The Psychology of Eating Podcast Episode #35: Fear of Being Hungry
Holly has a fascinating challenge with food: she’s afraid to be hungry and afraid that there won’t be enough to eat. She hoards food in the fridge, and she finds herself worrying that she’ll go hungry even though she can well afford what she needs. Holly knows she could be coming from a much better place, but doesn’t quite know how to get there. Tune in to this podcast episode as Marc David, Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating helps Holly discover the brilliant reason behind her fear of being hungry, and how she can use this challenge to make herself a more empowered woman.
Below is a transcript of this podcast episode:
Marc: Welcome, everybody. I’m Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. Here we are in the Psychology of Eating podcast. I’m with Holly today. Welcome, Holly.
Holly: Thank you! Glad to be here.
Marc: Yeah, me, too! I’m glad we’re doing this.
Holly: Yeah! Me, too!
Marc: Let me say a few words to viewers and listeners who are first-timers in this podcast. Holly and I are going to do a session together. And normally this is the kind of work that we might do over four, five, six, seven months, if not more time. And we’re going to try to take half a year worth of sessions and condense it into one session so we can hit the bull’s-eye as best we can and get where we want to go and hopefully give some good insights and good feedback in whatever concern you have.
So the idea is for you to if not have a breakthrough, at least have some mini breakthroughs, at least have some openings and have a clearer path before you. So why don’t you share with me, Holly, if you could wave your magic wand and get whatever you wanted to get from our time together right now, what would that be?
Holly: Oh, gosh. I’m going to go big. If I went small, I would say direction, direction on next steps. But really it’s to just be really comfortable around hunger.
Marc: Mmm hmm, to be comfortable around hunger. So what does uncomfortable around hungry look like? Because I’m going to assume that’s the challenge, you’re not comfortable with hunger. What does that mean for you?
Holly: Uncomfortable or discomfort around hunger, my whole world just contracts like I can’t see beyond the end of my nose. I can’t get out of my head. I lack that perspective to say that it’s okay. Rational thought just kind of disappears from my mind entirely.
Marc: So when you get hungry, what might be some of the things that you say to yourself?
Holly: Other than, “I’m hungry?”
Holly: Worrying about where I’m going to go, how am I going to resolve this? That’s a good question. The feeling overwhelming is anxiety. And just the hunger takes over my thinking. It’s like I can’t put a whole sentence together. I think that’s why I’m struggling to tell you what I’m thinking what happens.
Marc: Okay. So we’re on the right track here. So when you get hungry, there’s anxiety that comes up. And it sort of gets you into, “Oh, my goodness. I have this anxious feeling.” And you almost get it sounds like a little nonverbal. You don’t have a lot of words.
Holly: Yes. I would agree with that.
Marc: Okay. So does this happen at every meal, every snack?
Holly: No. No. As a result of this, I’ve become quite the planner. So really spending a lot of time anticipating. So when this does happen is when it’s unexpected. So a change in plans, any kind of delay, it’s just that lack of fluidity. Instead of going, “Okay. All right. I’m going to be all right in this moment. And let’s take stock, take inventory”—this is again coming back to your magic wand—I’d love to be able to go, “Okay, phew. Let’s take a good look around and see how things are really,” like have that bigger perspective. But instead I’m in that moment of like, “Oh, my gosh. I’m so hungry. What am I going to do? Should I go there? Should I go there?” It’s like all these decisions. I’m just completely frozen and can’t even make a decision.
Marc: How often does this happen?
Holly: At least once a week.
Marc: At least once a week. And can you give me an example of when that happened recently? What did it look like? What’s the story?
Holly: Okay. So I tend to have a very busy work schedule. My time is booked up. And I make sure that I can get to my kind of self-care regime, which is getting to the gym. I have to travel a little distance. I rely on public transit for that. And there was a significant delay.
So I was actually stuck on the train for an hour, and of course, wasn’t planning this and started to have this internal panic attack of, “How this is going to throw off my schedule? The feeding window is closing. How uncomfortable will I be when I’m in the gym because I’ll start to really fill hungry? What will I do afterwards? What does the rest that they look like?” It just cascades from there.
Marc: Okay. I think I’m getting it. How long has this been a challenge for you?
Holly: I think I’ve really been aware of it in the last three to four years. But I’ve had anxiety around hunger and feeling hunger for at least twenty years.
Marc: What do you attribute that to? When you start to go into your imagining, “Well, I think I do that because…”
Holly: I’ve thought about this a lot, tried to look for patterns and some kind of cause. I think it’s a lot more complex than just this. But this is a pretty significant event. When I moved to the city twenty years ago for school, I had moved away from home. My parents graciously paid for my lodging. So they pay for my accommodations my first year of school.
I had a significant student loan. And I basically didn’t have enough money to pay for food. And I was also on my own for the first time. I had two part-time jobs. And I relied on the food bank. I’m not ashamed to admit it now because I know a lot of other people who struggle with that, the lack of dignity of having to use social services like that.
