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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You’re Only as Healthy as the Company You Keep

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I’m often amazed to hear about clients’ unhealthy friends—substance abusers, unstable people with mental or physical health problems who refuse treatment, dangerous risk-takers, perpetual victims in abusive relationships who won’t acknowledge problems or leave, and narcissists who take advantage of clients financially or emotionally or both.  Clients tell me story after story about these “friends” and come up with all kinds of reasons they keep them in their lives: feeling sorry for them, having been friends for years or since childhood, their possessing many redeeming qualities, or friends having no one to care for them. Clients accuse me of being coldhearted when I suggest that these so-called friends don’t add much to their lives and take away a lot.  I explain why it’s hard to detach from friends or at least reduce contact or closeness with them. Sometimes clients have too much compassion for them. Or they overidentify with them. Or...
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The Dilemma of Parent Care

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Years ago, between writing books on eating and building my therapy practice, I tried my hand at writing novels and screenplays. Although none were published or produced, I see the story line of one script play out over and over in my clinical work: that of adult children taking care of parents who abused or neglected them in childhood. Many of these clients don’t even realize the dilemma such a difficult situation presents to them. Here's what I’m talking about. In my screenplay an insecure, introverted 20-something, raised by her widowed father who sexually abused her, ends up taking care of him when he develops Alzheimer’s. She’s never processed the rage she feels at him nor her fierce yearning for an apology for the unspeakable harm he did her. In fact, part of her reason for taking care of him is to get the love and caring he failed to give...
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Seeing is Believing

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I love this quote by poet and author Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Why is that so hard for so many people to do? It seems like a simple enough concept. Here are examples of what I mean. Decades ago, I had a boss who bent over backwards to be nice to some staff and was dismissive and sarcastic to others. Naturally, the staff was split in two about how we felt about him. I was one of the people he was always nice and respectful to, but I would cringe when he tore into other staff during staff meetings and other functions.  So why was I surprised when one day he got angry at me for a perceived slight and began waging war against me? Didn’t he show me just what he was capable of by the disdain he showed to...
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Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families

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I came across a list of 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic in our local Sarasota Herald Tribune. If one or both of your parents were addicted to drugs or alcohol (or even gambling, pornography, or the internet) or suffered from mental illness, you’re likely to have some or many of these traits. Many are traits of dysregulated eaters as well.  The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic  We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process.We are frightened by angry people and any personal criticism.We either become alcoholics, marry them or both, or find another compulsive personality such as a workaholic to fulfill our abandonment needs.We live life from the viewpoint of victims, and we are attracted by that weakness in our love and friendship relationships.We have an overdeveloped sense...
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Why Parental Validation Is Essential

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Validation is another one of these subjects that I talk a great deal about with clients. It’s so crucial to healthy emotional development that I can’t believe I’ve never directly blogged about it. The topic came up when I was taking with a client about her having near constant extreme self-doubt. If you’re someone who’s always looking for the right answer and frequently engages in second-guessing, you probably suffer from a lack of childhood validation, “the recognition and acceptance of another person's thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable.” Here's how the issue came up with Ming, the above-mentioned client. She said that no matter how often her boyfriend told her she was beautiful (and she is!), she never felt it. This insecurity had led to her having one quick affair and living with a constant, nagging feeling that she wasn’t attractive enough. She also admitted to being somewhat over-zealous with...
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Why It’s So Hard to Give Up Wanting Parental Love

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If you’re hoping to win your parents love and attention or change them in any way, you are not alone. One week not so long ago, I had intense conversations with five (adult) clients on this subject when they were upset by feeling rejected, abandoned, shamed, invalidated, or simply dismissed by a parent. The best news I could give them was that all 7.9 billion people on the planet, along with all our human predecessors, have struggled, to greater or lesser extent, with this very same issue, including yours truly. Although we may seek love and approval from others, yearning for it from parents is in a class by itself. We will frequently turn ourselves inside out to get a scrap of praise or avoid a tongue-lashing, far more so than we do with folks who aren’t our parents. This is true whether we live next door to them or across...
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Yes, You’re Allowed to Disappoint Other People

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Many people have the odd belief that they should never disappoint others. The belief runs rampant in the eating disorders community. While it’s clear to me how this irrational belief came about, the concept of it being okay to disappoint others often comes as a surprise to clients. If you’re an adult walking around the planet trying not to disappoint people, finding out that you no longer need to think this way may shock you too. Where else did you learn that disappointment is a no no but in childhood. Here’s an example. Say, you’re an amazing artist and an outstanding soccer player but not so great in math which disappoints your dad who hoped you’d grow up to become an accountant like him. He lets you know frequently that he’s sad/upset/disappointed and, as a child, this makes you feel terrible because you love Dad and feel like the cause of...
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How We Learn to Trust Others

