Karen's Blogs

Blogs are brief, to-the-point, conversational, and packed with information, strategies, and tips to turn troubled eaters into “normal” eaters and to help you enjoy a happier, healthier life. Sign up by clicking "Subscribe" below and they’ll arrive in your inbox. 

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Stop Saying Others Make You Feel a Certain Way

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We grow up hearing things like this, “He made me so angry that I hit him” and “She made me feel bad, so I didn’t go to her party.” For decades I’ve been correcting clients when they make statements like this because they’re, quite frankly, ridiculous. Exactly how can someone get inside your head and make you feel something? If that were possible, I’d get into heads everywhere and make people feel better. Hell, I can’t even “make” my clients feel better and I’m a therapist. Believe me, I wish I had the power. Then why do we so often make this statement and what do we mean by it. First off, how do you think people can make you feel something? How could they plant an emotion inside you? Can anyone really do this? Or now that you’ve stopped to think about it, do you see how mistaken you’ve been? ...
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Emotional Memories Now versus Then

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A client said she wished desperately to learn how to not be reactive. Specifically, she wanted to learn how not to be triggered by her traumatic, abusive childhood. We’d talked a great deal in therapy about trying to stay out of recall and stay in reality, so I valued her desire to pursue being grounded in the present. We can’t erase memories or stop recalling how we felt in them, especially events which threatened our survival, being reactive to previous threats is meant help us outwit current dangers. Memories are guideposts for our journey in the future. We need the ability to recall the threats we faced to recognize future encounters with them.  However, we only need a general idea of what we felt to keep safe; we don’t need to relive the suffering we had at 4 or 7 or 19. A quick identification of the emotions we experienced is...
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How to Find Real Comfort

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Dysregulated eaters talk a good deal about seeking “comfort” through eating, but what is comfort and how can we find real reduction or elimination of distress? As I’ve blogged, although turning to food occasionally to manage the blues or the blahs is fine, comfort eating as an emotional management strategy is nothing more than a bad habit.  If you’re readying yourself to learn more effective strategies, consider how you might learn to comfort yourself through both words and actions. In my experience, clients tend to use one strategy or the other, that is, they rely entirely on either taking action or trying to talk themselves down. Using both is a more effective combination.  I’ve been thinking about this subject due some client conversations. One client described how she handled a distressing situation: she got busy, which is a common strategy used by people to dissipate anxiety. She cleaned her apartment until...
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How to Brush Off Rejection

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The potential for rejection is everywhere—friendships, romance, jobs, activities—and it can be a primary reason dysregulated eaters seek comfort in food. Since there’s no way to escape rejection, why not develop ways to help you live with it.  A Toast to All Rejects teaches us why rejection is so painful and how to manage it more effectively. Cognitive-science professor Barbara Sarnecka and her graduate student team have been changing the experience of professional rejection by encouraging people to “run straight toward it.” At first, that may seem like a crazy idea, but it turns out that it works, especially if we don’t keep rejection a secret but share it with others. Studies explain that rejection can hurt like the dickens because it “threatens our self-esteem and our sense of belonging.” In fact, we’re highly sensitive to rejection because “many of the same networks in our brain that activate in response to...
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How to Achieve Positive Self-regard

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If you’ve ever been in therapy or read self-help books, you know that loving yourself is key to living your best life. Self-love often seems like a squishy term. Here’s one that might be easier to swallow: learning the purpose and practice of positive self-regard.  The Surprising Benefits of Unconditional Positive Regard explains what positive self-regard is and isn’t. It means treating yourself as a fallible human being no matter what you think, feel, say or do. It’s knowing our actions are unhealthy even as we’re doing them, but still seeing them as the best we can do at the time. Or looking back at something we did in horror yet treating ourselves with compassion in spite of it. To be clear, positive self-regard is not unconditional acceptance of our actions. It means holding ourselves in positive regard and still not liking but wanting to change our behaviors. For example, you...
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Yes, There’s a Link Between ADHD and BED

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Here’s an interesting factoid: “Studies show that someone with ADHD is 30 percent more likely to develop binge eating disorder.” When I read this statistic, I thought about my clients, formally and informally diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, who overrate and binged and wondered why I hadn’t thought or heard about this connection before.  Most of my clients self-identify as dysregulated eaters if not binge-eaters, so let me explain what Binge-eating Disorder consists of from a blog of mine: “Criteria include bingeing at least once per week for a period of at least three months accompanied by a feeling of loss of control, eating large quantities of food quickly past fullness, and experiencing shame, upset, remorse or guilt afterwards.” According to Allan Kaplan, MD of the University of Toronto, BED is found in about one-third of higher weight clients. Several of my clients have ADHD, a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by distractibility,...
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How to Choose Beneficial Pain