And in the moment when I think about it, you just had to do what you had to do. So I’m talking like things like eating at The Dollar Store. I remember meals of pasta with margarine on top for sauce. And I can even stand the smell of those things. Canned things, lots of processed food. I felt like fresh food was completely out of reach. So I didn’t even think about it so much. Vegetarian, not by choice.
And then when I finally finished school and started my career, I noticed that I was catching up on all the eating I’d missed out, so really indulging and eating rich, creamy, savory, all the food I could get, not healthy. Pub food, pizzas, just really indulging, really trying to compensate for all that lost time.
And as I got older and met my boyfriend who is now my husband, who has a very calm, cool relationship with food, I notice the stark contrasts between my anxiety around food and his lack of anxiety around food. He really pointed out to me that there’s other things you can eat and treat yourself instead of going to the pub and eating French fries and all kinds of other beige food. So he really branched out my knowledge of fresh food and cooking. I wasn’t cooking at all. And then we started to experiment with food because I started to realize that I wasn’t feeling very good health-wise.
But this pervasive anxiety remains where a few years ago, my husband pointed out we have a chest freezer in the basement. And it’s full to the top with food. We have shelves in our kitchen. And they’re overflowing with cans and packages of stuff. All healthy, but a lot. It looks the store. And we have a small fridge in the basement that was left behind by the previous owners. It’s full of food. The fridge up here in the kitchen, it’s full of food. The freezer in the kitchen, it’s overflowing. There’s so much food in this house, it doesn’t make sense that I have this anxiety around it. I am well prepared. So that’s where I feel stuck.
Marc: Sure. So if you were unstuck then—and let me just make sure I know where you want to go here—so unstuck would mean that you would just not worry about hunger? You wouldn’t have to store food? What would freedom look like here?
Holly: Yeah. Just trusting that my planning and prep…I guess finding a healthy balance with the planning and prep. I feel like I’m spending a lot of time there and often over plan because I’m anticipating bad scenarios that don’t happen. And, yeah, just being comfortable going, “Yeah, I’m hungry,” and just go into the kitchen and putting something together and not a lot of effort.
Marc: Got it. Got it. Got it. Just let me say for your purposes and anybody else listening and tuning and right now, I like to bounce around and ask a bunch of questions. But there’s a little bit of a method to the madness here. And we’ll soon put things together. Your job, your career, can you describe that in a sentence or less?
Holly: [Laughs] I’m health coach!
Marc: All right! How perfect.
Holly: Yes. I work with a whole bunch of women and help them get through their challenges. I’m also a certified Eating Psychology Coach. So obviously that’s what attracted me to your course is that I want to understand what’s going on with me, and then of course help others.
Marc: So how long have you been married?
Holly: Eleven-and-a-half years.
Marc: Do you have kids?
Marc: Do you plan on it?
Holly: Not sure.
Marc: And the not sure, what’s the not sure piece? Say a few more words about that.
Holly: I don’t feel pulled to have kids. I’m not adverse to having kids.
Marc: How about your husband?
Holly: He’s told me the same. I’ll take his word for it.
Marc: Okay. I’m just interested about this topic for a moment. I don’t want to leave it. When I asked you, you had an interesting reaction. It was that reaction. You kind of smiled and lit up when I asked you. And it’s a funny topic for you as opposed to, “Oh, my God. I don’t know if I want to do this.” What is it that makes it such a light topic for you?
Holly: Oh, that’s a good question. I think I’m laughing because I’ve been asked since we got married. “When are you having kids? When are you having kids?” So I know we kind of stand out from the rest of our friends. But at the same time I also know married couples or friends that don’t have children.
It’s so personal. You have to be careful when you ask that question of, “Why don’t you have kids?” I know you didn’t ask that question. But there are so many reasons, right? There could be health reasons. But that is not the case for me. I’m just perfectly content just the way things are. Yeah.
Marc: Great! That’s helpful. So before you started getting into this place where you went away to college, not enough money, getting help with food, and then afterwards having more money, hoarding food and managing your hunger and worrying about that, what was life like before all this? Was there a time when this was not an issue?
Holly: I would say so. But then I was also a dependent living at home. So that responsibility was put on my mother.
Marc: Sure. So before you had this piece of your relationship with food, before this is happening, were there any other experiences in life where you found yourself kind of worrying in advance or hoarding in advance? Was this kind of behavior present in any other place in your life?
Holly: Well, our basement is overflowing with stuff. There are things there. Since we moved into this house five years ago, the boxes went into the basement and got stored and haven’t really been opened, just kind of left there. So I have no idea what’s down there. I have no idea why. I can’t even recall why we packed those things up and took them, other than thinking, “We might need this one day.”
Marc: So you don’t remember, though, as a kid growing up this behavior? Did it show up any other place?
Holly: I guess it was around in my environment when I was growing up. My parents aren’t minimalists. I guess they could be now because they’ve downsized because they’re retired. But there was always, I guess, supplies, equipment, materials, whatever you want to call it. There was always something around.
And my dad is quite thrifty and ingenius in that he can kind of fashion things together, put things together out of objects that weren’t intended to be used in a certain way. And I don’t mean that in a dangerous, electrical experiment kind of way, but just being very creative.
Marc: In your coaching practice, did you notice that there’s a kind of client that tends to show up in your office consistently?