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Do you trust people in general or are you wary that others won’t have your best interest at heart? Do you believe the world is a caring place or do you see it as fraught with dangers so that you need to remain on guard? Simplified, is the world safe or scary? A more relevant question may be whether you recognize that your view isn’t a matter of fact or fiction but simply what you learned from experience growing up. How else can we explain that Holocaust survivors still believe in the human capacity to be and do good or that some people will go to their graves believing that a dark cloud hangs over them although they’ve lived reasonably normal, uneventful lives?  Whether you view people as trustworthy or not and the world as safe or scary depends on what your family of origin was like. Here are some questions...
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The Good Enough Parent

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Those of you who read my blogs know that I’m all about “good enough.” No one needs to strive for perfection in parenting. Parents can be imperfect and still do a great job with their kids. In fact, The Good Enough Parent Is the Best Parent. The term “good enough mother” was coined by British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott. Psychologist, scholar, public intellectual and author Bruno Bettelheim later expanded the concept to “good enough parents.” Here are some tips:  Don’t strive to be a perfect  parent or expect perfection from your children. Cut yourself and others slack and have compassion for yourself and others. Mistakes and failures are learning experiences, not character defects or self-worth arbiters. Respect your children and try to understand them for who they are. Good enough parents “see their children as complete human beings right now, and their job as that of getting to know those...
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Watch Out for These People

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Several times a week I have discussions with clients about being mistreated by others. This is because not everyone is as mentally healthy or as nice you are. If you often end up being mistreated by people, my guess is that you’re hanging with friends or family who are emotionally greedy or needy or both. Here’s an example of what I mean. Shawna runs herself ragged taking care of others who rarely extend themselves for her. Her grandmother calls her several times a week to complain about her life and many are the days that Shawna spends her lunch hour as a paralegal running errands for her. Then there’s Shawna’s car-less best friend who is constantly begging her to take her places. She frequently asks to borrow Shawna’s car or crash at her apartment when she has a row with her boyfriend. Shawna is the go-to person with family and friends...
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How Object Relations Theory Will Help You

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I often use object relations theory to help clients better interact with narcissistic people, especially their parents or bosses. It’s a complicated theory and I focus on one particular concept that fosters improved understanding of how others operate. The theory describes the internalized view we have of others: do we see and treat them as if they have their own needs and wants that may be different from ours or do we perceive them as objects (a part of us) to be used for our own gratification. Stop a minute and think about people you know and how you feel around them. If you feel seen, heard and valued by someone, they probably have an internalized view of you as a unique, separate person from themselves (good object relations). However, if you feel unseen, unheard and devalued, they probably objectify you (poor object relations). Here's an example. I had a client...
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Why Keep Asking Why People Won’t Change?

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Why questions can be helpful in understanding yourself and others. “Why do I think I need to eat watching TV?” and “Honey, why don’t you like historical novels?” are fine questions which will likely give you fruitful information But some “why” questions aren’t meant to seek new information and have a purpose which you’re probably not aware of.  “Why won’t they change?” may be the most frequent question I’m asked. What drives it is usually not avid curiosity and it may not even be a quest for new information. When you ask, “Why hasn’t he changed when I’ve asked him a million times not to talk about my weight?” or “Why hasn’t she changed when I’ve begged her not to hurl questions at me the minute I walk in the door from work?” what you really might be wanting to know is: am I worth someone doing things differently, don’t they...
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Time to Learn How to Detach

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Most clients think of detaching from others as breaking off a relationship or not caring about another person, but neither represents true emotional detachment which is another sort of animal. When we detach, we may or may not still care about the person, spend time with or live near them, or continue contact.  Detachment is a mental/emotional state of indifference and emotional disconnection. Have you ever read a book or watched a film in which you were mildly engaged with a character but didn’t greatly care about what happened to them? When we detach, we feel as if we’re seeing someone from a distance. Detachment is a neutral space where you don’t feel personally connected to someone’s actions or let them disturb you. Here's an example. My client Charles, 34, has a highly narcissistic father who expects complete allegiance and wants to control his life. Living within a few miles of...
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Do You Expect People to Read Your Mind?

