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When Parents Want More Than Children Can Give

Many parents are not emotionally healthy enough to have children but do anyway, which puts their progeny at serious disadvantage. If you are one of those children whose parents were not emotionally mature when they raised you (and may still not be!), you may have low self-esteem because you couldn’t meet your parents’ excessive, irrational needs—and therefore turned to food mindlessly or compulsively for comfort. You may still feel you don’t measure up today and food seek for the wrong reasons.

Here’s what happens. Some parents yearn for your love or attention; what they are actually looking for is to be mothered by you. But you’re only three or seven or twelve and require and deserve mothering yourself. Or they feel insecure but may not show it and look to you to be a reflection of all that is good or perfect so they can feel like stellar parents. Or their self-esteem is so low, they need to keep you from outshining them.

Here’s a passage from Khaled Hosseni’s And the Mountains Echoed (page 221) of a woman speaking to her mother in absentia, which describes what I’m talking about. “What was I, Maman? What was I supposed to be? A seed of hope? A ticket purchased to ferry you from the dark? A patch for that hole you carried in your heart? If so, then I wasn’t enough, I wasn’t nearly enough. I was no balm to your pain, only another dead end, another burden, and you must have seen that early on. You must have realized it. But what could you do? You couldn’t go down to the pawnshop and sell me.”

Adulthood is a time to view your parents objectively, not as you wish or wished them to be. Were/are they like children in adult bodies, always longing for and seeking love, appreciation, praise, attention, glory, or success? If so, it’s likely that they looked to you, their child (among others), to give them these things when they should have been giving them to you. Mustering detachment, recognize that you couldn’t conceivably give them what they wanted and needed. If they missed that boat in childhood, their job in adulthood was to figure out other ways to feel good about themselves, not to use their children to try to make that happen. Continuing with the boat analogy, their job was to launch you into the world and help you sail off into the sunset.

But—and it’s a most important but—now that you’re an adult, you can disregard your parents’ inappropriate emotional needs without compromising yourself, as well as find people who are totally unlike them and will empathize with you and joyfully take care of you. And when your emotional needs are better met, you’ll reduce your mindless eating.