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On a flight during my vacation, I was reminded of the importance of our earliest attachments in shaping our lives for better or worse. A girl of four or five was sitting across the aisle from me next to her slightly older brother. Although she was securely buckled into her aisle seat, shortly after takeoff, she started squirming around, twisting to look behind her, and making mewing noises. Her brother was ignoring her and, even after the seatbelt light went off, no one came to attend to her. While I was wondering where her parents were, she gave one final mew, unbuckled her seatbelt, and raced, crying, toward the back of the plane to where I assume her parents were.
I never saw nor heard her again, but she remained on my mind, as I considered the feelings of a frightened young child. In the best of worlds at that age, when we’re alone and scared, a parent or caretaker shows up and soothes our distress. Sometimes an older sibling can do the job but, especially when we’re very young, what we most want is the security of an attentive adult.
How many of you had that feeling of absolute security growing up? Of being well cared for by someone whose primary concern (and this is why sibling care can only go so far) was your welfare? Not enough of you, I’d wager, based on my caseload and workshop participants. If you were raised without sufficient affection and timely, predictable, consistent attention, you may be suffering with food from the legacy of that deficit. If you were left in distress too often or too long, you missed out on finding comfort in other people. If you grew up not wanting to bother or burden a parent or caretaker, they gave you the wrong messages and you didn’t get what every child deserves.
This leads to two problems. One is that you may never have learned to trust people. How could you when they weren’t there for you on a steady basis? This is one reason that you may have difficulty with relationships today, including choosing people who are poor or unreliable caretakers. So you cozy up to food instead of other humans. The other problem is that as a child your nervous system may have become so out of whack, that to this day you become wildly emotionally dysregulated because no one ever taught you, by their mere presence, through modeling or soothing you, how to modulate distress. Many dysregulated eaters seek food because they hate being alone and it soothes their distress when they are.
Remember that you arrived at this point through no fault of your own. You got cheated, plain and simple, but you don’t need to remain cheated. You can learn self-soothing skills and how to trust the right people (and stay away from the wrong ones). And develop a less emotionally laden relationship with food.
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