting and open with those who hurt them repeatedly, but hyper-vigilant and closed off from folks they actually could benefit from being more vulnerable to. Somehow, they got things exactly backward. The fact is that these are patterns learned in childhood that get carried into adulthood when we don’t regularly need either type of behavior any more. Sometimes people evolve to swing between both operating styles so that sometimes they’re too trusting and other times they’re too shut down.
Think about it. If you’re a child in a family that mistreats you and others in the family, you’re going to chose behavior to feel less hurt. One way is to stay guarded, trust no one, and expect that people are out to harm you. In psych parlance, this kind of person is called well defended. It’s as if they’re built armor around them and will never allow themselves to take it off. They rarely get hurt, but they also rarely get close to people. This situation brings on its own kind of pain—being alone, feeling like no one understands you, and believing that you can’t depend on anyone. So some people who feel like this comfort themselves with food.
The other response is to continue to hope, against all experience, that people will be nice and repeatedly let yourself get hurt when they’re not. Repeat abuse can keep hurting or make people numb to what anyone does to them, not because their guard is up but because the mind/body can only take so much pain. Being blindsided when they keep expecting people to behave better than they are able to leaves them exhausted and also feeling alone. And, of course, one way to comfort themselves is with food.
The good news is that these are not the only two options. We don’t have to pretend that people will be kind to us nor armor up to never get hurt again. We can be open and test people out. There is a way to be cautious but also open to being proven wrong. There is a way to neither be all in nor all out when meeting people. Stake out a middle ground and pay attention to patterns of behavior. Note all your feelings. Remain aware rather than wary. Trust but verify, as they say in international affairs.