Sometimes S’mores are Dinner and You Have to Let the Bad Feelings Out Before the Good Feelings Can Come in
Like many mothers, one of my fears is that my child will eat only sugar and therefore not grow (have deficits in attention, develop an eating disorder, etc.). When moms have this fear, what do they do? Often, they swoop in and try to control. Here’s what it has looked like in our house:
Me: “Eat your broccoli.”
Little one: “No.”
Me: “Eat your broccoli or no dessert.” (Yes, I am ashamed to admit I have resorted to this in my not-so-enlightened moments as RecoveryMama)
Little one: Takes tiny bite of broccoli floret- like half of a child’s pinky fingernail size- runs around making a horrible face as if being tortured while chewing, swallows, says “Done. Where’s my dessert?”
So, as you can see, my child now loves eating vegetables and we are living happily-ever-after on an organic broccoli farm. The End.
Anyway, back to reality, I was honored to sit on a doctoral committee this past year in which the researcher was studying the effects of maternal feeding practices on children. She found that “controlling feeding practices” such as: pressuring your child to eat, restricting access to certain foods, and monitoring food intake as a means to track the amount of “unhealthy” foods a child consumes all had a negative correlation with developing intuitive eating and did not support body appreciation.¹
Basically, “Eat your vegetables or no dessert,” teaches kids to not listen to their hunger cues and decreases their appreciation of their body. So these kids are now primed to: ignore their hunger, hate their body, and, potentially, develop an eating disorder.²
When kids have access to nutrient dense foods at appropriate intervals, they don’t starve, they don’t binge, and they do eat intuitively. They haven’t learned (caveat: unless there has been trauma) to dissociate from their feelings of hunger and fullness. They self-regulate, by eating a variety of foods, over the course of time. In other words, they are intuitive eaters.³
1. Sometimes S’mores are Dinner.
And so, this past summer, when we went camping, and my little one hardly ate any dinner, and there were s’mores, I took a deep breath, reminded myself “it’s all about the big picture average” and said, “Of course you can have s’mores.” And I had one, too! The next day we had a non-s’more regular dinner again, in which my little one had a ¾ of a child fingernail sized bite of vegetable (because that’s the only rule we have now- try a bite. And if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it, but don’t yuck on someone else’s yum), and life carried on.
People with eating disorders tend to try to restrict their food and their feelings so they can feel “in control.” And yet, being rigid and controlling has a way of leading to being out-of-control. So. Please allow yourself some s’mores. And some broccoli, too. It will average out. Recovery, and intuitive eating, is a process, not an event.
Staying with the process, in the middle ground between restricting and bingeing, is what it is all about.
And guess what lives in this middle ground where we are not obsessing about food? Feelings! Which leads me to another lesson I learned from my little one.
2. Feelings often feel worse before they feel better Because You Have to Let the Bad Feelings Out for the Good Feelings to Come in.
By allowing, listening to, and learning from your emotions, you will no longer need to stuff, avoid, or be annoyed by them.
Have you ever watched a preschooler have big feelings? This is not a difficult challenge. It happens several times per hour. If the feelings are matched with understanding, they move on. And as their feelings are listened and attended to, children develop the capacity to do this themselves. There was one child at my son’s preschool (identifying details changed) that had a problem with hitting. Every day she would hit a new kid and there would be tears and mayhem. I watched, over the course of a year, how this child’s ability to regulate herself grew as her parents and the teachers tended to her feelings. Every time she would hit (and they quickly learned to stay with her so they could catch it before another child got hurt) the grown up would stay with her, see her feelings, and help her regulate. They would say, “I’m here to help you. It looks like you wanted that sand toy and when you didn’t get it that made you mad.” Or “You really wanted your mom to stay with you at school today. You’re feeling very mad and sad. Let me hold you while the tears are coming out.” The keys things were:
- They made space for the feelings to come out
- They stayed with her and didn’t abandon her in her feelings
- They didn’t “fix” the feelings for her
They didn’t say “It’s time for circle time. Stop crying.” They didn’t say “I’m going to give you some space while you are mad.” (Even though this can be counter-intuitive, anger often masks fear or hurt. This is a need for connection and repair with- not abandonment of- the relationship.) And they certainly didn’t say, “Here’s a cookie.”
Many of my clients struggle with how hard recovery feels in the beginning. It doesn’t feel good. They feel anxious, angry, afraid, sad or depressed. They wonder: Why am I doing this? When I hear that my clients say they are feeling worse, I say “Good! We are making progress. You are not stuffing, starving, or purging it anymore! NOW. How can we develop a kinder internal voice with yourself so they can move through you?”
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Here’s what can happen in an Eating Disorder:
Feeling part of Self: “I feel sad.”
Eating Disorder part of Self: “Here, have some ice-cream. If you still feel sad, eat more. Eat (or don’t eat or purge) until you don’t feel sad anymore.”
Feeling part of Self: (Stops sharing feelings, feels shamed and wrong, goes underground, turns sad and mad into depression, and comes back only when it has gotten so big it is a Tsunami-crisis.)
Here’s what’s possible in developing right relationship between your feelings and a wise, kind, non-shaming part of yourself in recovery:
Feeling part of Self: “I feel sad.”
Wise part of Self: “I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. Do you need a blanket to snuggle up in? Can I bring you your journal, art supplies, or your phone to call a friend?”
Feeling part of Self: “Ok. A blanket would be nice. The blue one. And my phone. I might not be ready to call someone, but it would be nice to have it nearby.”
In recovery, this wise part of the self works in collaboration with, rather than as a dictator over, your feelings.⁴
It is like a caring parent that is always available for you. It doesn’t always feel better to feel your feelings, but your feelings will move through you more quickly and not turn into depression or obsession.
I want to encourage you to have some s’mores and allow your feelings. Work with your treatment team and your own Wise part of yourself to know what is the right balance for you. There are no bad foods and there are no bad feelings. My Little One keeps teaching me that, again and again. When you lose site of the big picture, remember that recovery is often not linear. It can look like this:
Not Very Linear! Try and trust the process. You are not at the end yet. Let’s stay with the journey. And stay tuned for part two!
¹ Augustus-Horvath & Tylka, 2011; Avalos & Tylka, 2006, Birch et al., 2001, and Dr. Rosanna Franklin, PsyD, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University, 2014.
² By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life (Smolak, 2011).
³ Tribole, Evelyn and Elyses Resch, Elyse Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works, 1995.
⁴ Anita Johnston, PhD, has a beautiful description of this in the chapter on Masculine and Feminine Power of her book Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling, (Gurze Books, 1996).
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Great work, Dr. Shanti! Very interesting article, and very well-written. ????