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Books that tell you to change unwanted attitudes and behaviors by “just doing it” don’t generally work for readers with traumatic childhoods. That’s why I like It’s Not Your Fault: How Healing Relationships Change Your Brain and Can Help You Overcome a Painful Past by Patricia Romano McGraw, Ph.D. She explains in readable language and through case-based examples what happens to a child’s brain growing up in a stressful, dysfunctional (ie, traumatic) environment and describes how therapy can actually change the brain and heal the heart. As so many disregulated eaters are trauma survivors—whether you recognize yourself as one or not—this book will help you understand why it’s so difficult to establish and maintain new eating habits.
McGraw presents the concept of templates—models or patterns on which things are based—that are physically laid down in the brain through childhood interactions we have with caretakers, primarily our parents. Because neural pathways grow in specific directions based on the kind of activity there is in that part of the brain, we learn how early interactions determine how our brains are shaped and pruned. As the foundation for healthy relationships, McGraw presents “attunement, which occurs when the caretaker holds the infant’s gaze and mirrors what the infant is feeling. This bonding creates neural pathways that make the infant feel safe, understood and cared for. If, for the most part, parents are attuned to the infant, then child, the groundwork is set down for healthy, trusting, predictable, loving relationships.
However, McGraw explains, in dysfunctional caretaker-infant/child interactions, there is insufficient or inappropriate attunement. Thus, the child learns that she cannot trust or count on people and not to expect too much of them. Moreover, she interprets this lack of attunement as being due to her not being worthy of love and attention. This template of unhealthy relationships is laid down and unconsciously followed through life. McGraw also discusses the necessity of breaking attunement and re-attuning to the child, as well as how early attachment styles between infant/child and caretaker might lead to troubling and troublesome relationships in the present (the subject of a future blog).
This book is valuable because it makes sense of how the therapist, who might be called a professional “attuner,” can heal trauma in ways that friends and family cannot: it is the primary job of a therapist to mirror and attune to clients (not give advice, as some think) and create a new template for emotionally healthy relationships. If you’re a trauma survivor with ongoing eating struggles, this book has lots to say to you.
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