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Feeling Safe and Comforted


Many people say they eat to feel comforted and can track that path to the refrigerator right back to childhood. I certainly can. At first, I sought food when I was unhappy and after a while it just became a habit and a way to not feel uncomfortable feelings.

In the best of situations growing up, we feel safe most of the time in the world at large and all the time with our families. They make us feel secure through being predictable and non-threatening, by validating our feelings and encouraging us to express them (all of them), and by keeping us from harm. Growing up feeling safe includes getting emotional and physical comfort when we’re distressed. If we fall down and scrape a knee, we get a band-aid and a hug and maybe a reminder to not run too fast. If we didn’t make the soccer team, we get empathy for our disappointment and a peptalk about all the other things we do well.

In the worst of worlds growing up, we never or rarely feel safe. Unsure of how family members will react to us or each other, we’re constantly on guard. Some days they’re sweet as candy and other days they brush us or off scream at us for no reason. Though they give us occasional comfort, we can’t count on it. We learn to be wary and our hope for comfort is tinged with fear it won’t be coming—and something hurtful may replace it.

No wonder helpless, dependent children turn to food. The refrigerator or kitchen cupboards are their safe spaces. My haven was in my bedroom closet eating things I’d  “stolen” from the kitchen to eat in secret. Somehow that food did give me comfort. It didn’t have moods and never failed to soothe or uplift me. It gave me a cozy, warm feeling inside. It made me feel okay. Don’t get me wrong: I had a relatively good childhood as an only child with lots of attention, advantages, and creature comforts. But without as much emotional comfort as I wanted and needed.

There are two ways to grow out of your childhood habit of seeking comfort through food. The first is to learn to give it to yourself. To develop empathy and compassion for yourself when you’re hurting. And I mean laying it on thick, not begrudgingly. As you comfort yourself, you become a safe harbor through your words and actions.

The second way is to find people you can trust to comfort you, who listen and offer kindness and compassion without you having to ask for it, and who sympathize with your pain. Can you imagine people as comfort? Many dysregulated eaters can’t and are missing an essential part of life that’s all sweetness without any calories.