Holly: Yes! [Laughs]
Marc: Describe that person who tends to show up a lot. Describe the typical or archetypal client.
Holly: Very smart, very aware, very intelligent, especially with words and trying to figure things out. Controlling, would like to have control, using words like, “I need to get in control of this. I need to stop something. I need to start something.” More with the willpower and of the willing than it is just with the releasing and going with the flow. Definitely I see that again and again. And I am attracted to it, as well, because I’m curious to hear as if I’m watching myself and seeing it and how are they managing?
Marc: So you tend to attract yourself as a client?
Marc: It’s a good way to do business! So play with you for a moment here. Complete the sentence. “I tend to feel pretty safe when _______.”
Holly: I tend to feel pretty safe when…
Marc: Just what comes to your mind?
Holly: When I know what’s going to happen.
Marc: Okay. “I tend to feel pretty safe when I know what’s going to happen.” What else? I’m collecting answers.
Holly: When someone else is making the decisions for me.
Marc: Okay. Makes sense. “When somebody else makes the decisions for me.” What else?
Holly: I keep coming back to those two. I tend to feel pretty safe when everything’s familiar. I have familiarity. I can anticipate what’s going to happen.
Marc: Okay, So, “I feel pretty safe when things are familiar. I can predict what’s going to happen. I know what’s going to happen.”
Holly: I understand what’s going to happen.
Marc: Understand it. Yeah. You and a lot of other people, including me. When I was twenty years old—and this was really pre the computer days. Computers were just coming out. They were like the size of large rooms—I had a dream one night. And in this dream, I was given a computer printout that was coming out of this huge computer. In the old days’ computers, papers would come out folded with all this data.
And I had like this fifty-page pile of papers that was spit out of the computer that was outlining the entire rest of my life, year by year, decade by decade with all the details. And in the dream, I was reading this and going, “Oh, wow! Oh, wow! This is so cool. I can relax now. I understand everything.”
And the moment I woke up, I had this feeling of, “Oh, wow! I know exactly what’s going to happen.” And then all of a sudden I forgot everything that I read on the computer printout. And I had a miserable week after that because I thought I was given this great gift of certainty and then had it taken away. So I kind of relate. I kind of relate.
Tell me about your mom, her relationship to food, her relationship to her body.
Holly: I’m aware that she might listen to this at some point.
Marc: Hi, mom!
Holly: Hi, mom! I would say that food is definitely comforting for her. It’s definitely part of her self-soothing ritual. Again, it could have been there before and I didn’t necessarily notice it until becoming a coach, becoming aware of all this myself. So a lot of comfort eating and indulging and definitely a fear that it will be taken away. So I feel quite different in contrast. And yet at the same time I see similarities, especially the way that I used to comfort eat.
That has changed significantly for me, significantly for me, especially over the last three years. It felt like all those times that it was very uncertain that food was just a really wonderful blanket to just throw over top and muffle and do that contracting, bring my world really small and make it familiar again. I find I don’t do that as much anymore.
Marc: Putting aside this challenge for a moment, what do you want to see happen in your life? What’s a big wish, desire, goal for you in your life?
Holly: Oh, my. A big desire. It always comes back to helping people. I really enjoy connecting, bearing witness, being there, being compassionate and empathetic. It’s so important to me to be able to make those connections and help people because those are the clients that come our way with my company. So they feel like they don’t have anyone to talk to about it. So to build this community and this safe place is really important to me.
So no big desire of like, “I wish to change…” Well, you know what? I could say that. If I could wave my magic wand and say any desire, I wish to change every woman’s relationship with food to something that was much more positive, healthy, balanced, makes sense. It’s understandable, just to remove any kind of cloud of doubt and make it very clear.
Marc: So you have a desire to serve people. You have a desire to help people, especially women, have a happy, healthy—I’m putting my words on this—relationship with their body.
Holly: Mmm hmm.
Marc: Okay. And when do you tend to let go the most?
Holly: When I feel that connection.
Marc: What does letting go look like for you?
Holly: I’m fortunate that in my role that I get to host a lot of online…Our company is online. The program is delivered online, that we do our coaching program. And we have these wonderful online meetings. I really love them. So it’s a group call.
Marc: But I mean in your personal life. When do you…?
Holly: In my personal life?
Marc: What are the places where you feel it’s Holly Unplugged? Holly is letting go. Holly could care less about the structure and the flow and predicting each moment. All that stuff just falls by the wayside.
Holly: A particular situation?
Holly: I can think of one immediately. My husband’s in a band. And whenever they’re playing music, whenever they’re playing a show, I’m always up there dancing. I just kind of like go and who cares?
Marc: How does that feel?
Marc: So that feeling of let go for you happens when you’re dancing?
Holly: Mmm hmm.
Marc: It makes total sense. Yeah, me, too. Any other times in life where you have a similar feeling of, “Who cares?”
Holly: Listening to music. Exercising. I like going to the gym and really pushing my body and just seeing where all those physical limits are. Being with friends and being able to just speak frankly. Sometimes seeing friends over a nice meal.
