Vulnerability is a universal feeling, one to which we may attribute different meanings, and the meaning you make of this emotion will determine what you do with it.

Associated words to feeling vulnerable, physically or emotionally, are weak, small, insignificant, in danger, in trouble, susceptible, defenseless, or exposed. Each word indicates being at risk for harm due to lack of power. That’s because when we first felt vulnerability, in infancy, we did lack power to impact our lives. Our current take on vulnerability depends in large part on how our vulnerability was treated in childhood.

If we couldn’t fight back when we were physically abused by parents or witnessed one parent abusing the other or our siblings, we felt a surge of helplessness and fear. If we couldn’t talk back to defend ourselves when we were emotionally abused, we also felt frightened and powerless. Both of these automatic, natural reactions generated a rush of adrenalin, accompanied by fear and anger at our defenselessness. To compensate, what we craved in these moments was power. Power made us feel less vulnerable. Maybe we daydreamed of being more powerful so that we wouldn’t have to feel vulnerable or looked for ways to use the small bits of power we had to strike back.

Fast forward to our adult lives. We no longer have valid reasons to feel emotionally vulnerable because we’re now independent. We’re adults now: people hurt our feelings and we hold the power to hurt them back. But what about that rush of adrenaline that might still get triggered? If we respond effectively to mistreatment, our bodies reregulate. If we don’t, adrenalin may continue to prod us to act—to gain power in order to protect ourselves against a perceived threat. What do disregulated eaters often do to take action? They eat, which makes them feel powerful because they’re taking action in order to feel less weak. They eat, the adrenalin rush subsides, and they feel better.

The way off this path is to recognize when you feel vulnerable and make choices for true empowerment. That may mean taking the high road and saying nothing even when someone is hurtful. Or speaking up for yourself. Or telling other people what happened to you to get validation and reregulate. Remind yourself that you may feel vulnerable but no longer really are. As an adult, you have power to care for yourself and stay (mostly) emotionally and physically safe. You are no longer dependent and helpless. Ironically, by eating to ward off vulnerability, you will likely experience more helplessness, powerlessness, and lack of control, exactly what you don’t want to feel.