If painful memories trigger you turning to food for comfort, recognize that your memory of an event is a recording of how you perceived it at whatever age it occurred—4, 11, 15. The memory is your immature brain’s interpretation or story of and feelings about the event at the time. The mature brain, which develops in the late 20s, provides a more realistic and valid explanation of human nature and mental health and reinterprets painful events more rationally and accurately. Here are examples of childhood events and their “immature child” and “mature adult” interpretations, meanings and emotions.
- You’re 7 years old and Dad has promised to take you to the circus—again. You’ve
rarely seen him since your parents’ divorce, begged him for weeks to get circus tickets, and are excited about the outing even though Dad didn’t want to go and yelled at you to stop nagging him it. Driving to pick you up, Dad gets into a car accident because he’s been drinking and suffers internal injuries.
- Your childhood interpretation is that the accident was your fault because if you
hadn’t begged Dad to take you to the circus, it wouldn’t have happened. The meaning you made of the event was that bad things happen when you express your desires, so you vowed to stop expressing them. The emotions you experienced were self-blame, guilt, and hypervigilance about letting your needs show.
- Your adult interpretation is that Dad has serious problems, including alcohol abuse
and low frustration tolerance and was an unreliable parent who put his needs before yours. The true meaning of the event is that the accident was his fault and had nothing to do with you, your desire to connect to him as a child was healthy and normal, and you got short-changed in the paternal department. Emotionally, placing responsibility for his actions on Dad, you feel no guilt about the accident although you feel badly that it happened. If Dad ever stops drinking, you hope that you can have a relationship with him, but you’re not holding your breath.
- You’re 11 years old and Stepdad crawls into bed with you often to have sex. At
times it feels okay to cuddle, but mostly it hurts. You tell him to stop touching you, but he explains that this is how he expresses his love for you. You don’t tell Mom because she’s depressed from taking care of your baby sister and two stepsiblings. Eventually, you tell a friend about Stepdad’s visits and, though you swear her to secrecy, she informs her mother who calls your mother. Mom says you’re a liar, slaps your face, and refuses to confront your stepfather, so his night visits continue for two more years.
- Your childhood interpretation is that there was something wrong with you not
enjoying your Stepdad touching you and that he was doing nothing wrong. The meaning you made of the event was that Stepdad wouldn’t love you if you didn’t let him touch you and that your mother didn’t care what happened to you. The emotions you experienced were anxiety, despair, hopelessness, and devaluation.
- Your adult interpretation is that Mom and Stepdad had serious mental health
problems and marital issues. He was a pedophile who took advantage of you and told you he loved you to get what he wanted. Depressed and overwhelmed, Mom denied the molestation and, fearing Stepdad would leave her, blamed you so as not to be angry at him. The meaning of what occurred is now clear: you were a victim of two disturbed people who happened to be taking care of you. You now know that you did the best you could to get help and that there are lots of people in the world who will be kind and respectful to you. As to emotions, when you recall the sexual abuse, you feel emotionally detached from the incident and from to Mom and Stepdad.
- You’re 14 years old and Mom has closely monitored your food intake since forever.
Struggling with overeating, her own weight goes up and down. She insists that you eat only nutritious foods and not too much of them. Every morning she makes you step on the scale to record your weight. When the number goes down, she smiles and hugs you. When it goes up, she makes a face and ignores you for the rest of the day. You try to follow her diet yet can’t help but sneak sweets and treats and binge-eat. Hence, your weight keeps climbing and Mom’s disapproval of you keeps growing.
- Your childhood interpretation is that it’s bad to be fat. The meaning you make of
these ongoing events is that you were bad for not eating what Mom wanted you to eat and for wanting sweets and treats. You thought there was something defective and unfixable about you for not being able to follow Mom’s food plan, and that she and others wouldn’t love you unless you were thin. The emotions you experienced were guilt, anxiety, remorse, frustration, unlovability, and self-hate at your undisciplined self for not being able to stick to a diet.
- Your adult interpretation is that Mom was obsessed with her and your eating and
size. She focused her anxiety on you because her own eating was out of control and you were something she could control. She was likely narcissistic and couldn’t see or didn’t care that she was hurting you because she viewed you as a reflection of herself. She was more concerned with how you looked than with how you were hurting. The true meaning of her obsession is that this was her problem and not yours. You don’t feel like a failure because you’re not thin, nor do you want to rebel against her healthy eating philosophy and binge eat. You trust that your body will find its own comfortable weight. Recognizing that you were a victim in childhood, you feel relaxed around food and enjoy eating according to appetite. Emotionally, you ignore Mom’s craziness around food and are focusing more on the things that you and she agree on. (see part 2, upcoming)