Marc: So a couple of the places where you let go are associated with… The first two key places that you mentioned where around movement, around dance and around exercise. So there’s no planning. There is no like, “Oh, my God. I wonder what beat is going to come next?! I wonder what move I’m going to make. I have to have this all scripted and planned and choreographed.” You don’t go there?
Holly: Right. No, I do not.
Marc: Yeah, yeah. That would look pretty dumb, right? [Laughs]
Marc: So what’s the biggest pain for you when you’re in that place where you’re in the anxiety, “Oh, my God. The situation is thrown off. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to manage this hunger. Where is the food like to come from? What’s going to happen? Does this fit into my schedule?” Where’s the biggest pain there?
Holly: The physical discomfort, the physical shaking, the ganwing in the stomach, my head feeling a little fuzzy, my mood shifting significantly. It feels very physical.
Marc: So it’s the physical discomfort. How do you usually resolve that? It eventually ends.
Holly: There’s a few possible scenarios that have happened. One is someone makes the decision for me. They had me something to eat. I just grab something, which isn’t always my first pick. It’s not always the best choice. But it’s something. And there are times that I can think of where dinner was late. I’m feeling very hungry. I’m very aware of how I’m physically feeling and how distracted I’m getting by it.
But I’m able to coach myself through the moment and guide myself over to the container of nuts and dried fruit and just have a little bit and talk myself off the ledge like, “It’s going to be all right. You just need to have a little something that will take care of you for—oh, I don’t know—five minutes.” And just break it down into something small and manageable. I could probably count the number of times I’ve been successfully able to do that on my hand. It’s usually a grab and go. It feels very frantic.
Marc: How old are you?
Holly: I’m thirty-nine.
Marc: Thirty-nine. So play with me here for a moment. In those moments when you get into the little food fear that comes up, how old do you think you are in that moment? How old do you feel? If you could give yourself a certain age, how old are you?
Holly: [Sighs] Three or four years old.
Marc: Yeah, yeah. I ask that because I love the question. And let’s look at it as play, a playful question for our purposes. But I’m also looking at that question. I have a reason for it, which is in different psychological systems and approaches, we’ll hang out at certain ages in certain parts of our life.
So there are certain parts of your life, you’re a thirty-nine year old. There are certain parts in your life where you’re like sixty-five year old from the standpoint that you have a lot of wisdom. And that wisdom exists beyond your years. And it’s almost like where did it come from?
And think of people that you know. There’s places where they’re really dunces and there really like, “You are so immature.” But at the same time, there’s places whether so superior and so amazing. We have the places in life when we become teenagers. Or we become ten-year-olds. Or we become three or four-year-olds.
The belief system there, the understanding they are in developmental psychology and different psychologies and different psychotherapies is parts of us will hang out in a certain place, a certain age were something couldn’t get integrated. Something couldn’t get integrated. So in my present life, I will return to those moments not even knowing it, whenever a certain stimuli happened in my environment.
So this is very classic in somebody that’s been hurt or abandoned or abused, physically abused or sexually abused at a certain age. A part of them will stop at that age because the trauma happened at that age. The offense happened at that age. And a part of them is kind of continuously managing that for years and years and years. The rest of the person is their correct age. But that one piece of us does a strategic strike back.
So, one, I’m guessing here. I’m just guessing. And again I’m saying this for play because I don’t know for sure. But for play, there’s a part of you that becomes that little three or four-year-old. And I said, “When do you feel safest? You said to me, “Well, when somebody else makes the decision.” You know something? That’s what a child wants. A child doesn’t want to have to figure out, “Okay, where are we going? What are we doing? Organize my life. No, somebody make the decision for me.”
So there’s probably a place somewhere back when you needed somebody to make the decision for you and they weren’t. Some adult, probably a parent, maybe a teacher, needed to make a decision for you. And they didn’t. And you didn’t feel safe. There was some consequence. “I didn’t feel safe.” So that becomes a pattern. And we reproduce that pattern into our twenties, into our thirties into our forties, fifties, sixties, seventies. And it’ll take on different expression. That pattern will take on a different expression.
So, “If I didn’t feel safe back then, okay. So what makes me feel safe?” And different humans have different ways that we feel safe. We make ourselves feel safe, some people by just eating food. “Eating food makes me feel safe.” For you, it’s almost less the eating food. For you what makes you feel safe is knowing that the food is there, knowing that, “This is there if I want it. I don’t need it. But if I want it, it’s there.” So you know you’ve got like a bank account. “I don’t need that hundred thousand dollars right now in this moment. But I know it’s there in case something happens.”
So I just want to say it’s a perfectly legitimate strategy. So part of your challenge here is that you haven’t necessarily been able to fully see the brilliance of this particular strategy. You have to acknowledge that this is not an adult strategy. It’s a childhood strategy. Understand that there are plenty of adult strategies that you and I have that are really smart. “I want to make sure I have enough pens in the house because we use a lot of pens here.” Okay, so I’ve got a stash of pens. “I want to make sure there’s enough computer paper. I want to make sure there is enough food for today. I want to make sure there is enough money in the bank account.”
