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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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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This Year Whine More and Apologize Less

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It’s ironic that some of my most stoic clients worry that they’re a whiner. Of course, it could be their fretting so much about being viewed as such that keeps them from being one. Concurrent with this self-containment, however, comes another trait, excessive apologizing. Putting these two traits together makes me think that someone doesn’t want to be perceived as having needs, a personality marker for dysregulated eaters. Here’s an example. My client Evie was a “military brat” whose mother was a Major in the Army, and her father was principal of a local elementary school. Both were rules focused and neither suffered fools gladly. Evie says she never heard either of them complain and she was brought up to think it was “babyish and a sign of weakness” to do so. On the other hand, Evie worried constantly that she was doing something wrong (or at least not right). She...
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Aim for These Rational Default Settings

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Our childhoods shape our default settings for interacting in the world whether we know it or not. How we’re treated or mistreated and the role models who surround us lay down a template for what we believe about ourselves and others. Make no mistake, we don’t get to choose what we think until we become aware how we’ve been programmed.  Until you reset irrational, unhealthy default settings to ones which are rational and healthy, you’ll have a difficult time achieving well-being. Consider what might be wrong with your default settings regarding lovability, rights, and deservedness. Lovability. An unhealthy default is thinking you’re lovable only when people love you, making your lovability dependent on their assessment of you. Therefore, you must always work hard to please and get their approval and never anger or upset them because then they’ll stop loving you and you’ll no longer be lovable. A healthy default is...
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How Does Your Anxiety Manifest Itself?

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I was reading an excellent book on anxiety to review for the New York Journal of Books after talk with a friend about health problems and it got me thinking about the various ways we let anxiety inhabit us and run the show. It’s a hard-wired emotion and we all run smack into it on occasion (or on many occasions) whether we want to or not. Here are some of the ways that we exhibit or express it, even when we don’t realize it. You get angry. You and a friend are in the supermarket in the self-check-out lane. She drops her wallet, and you rush to help her pick up everything because there’s a line behind you. You feel angry that she’s not moving quickly enough to finish her transaction and say something like, “If you hadn’t been talking on your phone while we're checking out, this wouldn’t have happened....
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How Transference Distorts Reality

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You may not know exactly what happens during a negative transference reaction, but I guarantee that you’ve had oodles of them during your lifetime. We all do. The term, coined by Dr. Sigmund Freud, involves the unconscious process of viewing someone negatively in a current situation the way you would important people, usually your parents, in the past. This happens often with people in authority, intimates and in instances that are similar to your childhood experiences. Say, your sister Andi received the lion’s share of family attention due to her learning disability. You did well in school and didn’t begrudge her needing assistance but missed having your parents’ attention and hated helping Andi when you had things you’d rather do. Fast forward to you at 36 when your co-worker breaks his arm and can’t do his share of the work. You feel badly for him but resent having to pick up...
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Is Analysis Paralysis Driving You to Eat?

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Analysis paralysis (AP), which sounds like a cute, catchy phrase is actually a dangerous, mentally destructive, unconscious habit which many dysregulated eaters engage in. Also known as overthinking or rumination, it happens when your mind goes into overdrive about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do. After a while, all that obsessing can make you so anxious that you run to food to calm you down. Someone with analysis paralysis is stopped dead in their tracks by all their overthinking which they continue to do in the hopes of coming to a decision and reducing anxiety. Sadly, it only promotes more agita. According to “Do You Have Analysis Paralysis?”, people with AP wrongly consider all decisions as equal and give them all great thought. For example, the question of “Do I want to pick up my shirt at the dry cleaner today or tomorrow?” is given the same weight as “Is it...
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The Difference Between Emotions and Moods

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Many clients complain about being happy or fine for a while, then losing that feeling. Although some of these shifts are due to depressive or anxiety disorders, others are simply the nature of emotions and misthinking we should feel “good” all the time without experiencing the pain of living on this earth. If you’re wondering what is reasonable to expect from emotions and moods—or what the difference is between the two—read on. Without turning to the dictionary, I would describe an emotion as fleeting, lasting for 90 seconds or so, if I recall correctly. Emotions evolved over the millennia to call attention to themselves in order to prompt us to do something. Occurring in response to the environment, affective memories are stored in our brains to remind us of how best to survive. Moods, on the other hand, last longer. We can be on a high or in a funk lasting...
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Evaluating Hurt Feelings

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I had a great email conversation with a therapist friend about hurt feelings and I want to share some of our thoughts. Of course, we both suffer the same slings and arrows that our clients do—feeling left out, undervalued, invalidated, blamed, blind-sided, rejected, abandoned and more. We talked about things like having a doozy of a blow-out with a decades’ old friend and what it’s like to manage feelings in a dysfunctional family.  We agreed that, when it comes to emotions, it’s best to experience what’s going on inside you and let nature take its course. Naturally, this isn’t the best path when your perceived hurt is based on being in recall and perceiving insult when none was intended. That is an entirely different animal. What we were discussing is when someone does something intentionally or unintentionally that hurts you. Another shared viewpoint—though some might disagree—it’s not helpful in the long...
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How We Learn Beliefs

