My friend, Jane, has a very high pressure job, plus she travels a lot. On a Friday morning recently, she arose feeling stressed and anxious about her weekend trip out-of-town. When she got to work, she had a conversation with one of her co-workers that did not go well. Then, when she got to the airport, she discovered that her plane was delayed for many hours. Jane had a traumatic childhood and has struggled with overeating for much of her life. So what did she do to soothe her anxiety and stress? She ate. Then she got angry and berated herself the entire weekend.
Upon her return, Jane called me to tell me about her experience. She said she was so “stretched” by the time she got to the airport that the delay took her to this place of feeling trapped and all alone. What she did was what we all have been conditioned to do when we feel vulnerable – get the hell out of dodge. In other words, get as far away from our immediate experience as we can. For Jane, her “getting out of dodge” was overeating. I explained to her that we all have a finely-crafted survival system that includes our capacity to numb ourselves with our compulsions (the Eater, the Shopper, the Drinker, the Interneter, etc.). Our compulsions are like a lumbering beast with an IQ of 55 that is on automatic pilot. This beast has been conditioned to believe that it is not okay to experience what we are experiencing, especially when it is painful. So if anything uncomfortable, scary or overwhelming shows up inside of us, our automatic reaction is to numb ourselves with our favorite compulsion.
So much of the journey back to a trust-filled connection with ourselves and with Life is discovering that as long as we run away from uncomfortable feelings, they will run after us. But if we discover how to be with them, they become a doorway back into the ease and peace we long for. During our conversation, I invited Jane to go back to that night in the airport and replay the series of events, but this time I encouraged her to thank “The Eater” for taking care of the part that feels so trapped and all alone. As she did this, she let go of her endless war with her compulsion and it totally shifted her perspective. Her tears flowed as she said out loud, “Please forgive me for how much I have hated you, Dear Eater, and thank you for all the times you have tried to take care of me.” As her Eater felt respected, she was able to then feel the place in her body where the trapped and overwhelmed part of her lives, the part that her Eater was trying to take care of. She said to it, “I see you. I see how scared you are. I am here with you now.” In this moment, Jane discovered she could take care of the scared and trapped feelings inside rather than numbing her pain with food, like she has done for so long.
I know a lot about how to care for the parts of ourselves that our compulsions have been trying to take care of. After years of binging and dieting, I gained 97 pounds in one year when I was in my early twenties. After more years of diets, fasts and self-hate, I finally figured out that in the long run control doesn’t work with compulsions. Rather than trying to control my Eater, I became curious about it and even listened to it. And rather than being the enemy, it became my teacher on this path out of the world of struggle.
Because I have created a relationship with my Eater, it is quiet most of the time now. But it still shows up in little ways when I am experiencing a big challenge in my life. I oftentimes say, “I know you are trying to take care of me. Thank you for all you have done for me.” When I recognize and acknowledge my Eater with kindness and compassion, she usually calms down. Since this year has been so full of challenges, sometimes I eat more than one piece of chocolate. But I don’t get caught in judgment. I ask the Eater to show me, when she is ready, what she is trying to take care of. And in Life’s time and way, the answer appears. So each time I turn to food to take care of myself, I learn from my compulsion.
Healing your compulsion is not about changing or fixing anything. You think you can fix your Eater if you finally go on a diet of all diets, or go to the gym every day, or perhaps go on a detox cleanse (and then go on a diet and go to the gym). But, those “fixes” are only temporary. Lasting healing happens when you can say hello to your Eater (or whatever compulsion is showing up at the moment), give it the respect and compassion that it longs for, and then give your vulnerabilities the love you did not get as a child. As you discover the safety and the healing of turning toward yourself rather than away through your compulsions, you open to an amazing truth: your compulsions are here to heal you to your core!