Okay. That makes total sense. And it gets problematic when it kind of grips us. And it gets problematic if I’m like, “Oh, my God. Are there enough pens? I know there were twenty pens yesterday. Are there still twenty pens today. Uh-oh. This pen is not working. Maybe I need a better set of pens.” So it gets problematic when we get out of our center and when we lose our power.
So I’m guessing this is a childhood strategy. We don’t have enough time to try to do a strategic strike and try to figure out when, where, and what, like what would’ve caused that. It’s often times connected to an event. Or it’s connected to a series of behaviors in the adult world that surrounded you. The job of the adult world around us is to make us feel safe and secure, provide for us, give us food. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. They have to change your diaper. They have to feed you, close you, and protect you from wild beasts.
So you reach a point where you’re an adult. You’re grown up. And you can do that for yourself. That’s what animals do in nature. That’s what humans do. When we don’t get some of those needs met, the kind of get weirdly reproduced into our future.
Now, we don’t need to know the specific reason of why that came up other than the fact that for now we just need to know that it’s likely a childhood strategy. So when you’re going into that strategy, you are not thirty-nine-year-old Holly. You’re kind of like a cute little three or four-year-old. It’s like, “Somebody make a decision for me. I’m out of control. This is really going to be scary. This is going to suck.” That’s kind of where you go.
Holly: Mmm hmm.
Marc: So I’m going to give you the strategy to work with this.
Marc: And it’s pretty straightforward. And, honestly, in my experience, it’s the best strategy to use to kind of get where you want to go with this habit of [inhales anxiously] you lose yourself. That’s what’s most disturbing for you is you lose yourself. And there is a lot of discomfort. And you’re trying to manage that discomfort. So your way of managing that discomfort in advance because you know it’s going to happen, I asked you how often, you said, “About once a week.” So you know there’s a frequency to it. You know you don’t like that experience. So you do your best to kind of mitigate that by hoarding, saving.
Building up your stores is a great behavior because, “If there’s enough of this food, then my discomfort around hunger,” which a lot of it sounds like, “Will I get what I need? Will there be enough there? Will this hunger be satisfied?”
Now, I want to say something else. Again, it’s a brilliant, intelligent, smart strategy. There’s nothing wrong with it because you plus every other human who has ever existed on planet Earth and every animal and likely every bird and fish and insect—but definitely humans and animals—we know that the feeling of hunger and starvation ain’t good. If I’m starving, if I’m super hungry, I could die. That’s called famine. You can write the entire history of the world in a lot of ways just by studying the cycles of famine and not enough food in different civilizations and the different cultures.
That story plays out right now. You even said to yourself, “Gosh, I know so many people who needed to get assistance for getting food.” Forty, fifty percent of people in the United States are getting assistance with food. It’s amazing. So we have a very built-in, biological hardwiring into the nervous system that says, “Hunger must be fulfilled. And if hunger is not being fulfilled, that is an emergency situation.”
Animals will kill for food. Humans, when pushed against the wall, when they don’t have enough food, they will steal. They will rob. They will break the law. They will beg. Some might even hurt others to get food. So it’s very primal. So there’s a wiring in there that gets real primal. “I gotta have food.” If any part of your brain is saying, “Oh, my God. That’s not going to be enough,” you will shift into a full on stress response. Your nervous system will literally put you into a survival/stress response.
It’s almost no different than if I held your head underwater. Maybe you can hold your breath for twenty seconds. At some point, your brain realizes, “I need oxygen. This ain’t gonna work. I could die.” And you will do everything you can to get your head above water. You’re not busy thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll get my head above water. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll read a book first.” Instinct takes over. Survival instinct takes over. You will scratch. You will claw. You will do everything to breathe air. And you’ll do everything to get food. We’ll all do that, whatever it takes for survival.
So I’m saying all this because I want you to understand and I want anybody else listening to understand that every pattern, habit, unwanted behavior, challenge that you have with food has a brilliant, brilliant reason for it. It has a smart reason. It’s there for a purpose. And when you and I can embrace that brilliant reason and embrace that purpose, part of us can relax.
Because it’s not that you’re dumb. It’s not that you’re a willpower weakling. It’s not like, “What’s wrong with me?” Actually, the question really should be, “What’s right with me that I do this? What’s right with me?” What’s right with you that you do that is that you wisely learned at some point along the line that, “I’m not safe. I’m not taken care of. Nobody’s making decisions for me. I’m young. I’m helpless. I need a strategy here.”
You eventually figured out the strategy called, “I need to save up. I need to have a bank account. I need to hoard. And I need to collect. Plus I need to do anything I need to do to survive, even if it means putting margarine on top of pasta.” Talk about survival, right? Margarine on top of pasta, not fun. You can’t even go back to it down because your body just goes, “No.” But you did that to survive. So what I’m saying is there is the brilliant reasoning.
So I was going to give you the strategy to work with this, which is every time you find yourself back in that place approximately once a week like, “Oh, my God,” I want you to know somewhere in the back of your mind, “Yeah, my body is actually going into an alarm response.” You think you’re about to die. When we think we’re about to die, we will do our best to survive. So you’re looking to survive. Or you’re looking for the attacker. In your case there’s a safety need. “How do I get safe?” You either fight the lion or you run away from the lion.