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I talk a voluminous amount with clients about beliefs—where they come from, why they persist, and how to change them. Much of our discussion is about them insisting they must believe something in order to say it to themselves and can’t say anything unless it’s true, aka faking it til you make it, and me explaining why they’re flat out wrong.  To understand what’s going on, it’s important to know the process of how we learn to believe: from how people treat us and what they say to and about us. Take my client, Forrest, whose father was emotionally abusive to him, his sisters, and their mother who was sweet and passive. They were all afraid of him. Dad treated them as if they were there only to serve and agree with him. He did little for them and dissent provoked cruel punishment. From Dad’s behavior, Forrest came to believe that...
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Are You Stuck in the Comply and Resent Pattern?

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Answering a question, one of my clients said she “did the usual—you know, the comply and resent thing.” I had to think a minute about what she meant. She was referring to her co-dependence, a pattern we’d often talked about, describing how she’d learned to be dependent on the high regard of others early on and was trying to break the habit.  Comply and resent is exactly what it sounds like: Saying yes to something and then regretting it and feeling resentful that you agreed. We all do this sometimes. I remember a friend asking me to drive her to Logan airport early in the morning when I lived in Boston in my late 20s. Anyone who knows me also knows that I am so not a morning person. Yet here this friend asked me for the ride because she didn’t have anyone else to ask or money for a cab....
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The Upside of Emotional Triggers

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More and more these days I’m noticing a troubling trend in psychotherapy involving tiptoeing around certain subjects and side-stepping the use of certain words in fear of offending or upsetting clients or readers. This seems to stem from a well-meaning desire not to trigger an audience of one or many. In either case, our goal should not be to fear triggering them, but to bring sensitive subjects out into the open so that we can understand and deactivate them once and for all.  In 13 Strategies to Deal with Your Emotional Triggers, David Richo, Ph.D. defines a trigger as “any word, person, event, or experience that touches off an immediate emotional reaction.” Triggers vary in intensity and can lead to either comfortable or uncomfortable feelings—or both. Looking at photos of myself as a child at sleep-away camp, for example, stirs delight that I had such a wonderful time there as well...
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Why We Dwell on Suffering

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During a session, a client mentioned a habit she was trying to break: conjuring up the worst possible scenarios she could imagine, in this case with romantic partners, and making herself totally miserable thinking about what dreadful things might happen. Although she recognized that she was spiraling down the rabbit hole, she said she felt as if she couldn’t stop herself from doing so and wondered why. Her words: “I’d sit on the floor and cry and feel sorry for myself 20 years ago, like in a dramatic movie, wishing someone could see me like that and feel sorry for how my boyfriends mistreated me. Now I feel like I get tough/angry/icy when I think about how my exes acted and realize that I allowed myself to be treated like that. I couldn't fathom how anyone could be so mean to me. But I’m learning that those people act the way...
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Missteps Not Mistakes

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I recently heard someone use the word “misstep” which sounded far better to my ears than what we usually call mistakes. Or than saying: I went off the rails, messed up, fell short or bombed. All these words sound dramatic and dreadful, as if the rest of our lives have been ruined. Or, worse, as if the world will never be the same. A misstep, on the other hand, sounds so minor, so insignificant, so oops. According to the Oxford Languages dictionary, it’s a step that is “clumsy or badly judged.” It implies you meant to do better, were slightly off balance, or made an error in perception. The great thing about misstep is that it doesn’t make you sound like the most ignorant, awful, defective person in the world. You were simply a bit off the mark or misguided.  There are many instances where you could use the term misstep...
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Authentic versus Hubristic Pride

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A common discussion I get into with clients is about the nature of pride. That’s because many of them think of it as boasting and some never think about it at all. Actually, it’s a pretty versatile and topnotch emotion. Feeling proud helps decision-making and it’s a great motivator when you’re challenged by pleasure that’s not in your best interest. Clients have often argued that the pride they learned about growing up was not something to be sought after because it had a negative connotation. It involved boasting and sense of superiority over others. The pride I’m talking about is when we feel good about our achievements or the achievements of others. We’re happy with them or with ourselves and give credit where credit is due. It turns out my clients and I were both right according to Christian Jarrett, PhD, author of Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of...
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Let Pride Replace Pleasure to Get Things Done

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If you’re basing your life on doing only what you like and what feels good and avoiding what you don’t like and doesn’t feel good, you’re not going to be very happy or successful for very long. So when I hear clients say they don’t enjoy or like eating healthy foods, exercising or going to the doctor, I know that my job is to help them find some other motivation for engaging in these essential activities. The first thing I focus on is the belief that they must like something to do it. Where does that assumption come from? Is that a belief their parents had and modeled or taught them? If so, how well did it serve them then and how well does it serve them today?  My client Rebecca was one of six children whose parents were rarely there to guide her through her childhood. When she put up...
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