Dear Sister of the Heart,
Food is not love, but sometimes we make it so by projecting the power of love onto food. Then when it doesn’t give us the love that we need, we may feel betrayed. When we eat when we are not physically hungry, and don’t feel well or gain extra weight, we may feel betrayed by our own body. We may also feel duped by some unconscious archetypal power within us, over which we have no control.
I suspect this archetypal power is a mothering force within us gone awry. When we reach for carbohydrates, the standard go-to for emotional eaters, we are reaching for the ritual foods of The Goddess- grains, milk and honey. I think that women are reenacting some ancient ritual when they reach for food for emotional reasons, and when the metaphor is missed by mistaking the object (food) for the emotional and spiritual nourishment of the loving Feminine (with a capital F) they feel defeated, disempowered, and disenfranchised.
This was the cycle I played out again and again in my relationship to food during my adolescence and into my twenties.
I would find myself in a kind stupor after overeating. The initial brief comfort that the sweetness of the food had given me would pass, and no matter how many people surrounded me, I would feel sad and alone. Because I was not feeling the real comfort that I sought, I felt “abandoned”. It took some therapy and some soul searching for me to realize that I was abandoning myself when I reached for food.
What I learned as I became more conscious, was that the symptoms and behaviors of my disordered eating were messages from my soul that weren’t going away until I attended to my real needs. I learned that these symptoms needed to be patiently and lovingly listened to, instead of shutdown with dieting and discipline, which only drove me to overeat more. I was getting to the source of the problem. If I had any discipline, it needed to be the practice of lovingkindness.
Women who are emotional eaters might to some degree be repeating patterns in their relationship with their real mother. I know that I was. In my case, my mother did not have the capacity to attune to my teenage turbulence. That’s when we lost each other.
When I decided to face and embrace my conflicted relationship with food, it became the portal to healing my relationship with myself and my mother. It was by listening to the message behind the metaphor of the displaced hunger- my projecting my emotional hunger onto food- that I began to transform my relationship to my inner mother. One meal at a time, I learned to attend to myself and to really “hear” myself. Instead of dieting, I used the approach of intuitive eating, which involved listening to my body’s physiological cues. I was living in relationship to an entirely new metaphor- attuned eating could be accurately interpreted as an attunement to my emotional self. I learned to eat nourishing food when my body was hungry and stop when my body had had enough. The adolescent in me was soothed by this consistent and loving care, and she began to trust her inner mother.
I became the woman I needed as a girl.
And by becoming that woman, I know that I was also able to be more present as a mother to my daughter during her teen years, and to heal my motherline.
Undereating is the other side of the same coin. We restrict when we are struggling emotionally and can feel betrayed by life when our strategy doesn’t work, and we feel drained. We might also feel betrayed by life when our thinner body doesn’t give us the love and feeling of belonging that we had hoped for. And just as there is a kind of temporary calm when one is in a carbohydrate stupor, so there is a kind of “soothing” when a woman denies herself food. Her control over food gives her a false sense of security. Her extreme discipline is an attempt to “care” for herself; an attempt that is without any real emotional attunement.
Whether we are overeating or undereating, our relationship with food is about our relationship to Love with a capital L, or The Mother, with a capital M, the great archetypal mother.
Either way, our soul is crying out for True Nourishment.
Food is no longer just physical nourishment as it is meant to be. It is Food with a capital F because we have given it a power it does not actually have.
Author and workshop leader, Geneen Roth, whose life’s work is about helping women make peace with food, once said “you can never get enough of what you don’t really need.” I have always found that statement so powerful in its simplicity. In terms of our topic here, this means that one can never get enough food, if that’s not what they really need. And we can never get thin enough, since that will never be the solution to what ails our soul.
My teacher, author and Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, wrote her doctoral thesis on the spiritual and psychological meaning behind the epidemic of eating disorders in our culture. She had struggled with anorexia as a young woman, and in midlife, when she switched careers to become a Jungian analyst, she searched for the meaning of the message of the anorexia she had lived through. Using the language of Jungian psychology, she was revealing the shadow (the unconsciousness) behind the behavior of why she, and we, use food for emotional reasons. In her research, she found that the meaning behind the cultural phenomenon of millions of women’s obsession with food and the shape and size of their bodies was not ultimately about food or body size. Put simply, it had to do with them unconsciously mistaking the food for love, comfort, and emotional security.
Woodman insisted that, personally and collectively, women could replace their hard-driving and misguided quest for the perfect body or the perfect life, with a radical unconditional love that was in their own heart all along. Her work has been my inspiration to bring a consciously loving approach to mothering myself, and my daughter, and guiding women to do the same.
Once you’ve gotten a chance to listen to the Love Letter, leave a comment below —