Reimaging Your Childhood
A big psychological shift that dysregulated eaters can shoot for is to understand that, no matter how they coped with family dysfunction in childhood (and how maladaptive these behaviors are now), no child could have done a better job. A different job, maybe, but not a better one. When you understand that you couldn’t have done anything differently than what you did, you’ll stop berating and shaming yourself and start changing your coping mechanisms in the present.
Say you were the oldest child of five children born into a financially distressed family. Your physically abusive father was hardly ever in the picture—you all were better off that way—and your narcissistic mother could barely take care of herself, never mind kids. Mom brooded, angered easily, and mostly wanted to go out and party, leaving pre-adolescent you in charge of your younger siblings. You took your responsibility very seriously and did the best you could to take care of them, but too young for the job, you were overwhelmed by your adult responsibilities. The one thing that brought you pleasure and comforted you was food, so you ate to feel better.
What else could you have done? If you sassed your mother, she either hit or screamed at you or gave you some odious task like begging the neighbors for food or money. If you failed at taking care of her brood, you got shamed. To survive, you were a good child. Due to justifiable anger, your siblings who took a more rebellious path tried to get Mom’s attention by using drugs or alcohol which remained lifelong problems. Your siblings who withdrew from interaction developed severe mental health problems, including suicidality. You grew into the healthiest child, then adult, in the family and, unsurprisingly, took on the job of caring for Mom when she couldn’t care for herself. Through it all, you continued to eat food you weren’t hungry for to comfort yourself.
If you were this person, instead of walking around now feeling like a failure, you could be feeling like a hero. You saved your siblings from whatever fate would have befallen them without you. You did the best you could. Would your brother or sister really have managed better? Or some imaginary child who would have had all the right answers? If your mother couldn’t handle taking care of five young ‘uns, how could a mere child?
As to your eating behavior being adaptive in childhood and maladaptive in now, how many choices for pleasure did you have as a child? It made sense that you would have turned to food to get you through each day. Now you can turn to other self-care approaches you didn’t have then. Now you can take care of yourself rather than others.