The behavior you’re going for is technically a running away. When you run away from the lion, you can feel safe. You run back to your storage area like, “Where’s the safety place? Where’s the safe key? Where is the place where there’s all the food?” And there it is on the shelf, in the fridge, in the other fridge, in the cabinet. That’s a safe place to your child’s mind. That place equals safety.
For me, honestly, safe place means near the ocean. That’s me. For you, safe place is the place where there’s all the food. For some people, safe place is my bedroom. Go figure. For some people, safe place is with certain people. For some people, their safe place is an internal place where they go. There’s all different things. We’re all different. We all have our safe place or places. That’s your safe place. So I don’t want to take that away from you. I don’t want to take away your safe place. Why would I do that? Why would anyone do that? Why would you do that? There’s no need to take away your safe place.
Let’s exalt that place. Let’s honor it. Let’s say, “Okay, this is a safe place. You have it for a reason.” I want you to understand the reason because when you understand the reason for wanting that safe place, that three or four-year-old within you that’s creating that safe place all of a sudden you are now thinking like a twenty-year-old a little bit more. You’re thinking like a thirty-nine-year-old. “Oh, the thirty-nine-year-old in me says that’s my safe place for that little kid in me.”
It helps us just relax a little, just a little. It helps us relax. And when we relax a little, we are literally going into relaxation chemistry. We’re going into parasympathetic nervous system dominance. Your chemistry literally changes. Your brain chemistry changes. Our brain chemistry changes when we drop into physiologic relaxation response. We can do that through understanding.
So when you’re in that place of, “Oh, my God. Am I going to have enough food? What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?” I want you to say to yourself, “Holly, this is you being three or four years old right now. How would you treat a three-year-old or a four-year-old scared little girl?”
You wouldn’t smack her. You wouldn’t yell at her. You wouldn’t take that three- or four-year-old little girl who is hysterical and not feeling safe and say, “Allow me to psychoanalyze you in this moment. Here’s what’s going on.” You wouldn’t say that either. What would you do with a three-year-old girl who was feeling unsafe and all of a sudden in a stress response and not knowing what to do? How would you handle her?
Holly: I know wouldn’t dismiss her panic. Yeah, just comfort, say, “I’m here. Let’s slow things down, get full focus, full attention.”
Marc: Yeah. You’d be with her. You’d want to give her a comforting vibe. You wouldn’t try to take away her experience. You wouldn’t try to make her wrong for her experience. There’s a little bit of a motherly feeling that might come out in you in that moment like, “Oh, I want to help you here. I want to take care of you.” It’s the I-want-to-take-care-of-you vibe that I’m looking for here with you.
You also said, “Pause. Like, hey, let’s slow down for a second.” That’s part of, “I’m taking care of you. I’m here for you.” If you want to help a three- or four-year-old, you don’t go, “Oh, my God. You’re nervous. I’m nervous, too. Let’s be nervous together. That’s going to really help you find is freaked out as you are.” No. You being as freaked out as a little three or four-year-old girl ain’t going to help the three- or four-year-old girl.
You’re going to drop into a place of relaxation and authority in listening and compassion and understanding and openness. You’re going to drop into that place so that little girl can entrain with that feeling. What we’re looking for as kids is we often need the adult world to model for us a feeling that we need. “Model for me, mommy, daddy, teachers, adults, a sense of safety. Model for me the feeling called you’re loved and accepted. Model for me the feeling called I’ll protect you.”
When we feel the adults having those feelings, then we learn how to create those in ourselves. Not necessarily in those moments, but we retain that memory into adulthood. And we model off of our early experiences of how to manage ourselves. So somewhere along the line, you didn’t quite get what you needed to model the experience called you’re safe here right now. You’re okay.
So when you’re feeling that anxiety, that tension, when you get hungry, I just want you to as best you can…It’s not easy. And this is a practice. This is a playful thing. And it’s a practice where you keep practicing it. The first bunch of times you might not be good at it. It might not work. But I promise you keep at it. And you’ll start to get it.
And when that three- or four-year-old scared little girl comes out, you go “Okay, how can I talk to her?” inside yourself. It’s okay. “I have you. I’m taking care of you.” She needs to know that you will not abandon her. Technically she needs to know the other adults will abandon her. But you’re not a little girl anymore. You’re not a little kid. You’re adult Holly.
And part of what happens is we as humans tend to reproduce the things that happened to us. So, as an example, I’ve heard so many people say, so many women might say, “Yeah, my mother or father or this one or that one used to criticize my body when I was really.” And all of a sudden, they started criticizing your own body. And a lot of people have a memory of when they heard their first nasty statement.
It might have come from a friend, a kid at school. “You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re no good.” And all of a sudden they will take that wound. And we will take that wound and reproduce it. So now I’ll look in the mirror. I’ll go, “You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re no good.” And think how bizarre that is, the very wound that came from the outside… I wasn’t even walking around thinking, “You’re fat. You’re ugly.” But somebody said it to me. And that wound lands. And it takes on a life of its own. And that perpetuates itself until we unwind it and until we work it out.