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Most of us think of mind readers as entertainers who insist they know what you’re thinking and go to great lengths to make you think so. That is not the kind of mind reader I’m writing about here. This blog is about a family dynamic in which members are supposed to be able to read each other’s minds and are chastised for not doing so. For instance, my client Jay-Lynn’s mother asked her to pick up a gift for her own father’s birthday. “You know the kinds of books he likes, sports and stuff,” her mother told her. Jay-Lynn wasn’t sure exactly what to get him, but she squeezed out some time from her busy schedule to pop into Barnes and Noble to search for something that seemed appropriate. She was excited when she arrived home to show her mother her purchase. When she held up the book her mother said,...
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How to Be Like and Unlike Your Parents

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I had two sessions in a row in which clients were talking about how they in no way wished to be like their mothers. Neither one had to worry in the least that they’d become like them, yet each had this deep-seated terror that it might happen. Let me explain how they came to this kind of faulty thinking and how we fixed it to be more reality-based. If parents take good care of us, we yearn to be like them and internalize their goodness. We model ourselves after them and learn by imitating what they do and say. If parents abuse or neglect us, we may vow early on that when we grow up, we’ll be nothing like them. In fact, we swear we’ll do our darndest to be the opposite of them because being like them would mean doing to others the awful things they did to us. One...
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Why We’re Afraid to Hurt Other People’s Feelings

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A major problem for many dysregulated eaters is stressing themselves out to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. They try too hard or do too much, over-focus on others’ needs and under-focus on their own—and end up feeling angry and resentful. I’ve blogged before on why and when it’s okay and not okay to hurt people. This blog is to explain the reasons it’s so difficult for some of you to cause others pain. The first reason is that we recall how hurt we felt as children, forgetting that children and adults have very different nervous systems and abilities to regulate and cope with emotions. As children, our frontal lobes (used for clear thinking and problem-solving) are still developing and we cope poorly with hurt feelings because we lack the physiological components to do a better job. We can’t think rationally and put what’s happening to us into a larger, correct context. Although...
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Asking the Wrong Question in Abusive Relationships

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What do you think is the most common and persistent question clients ask me about their abusive relationships? And what’s the most unhelpful question they could ask themselves? The answer is the same question: “Why is my abuser doing this to me?” If this question doesn’t initially strike you as off-base, take a moment to consider why that might be. Unless you’re someone’s therapist, the problem isn’t why someone does something hurtful to another person. It’s why someone who’s frequently hurt by another person puts up with abusive behavior and continues the relationship! Here’s an example. I have a client who’s adult sister is always causing trouble in the family. My client’s mother was alcoholic when she and her sister were growing up and is sober now. However, she’s still narcissistic and critical. My client’s sister and her mother have constant friction. And when they do, the sister blames my client...
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The Stress of Estrangement

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One of the many stressors that can lead to dysregulated eating is loneliness due to estrangement from family members—when adults disconnect from relatives or families disconnect from them. This kind of problem can decrease a sense of belonging and, too often, lead to emotional eating.  Family estrangement: Why rifts happen and how to cope with them explains the causes of alienation, why it has increased over time, and what to do if it happens to you. The article’s author, Jen Rose Smith, maintains that alienation is far more common than it used to be for several reasons. When abuse is involved, rather than turning the other cheek, more and more abusees are comfortable letting go of toxic relationships, a view reinforced by American culture’s individualistic, rather than family, orientation. Although I’ve known a few people over the years whose parents shunned them for their life choices, it’s more common for me...
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What Love Is and Isn’t

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Love is one of the mysteries of the ages. It’s a term bandied about so much that most of us have lost sight of what it means and, more important, what it doesn’t mean. We also assume that when a person says they love us, their actions will automatically align with this message. Unless we fully understand what love means, we’re bound to fall into trouble in our interpersonal relationships.  To consider its meaning, let’s go back to 1956 and the publication of psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s seminal work, The Art of Loving (which I highly recommend reading). He says that “What matters is that we know what kind of union we are talking about when we speak of love. Do we refer to love as the mature answer to the problem of existence, or do we speak of those immature forms of love which may be called symbiotic union?”  “Infantile love...
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How to Know Whom You Can Trust

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It’s not surprising that dysregulated eaters, who often have little self-trust, also have difficulty with knowing whether or not to trust others. Knowing who to trust is a learned ability, a skill. One way to assess trust is through verification. Another is by recognizing what people do when they feel guilty. I had a client when I worked at a Boston methadone clinic who stored his stash of heroin under certain railroad tracks, convinced that no one would ever catch him burying or retrieving it. When I probed for fear or a sense of guilt if he got caught, he insisted he’d be fine, that his clever plan would work. Fast forward to when he finally got arrested at those very same tracks digging up his stash and was frantic with guilt when I visited him in jail. He kept repeating how stupid he’d been and how guilty he felt that...
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