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The Importance of Accepting Painful Emotions:

Implications for Attachment issues and Eating Disorders

Whether we are willing to face it or not, the truth is that we all experience pain. We experience loss and separation as well. And often we experience those emotions because of or along with the people we love most — those with whom we share attachments. The pain itself is often an outcome of love. After all, the people you love most are the ones you are saddest to lose. The relationships with the deepest bonds are where the greatest capacity for pain, anguish, and anger exist.

Given this reality, you would think that as a society we would have developed ways to handle painful emotional experiences — especially among our family and friends. Yet often this isn’t the case. In many family settings positive emotions like love, happiness, and peace are far more acceptable than negative emotions.

In one way this makes perfect sense. It’s much easier to accept positive emotions than negative ones. That’s natural. I have seen the difficulty many families have with accepting and integrating negative emotions in their family including, or particularly, with their loved one who has an eating disorder.

In some households, emotions are strictly divided into those that are “good” and those that are “bad.” Many people with an eating disorder make the same distinctions between foods. Here the use of “good” versus “bad” food is a clear example of how symptoms and food are used as metaphors to convey emotions, thoughts, and relationships that may be difficult or negative. Just as recovery requires eating a full range of foods, including food with fat, carbohydrates, and sugar, it also involves the integration of all emotions. We need to deal with both those that are “positive” and those that are “negative.”

This integration of all human emotions was a foundational element in John Bowlby’s work, the “parent” of Attachment Theory and I believe it is essential in the treatment of eating disorders. When the going gets tough, the tough don’t get going — unless they have support. If emotional attachment is an inherent human need, then why do we, as a culture, so often push our children toward premature emotional independence at times when they need us most? Time after time, we fail to encourage our children to be emotionally bonded to us, and this happens most often when they are facing difficult emotional experiences.

Rather than sitting down and talking with our kids, we take a “fix-it” approach when they confront us with perplexing or upsetting feelings. Our motives are good. We don’t want our kids to experience pain, and what pain they do experience we want to salve as quickly and completely as possible. So we tell them, “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” or “Don’t worry, it’s all right,” or “There’s no reason to be angry, so let it go.” We encourage them to “move along” to the next activity. We teach them to push past the pain.

While these seem like well-meaning attempts to minimize and soothe a child’s discomfort, they usually fail because they do not address the underlying issue at hand. They do not take into consideration how the child is feeling and what she needs from her parents. They tend to discount the child’s emotional needs and teach her to keep her feelings “inside” or deny them entirely.

Disconnection from emotions is an attachment issue. When a child expresses a need or a fear, it’s an opportunity for a parent to participate in bonding — the food of emotional well-being. By making an intellectual response or by minimizing the child’s emotions, we can foster a premature independence that can leave children incapable of experiencing their feelings fully or understanding the motivations behind their behavior. We encourage thinking almost to the exclusion of feeling. Yet, our thinking and the subsequent decisions need to be guided by our feelings. Without this emotional infrastructure we are ill equipped for mature independence. That is, we are left responding to situations as we think we ought to rather than being guided by how we really feel.

Interestingly, we tend to encourage dependency of a different sort — one that leaves our children no more prepared to face adult challenges than our denial of difficult emotions. We buy them stuff. In a culture where “more is better,” our “instinct” is to meet our children’s needs with our purchasing power. Whether it’s the latest technological gadget or a new wardrobe, when the going gets tough, we pull out our credit cards, give them what they want, and believe that then our children will feel happy and fulfilled.

But material gratification does not provide lasting comfort and cannot satisfy children emotionally. In fact, it only serves as another way for them to deny and bury their difficult feelings. We are raising children who do not know how to deal with frustration or embrace delayed gratification. Since feelings just simply go away if we ignore them, eating disorders are a way to physicalize what cannot be understood, felt, experienced or expressed.

Rather than encouraging a healthy emotional dependence on us, so that they can learn to identify, experience, and accept their emotions (whatever they may be,) we teach our children to distance themselves from their emotional world: to bury feelings or, even worse, deny their existence. At the same time, we give them a false sense of dependency by providing comfort with the latest toy or apparel. We teach them nothing of dealing with the pain, loss, or separation that is part of life.

The consequence is children who are easily frustrated, who need constant and varied stimulation, and, most alarmingly of all, who begin to determine their self-worth by cultural norms, e.g., how much more or less they have than someone else. By learning to lean so heavily on cultural dictates for self-worth, many begin to obsess about beauty as a way to make themselves feel confident and accepted. This only serves to further encourage eating disorders.

Though we are hard-wired to experience feelings, we need help in putting names to these feelings. Children learn language by being spoken to A child learns to identify and tolerate emotions when a caregiver tunes in, puts a label to their experience, and allows the child to sit with her emotions so that she can learn to name and express them appropriately.

This attachment is the foundation from which all whole and stable relationships spring. When it goes awry or is inconsistent during childhood, the child finds alternative ways to satisfy her hunger for connection and to experience self-worth. Eating disorders are a prime example.


Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW

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