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Although there’s no such thing as escaping pain in this life, when faced with it, we can (and must to thrive) choose the pain that will be most beneficial in the long run. I have one serious quote in my office and it’s the following by Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing:  “There is a great deal of pain in life and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” I was reminded of this pain dilemma talking with one of several of my clients who’re thinking about leaving a marriage. Of course, there are many other painful decisions in life, but this one is common and both sides of potential suffering are easy to identify with. My client expressed dissatisfaction with her husband on several legitimate counts—lack of physical attraction to him, their large age difference, and wanting to feel more passion...
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Freedom from Suffering versus Liberation

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I read an enlightening article entitled Total Liberation: A Buddhist Approach to Healing (Psychotherapy Networker, Nov/Dec 2021, p. 75 ) by Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams and want to pass on one of the ideas in it. For those of you who know nothing about Buddhism, it’s a very practical religion. I’m not touting religion here (I’m secular) but want to pass on a particular bit of wisdom about the difference between “freedom from suffering” and true liberation. Before I go on, let me explain that one of the Buddha’s teachings is that there is suffering in life and that we have choices about it based on wanting. That is, we can’t avoid suffering, but we can avoid consciously choosing it. Here’s an example. Say, I want desperately for one of my books to become #1 on the NY Times bestseller list. Because the likelihood of that happening is slim to none,...
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How to Become Guilt-trip Proof

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If there are people in your life who often try to guilt trip you, it’s time to polish up your defensive moves to protect yourself. Let me be clear that guilt tripping is nothing but a passive-aggressive maneuver, be it conscious or unconscious. The good news is that you don’t have to buy into it. The even better news is that it’s not hard to learn how. An example: Cory, age 36, lives at home with his mother, stepfather and grandfather. Cory says he’s used food ever since he can remember to comfort himself around his family when they try to guilt trip him. “It’s how my family functions or, more accurately, dysfunctions”: everyone blames everyone else. My mother tries to make my father feel bad for his drinking, he tries to make my mother feel sorry for driving him to drink, and my grandpa insists that if I’d just move...
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One Important Sign of Mental Health

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I think it was in social work school that I learned about one crucial aspect of mental health: the ability to hold two opposing thoughts or feelings at one time. Clients are often surprised when I bring up this dynamic and why it might be important. Why do you think it has merit? Consider how hard it is to hold conflicting feelings or thoughts, how we’d much rather they line up single file and visit us one at a time than come charging at us en masse. I know that’s how I feel about emotions and thoughts.  Here are some client examples:  Caitlin wants to leave her emotionally abusive husband and is scared about losing their two-income status. She desperately wants out and also desperately fears not being able to live in her current lifestyle. Anne is plugging along in therapy to become a “normal” eater and also wants to lose weight...
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Facing Fear to Conquer It

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You can only talk about something you’re afraid to do for so long in therapy before talk becomes superfluous and the only way to move past the fear is to push yourself into taking action. It’s one thing to discuss barriers to change and how to overcome them; it’s another to say you’re going to do something but do nothing to make that happen. Here are some examples of positive movement forward. You think you want to leave your partner and read up on your state’s divorce laws. You want to change jobs and use therapy to explore what work you might and might not be suited for. You’d like to become a “normal” eater and read books on how to eat mindfully. In each case, you still have the fear—of not knowing whether you want to be single again, will find a better job, or will ever learn to have...
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Why It Feels So Good to Feel So Bad

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In one week during four sessions, I had discussions with clients about the difficulty of giving up self-pity and the victim mindset. It’s something that we generally feel icky about, yet there’s also something gratifying that draws us to it. Somehow to feel justified in being wronged brings us a weird kind of satisfaction.  One client told me, “Self-pity gives me a strange kind of comfort.” Another enjoyed how it was a kind of penance for things she did wrong in her life. She said she used to like how self-pity was so much easier than trying to change. All of these clients were, to greater or lesser extent, denied normal, healthy childhoods by their parents or families through abuse or neglect. None were effectively soothed or comforted by people who lacked these skills. So, these clients found comfort where they could: in rebelling and getting negative attention, in food/drink/drugs/sex which...
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Use, Don’t Lose, Your Temper

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A client once said to me, “I hate losing my temper” which led to discussing exactly what she meant by the comment and what feelings and fears were behind it. To lose your temper means “failing to maintain composure.” Is that always a bad thing? Do we necessarily want to remain calm and self-possessed in all situations? I think not. There’s a difference between using your temper and losing it. For example, one of my former clients was married to a wonderful man whom she adored, except for his hoarding tendencies. For him, 10 packages of toilet paper were better than one and you never know when you’re going to run out of socks, so why not buy a set of three rather than a single pair. Worst of all, my client’s husband stored all the extras of everything he bought in his home office. One day, when he was out,...
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Replace Judgments with Emotions