So you’re reproducing inside yourself. Somehow you in the message you’re not safe. So now you’re reproduce it inside yourself. “Holly, you’re not safe. You’re not safe. You’re safe.” That’s what you tell yourself. So now were going to start to change that message. But it’s you changing that message with you. And slowly. This happens over time.
And we don’t want to take away the hoarding behavior. I still want you to keep filling up all the shelves in the refrigerators. Enjoy it until you don’t need to do that anymore. And maybe you’ll still do it because you know something? There’s plenty of people who don’t have the same kind of fear in their system that you do. And they like having full shelves and a full refrigerator. It’s fine.
You live in Europe. Oftentimes the fridge just has enough food for that day. That’s how a lot of the French do, a lot of the Italians do it. You buy food for the day. You go to the market. You buy for that day. There’s not a lot of stored food in the house. Part of it’s cultural. Part of it’s individual. You could have the same behavior in it be totally healthy. You could have the same behavior and it’s coming from a place of lack and the past that you’re trying to compensate for.
So all I’m saying is it’s not bad to have all that stuff in your house. Who cares? It’s kind of cool. It’s okay. You can smile at it. You can laugh at it. You can accept it. And the behavior is not the problem. All the food is not the problem. The challenge is you as an adult not abandoning yourself. When you’re going into that stress response, there’s a place where there’s no adults home, including yourself. You’re a scared little person. And then you look to manage that. “Oh, my God. Somebody look to make the decision for me.” Or the adult in you kicks in and plans, which is a very wise strategy. So I’m saying that’s actually a good strategy because that’s the adult trying to take over. You follow me? So it’s a perfect strategy to do.
Now, the challenge is that strategy doesn’t completely work for you. It’s not enough for you. It could be enough for other people. It’s not enough for you. The missing piece is the emotional piece. Your brain goes into left-brain, masculine, logical, linear, problem-solving. “Oh, I’m feeling uncomfortable. I’m feeling unsafe. Okay, let me plan,” which, again, makes sense. I’m not saying get rid of it. I’m not saying that’s bad. I’m saying that’s half of your story. That’s half of your strategy.
I love that strategy. Maybe you’re carrying food with you. Maybe you have food in the car. Maybe you have food in your knapsack. That’s extra. However you want to plan is great. That’s totally legitimate. But I also want you to add the emotional piece, the more right-brainy, cozy, comfortable, oxytocin, hormone driven… And oxytocin is like the bonding hormone with that little baby. When you produce a baby, you’re producing oxytocin. When you’re in love, when you’re feeling love, there’s oxytocin coming out. When you’re bonding with your partner would think, there’s oxytocin getting produced in the system. It creates connection.
It creates warmth. You’re safe. You’re okay. That’s the other piece that’s missing here is Holly telling Holly, “You’re safe. You’re okay.” It’s you being the mother or father or parent for you that you didn’t have. Otherwise we continue abandoning ourselves. And we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. We’re reproducing the same thing that happened to us. Am I making sense?
Holly: Yes. Very much so.
Marc: So any thoughts coming up for you based on what I’m sharing? Where’s your brain going with all this?
Holly: Well, as soon as you mentioned that the whole adult strategy versus child strategy, now I can really sense the difference. I can really feel it, the shift that happens. And the strategy sounds completely doable and very powerful.
So what I want to acknowledge is that we are all pretty smart. And even though this isn’t in this moment your expertise—if it were your expertise, you would have figured it out for yourself. And we wouldn’t be in the conversation—but even though it’s not your expertise, we, you, all of us, we’re smart enough to know when a truth is landing. And we’re smart enough to know when an untruth is being hurled at us. And we don’t always trust that.
And often times it’s a feeling. There’s a truth meter in there somewhere. It exists somewhere in the body, somewhere in the brain. I think there’s a truth meter where when that meter gets hit, we know it. So as soon as you get awarenesses or information or feedback from the world, from the universe, from your own brain that rings true, we know it.
And it’s so important for us to acknowledge that knowingness that we have. So that knowingness landed for you like, “Oh, Marc, as soon as you said that, the distinction between the adult in me and the childhood in me, I felt it.” So that’s what we’re going for, a felt sense, which lets you know, “I’m on the right track.”
You’re not broken. There’s nothing to be fixed. You don’t need to go into super intense psychotherapy here. Some people do. What you need to know is that you’re on the right track. These behaviors make perfect sense. And they’re here now in your life to help you grow into helping evolve. So instead of staying in the same spin cycle forever, which doesn’t feel good… When you get into that space, it’s doesn’t feel good. So your this-doesn’t-feel-good-meter, a little alarm goes off like, “Wait a second. I’m better than this. I’m better than this.” It’s kind of what the brain is saying to us. “You’re better than this.”
So then we have to figure out, “Okay, what the heck does that look like? What does better than this look like? And how do I get there?” So that’s the questions you’ve been asking. What is better than this look like? How do I get there? So what I’m suggesting as the outside coach looking in—so you’ve just kind of given me the lay of the land—and then I’m saying, “Oh, here’s why these behaviors makes sense. Here’s why they’re perfectly okay, why they’re smart, why they’re lovable. Here’s why I don’t want to take the strategy away. If anything, I want to honor it an affirmative and say it’s therefore reason.”
