Learning to Contain and Comfort Yourself
During a telephone therapy session, a client expressed frustration about what to do about his binges. He knew he needed to do something to stop them, but was at a loss regarding exactly what was needed. My response took him back to what we often require in childhood to thwart unwanted and wanton impulses: to be contained and comforted. We really do need both; either one is not quite enough.
The goal of containing an impulse is to not let it move from thought or intention into out-in-the-real-world behavior. When driving, I might want to do something nasty to the driver of a car that has just cut me off, but I refrain. I contain or hold back the impulse because I know it is not in my best interest to convert my wish into action for good reasons. We learn containment in childhood when adults do it for us—they yank us out of the way a speeding bicycle, elbow us away from a hot stove, put their arms around us when we’re running wildly around the supermarket, or pick us up when we are pestering the dog. As we get older, we hopefully move from being physically to verbally contained, so that we no longer need to be held or picked up, merely told firmly to stop. As we mature, we gain in ability to contain ourselves and no longer need adults to do it.
A similar process goes on with comfort. We are rocked, kissed, stroked, hugged, and picked up when we need emotional soothing. Mere contact alone—holding Mom or Dad’s hand—sometimes does the trick because it tells us someone is there for us and reassures us that we are not alone. Again, as we get older, words often replace touch. We are soothed by hearing that it’s okay to feel as we do, that things will get better, that we are loved in spite of whatever we did wrong. Eventually, in the best of worlds, we internalize the words and phrases that comfort us along with the soothing that comes from hearing a parent’s voice saying them.
If we had parents who were unable to contain their impulses or comfort themselves, they may not have been able to do it for us or may not have done a great job of it. We may have come into adulthood without the skills of containment and comforting because no one ever taught them to us. Instead, we do whatever works—food abuse. The next time you’re upset and afraid of binge-eating, think about what would help contain the impulse and what would comfort your distress. Think about each set of skills individually but use them in tandem. By containing and comforting yourself, you have a good shot at avoiding unwanted eating and improving self-care. With practice, you will find that they work far better than abusing food.