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It’s probably no surprise to you that dysregulated eaters tend to be highly judgmental of themselves. This is usually out of sheer habit. If you listen to yourselves, you’ll know I’m right. When things don’t go your way, you often judge yourself rather than identify the emotions you’re experiencing. And the judgments make you feel worse about whatever happened rather than helping you move on. So rather than make a moral issue out of something, simply identify what you’re feeling. Here's an example of what I’m talking about. A client of mine, Tisha, always comes down hard on herself when she doesn’t like the outcome of her best efforts to eat better. We were talking about how she really wanted french toast for lunch one day and grabbed a few pieces, intending to eat one and save the other slices for later. As it turned out, she so enjoyed the first...
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Stay Safe by Being Alert, Not Anxious

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I was watching the new CSI Las Vegas when someone asked a retired CSI being hunted down if they were being hypervigilant. His answer was no, that he wasn’t going to live in fear, but he strongly intended to stay alert. This seemed like a vital distinction to both stay safe and not make yourself crazy doing it. Hypervigilance is when you live in fear 24/7, when you’re constantly—consciously or unconsciously—scanning the horizon for new threats even when you’re safe and when you’re unable to turn off the threat sensor in your brain. As it turns out, hypervigilance doesn’t work very well because it produces too many false positives. For example, my client George always expects people to reject or abandon him because he grew up in foster homes. You can’t blame George for wanting to brace himself against suffering and avoid it, but he’s so on guard that he misinterprets...
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What to Do with Your Flaws

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As none of us is perfect, it’s useful to decide what flaws we want to fix and which ones we can (sigh!) live with. This works better than feeling ongoing pressure to repair what’s wrong and continuing to fail at it. There’s no formula for which behaviors or attitudes you can live with and which you can’t. The goal to aim for is peace of mind. First off, how would you feel about accepting a few of your shortcomings although you’d rather be different? For example, I would like to be a more patient driver, but in my almost 75 years, to be honest, I haven’t made much progress in mellowing out behind the wheel. I know the behavior hurts no one but myself, but I don’t seem to be able to chill out as much as I’d like to. I’m not a horn honker or anything like that; I just...
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How to Prevent Boredom and Enhance Your Life

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Boredom seems like a simple enough emotion, but it’s more complex than you’d think. When clients tell me they eat out of boredom, I don’t assume I know what they feel, but dig deeper to help us understand what they’re looking for in those “bored” moments.  First off, I help them distinguish boredom (wanting something to do) from loneliness (wanting to be with people). These emotions may or may not co-exist, so when you think you’re bored, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself if you’re lonely instead. Once you’ve established that it’s boredom, notice how you know it: where in your mind and body do you feel it, is it difficult for you to sit still, are you having trouble concentrating?  Second, decide whether you’re seeking excitement or inhibition. Often when we say we’re bored, we’re looking for stimulation. In the middle of adding up deductions while doing your taxes or folding...
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How to Make the Best Use of Anxiety

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Clients who had emotionally or physically unsafe childhood’s tend to hover at either end of a spectrum. Either they never feel safe or inaccurately feel safe when there is an valid threat. If the people who kept telling you to trust them (parents, relatives, caretakers) when you were growing up were really not trustworthy, it makes sense that trust and safety would be confusing to you and that you may not realize it.  Take my client Monty who is recently divorced. He was raised mostly by a single mom who picked many appropriate partners after she and his dad split. Mom appeared to trust every man and believed in being nice to people no matter what. Dad trusted no one but himself and lived a sad, lonely existence. These poor role models set poor Monty up for many unhealthy relationships. Not wanting to be like his dad, he tried his mother’s...
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Is Your Refrigerator Your Holding Environment?

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One of my favorite highly useful concepts in psychology is about the emotional holding environment. It describes a space that is safe and predictable, where you can spill your guts, and someone is there to share your pain and soothe your suffering. If you think about what you might have felt being held in a parent’s arms as a baby, that would be the feeling. Engulfed with love and completely protected from harm.   Psychoanalyst Galit Atlas, PhD explains what Donald Winnicott, PhD, pediatrician and psychoanalyst who coined the term means by emotional holding in her book Emotional Inheritance: “Emotional holding is the steady emotional arms and available presence of the parents that allow the baby to feel safe and protected. The parent holds the baby in his or her mind, available to tolerate the baby’s emotions, tuned into her signals.” Atlas then describes the benefits of adequate emotional holding: “When...
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What Does Letting Go Really Mean?

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A client and I were discussing her difficulty with loss: a sister’s long-ago suicide, her mother’s gradual decline and death from cancer and, most recently, the death of her adored dog, Pearl. Talking about Pearl’s death, my client kept repeating a common phrase, “I can’t seem to let go” and “I need to let go,” which started an interesting conversation about what those words really mean.  Our discussion raised many issues. One was how my client was referring to something that had happened—Pearl’s death—as if it hadn’t. That is, after a long illness, Pearl was euthanized with my client present. She knew Pearl was dead and yet her words implied the need to take further action. This is often how we use the phrase. We don’t get a job we want and say, “I need to let go.” Our fiancé breaks our engagement, and we say, “Why can’t I just let...
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