And while we’re saying that, let’s learn the beautiful lesson that life wants to teach you here. And the beautiful lesson, if I could say it in other words, is you learning how to stand by yourself when there’s stress, anxiety, fear, tension, or uncertainty. It’s you learning how to stay with yourself because a part of you checks out just a little. A part of you goes, “Agh!” which is understandable. If a lion’s chasing you, there’s a lot of different reactions a person can have. You might be able to get your act together really fast and run really fast.
Some people will get so paralyzed by the fear, which is understandable, that they’ll just stand there screaming and become lion breakfast. So you’re learning how to manage what feels like a survival moment. Your body is interpreting it. Your past experience, your brain circuitry is going back to three or four years old, interpreting this past experience in the present as, “I’m unsafe. I’m not okay.”
So you’re learning how to turn that around in the present moment by being with yourself and not running away from yourself and trying to invoke the voice of love in the voice of the mother within you, the big sister within you, however you want to language it. It’s a woman in you who is taking care of you. And by doing so, you mature. You grow. And it’s not like you’re fixing what’s broken. You’re growing into an area where life is naturally calling to grow.
You grew into a career. It’s not like you were broken and we need to fix you by teaching you a trade or a career. It’s like, no. We grow into things. So you’re growing into learning how to be with yourself so fully that even when challenges happen and uncertainty happens and the train is late and you’re like, “Oh, my God. Where’s the food going to come from?” you’re going to problem solve. And you’re going to be with yourself so that you feel safe and comfortable.
And you’re invoking a decision-maker in the moment. You go, “Well, I feel safe when somebody else makes the decision,” which is fine if husband’s around or good friend’s around. But if neither of them are around, then somebody has to make the decision. That somebody is you. That’s the adult in you. Make sense?
Marc: Life is good.
Holly: Life is good. I feel tremendously relieved.
Marc: Yeah! What’s the relief? Why would you feel relief? I’m just kind of breaking it down here for you and for people listening. The relief is…?
Holly: A knowing and understanding. I knew I was okay before. I know I’m not broken. I know I don’t need to be fixed. But just to hear it reflected back, these are all strategies. It’s your instincts. This is what’s going on. I’m like, “Ahh, yes! Yes.” I’ve been carrying that story and either not letting myself hear it, not owning it, or not accepting that that’s what’s going on.
Marc: So it’s a tremendous relief. I’m going to kind of put my words on it. Oftentimes when we’re seen, we’re just seen like, “Oh, here’s what’s happening for you,” when we’re seen through the eyes of understanding and compassion and non-judgment. I’m not sitting here going, “God, Holly! What a dumbass behavior.”
Marc: “Your husband must be so pissed at you for storing all that food. Let’s take pictures and Instagram them.” No. When we’re seen through the eyes of understanding and compassion and not making our behaviors wrong, we can relax because oftentimes we’re the ones making our behaviors wrong.
And again when we see that good reasoning, the brilliance in them and how every aspect of this behavior and what you do around it makes perfect sense and is all for the same goal, which is to make you feel safe, we’re just learning now how to do that strategy even better. Because you need to feel safe. You do. We all do. So how do we do this in a way that really works and a way that feels liberating and in a way that actually honors you?
So, again, I want to say about the full food in the house, you might never, ever
change that. And that’s okay. You might change it, and that’s okay, too. It doesn’t matter. But what you’re changing is the person who is doing all that. And when we are able to come from a place that’s positive and empowering, then it’s all good.
So you know what your homework is here in terms of the practice, in terms of when that anxiety, tension, fear moment comes up. Start to dialogue. Bring that thirty-nine-year-old adult Holly, I-got-your-back woman to the front. And you can even literally talk to that girl inside you because we have different personas inside of us. We’re not just one person. We’re a whole crowd of people in here. And it’s okay to dialogue with the different parts of ourselves.
Great work, Holly!
Holly: Thank you.
Marc: Thank you. You feeling good?
Holly: I am feeling good.
Holly: I’m actually looking forward to the next incident. [Laughs]
Marc: Yeah! Me, too! Me, too. And you and I will meet again on air in several months. And we’ll catch up and get a sense of how things have been going. And remember think of it as a practice. You’re not always going to be perfect. But it’s all about loving up that part of you, just loving her up.
Holly: Sounds good.
Marc: Okay. Thanks so much.
Holly: Thank you.
Marc: And thank you, everybody, for tuning in. I’m glad you’re here for the Psychology of Eating podcast. Lots more to come.
The Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014
Get Your FREE Video Series
New Insights to Forever Transform Your Relationship with Food
P.S. If you haven’t had a chance to check out our FREE information-packed video series, The Dynamic Eating Psychology Breakthrough, you can sign up for it HERE. It’s a great way to get a better sense of the work we do here at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. If you’re inspired by this work and want to learn about how you can become certified as an Eating Psychology Coach, please go HERE to learn more. And if you’re interested in working on your own personal relationship with food, check out our breakthrough 8-week program designed for the public, Transform Your Relationship with Food, HERE.