Hungry for Love
You may have heard the phrase, “It’s not what you’re eating, but what’s eating you.” I could recount numerous such client examples. A few years ago, a physician I know referred Jane, a 60-year-old woman who had been overweight for years and was in an unfulfilling marriage of 30 years. She had tried to lose weight many times but could not maintain healthy eating habits. Her primary pattern was to eat reasonably well until an hour after dinner, when the mounting stress from her day, often triggered by interactions with her husband, would prompt her to consume a glass of wine with cheese and crackers, or whatever else was available. The occasional cheese, crackers, or glass of wine is unlikely to prevent successful weight loss, but with consistency, it will. In fact, one glass of wine a day can generate more than 10 pounds of body fat in one year.
Jane realized that her relationship with her husband tended to initiate stress eating that would temporarily comfort her. During the course of one of our sessions, we focused on the emotion of frustration or anger towards her husband, and the feeling triggered a memory from when she was seven years old. She recalled perceiving for the first time that her father favored her brothers and didn’t love her, even if her adult self understood intellectually that he did love her. All that matters is that she had come to believe, as a result of this and other experiences, that her father did not love her. As a result, she never felt loved by him. Growing up while feeling rejected by a parent can cause a lack of self-worth that can produce chronic stress or anxiety. If our self-worth is conditional upon others’ approval or love, we will be more vulnerable to emotional or behavioral problems (symptoms).
Because Jane’s emotional “hunger” was due to her feeling unloved by her now deceased father, it could not be satisfied with food. During the session in which she remembered that childhood experience, we modified the memory of her interaction with her father, reframed her childhood feelings, gave new meaning to the emotional distance she would feel from him while growing up, and future paced her with self-acceptance and a new understanding of her father through subsequent memories. Note that we could not change what had happened in the past, but we changed her perception of what had happened, and that’s what really mattered.
Every traumatic memory that can be consciously accessed can be modified using one’s imagination. Doing so with Jane immediately changed her feelings. As she opened her eyes, she began to explain to me through her tears, “I now truly feel, for the first time in my life, that my father loved me.” This process took about 30 minutes. I contend that her belief (whether accurate or not) that her father did not love her, and the supporting memories, constituted the thorn in her side that had been itching for decades. If this were true, then the removal of the thorn should alleviate the itch, and her “need” to scratch would disappear.
Sure enough, when Jane came back the following week, she reported feeling much calmer around her husband, her stress eating had disappeared, and she didn’t drink any wine. After a few additional sessions to reinforce self-confidence and healthy habits, she eventually shed more than 30 pounds with little need for willpower. Imagine how different her life might have been had she done this type of work 30 years ago.
In the next article, I’ll address the link between sexual abuse and obesity.