CarboMama and the Clean Plate Club: Understanding Eating Disorders.
By Lynn Somerstein, PhD, RYT
When three year old Susan had a nightmare, she didn’t go to her mother or father for help; instead she ran through the dark hall right past her parent’s bedroom, and headed straight to the kitchen, where she opened the refrigerator, grabbed a loaf of bread, sat down on the floor and started eating. This became a habit, and sometimes she fell asleep on the floor; if her family found her the next morning they told her she was cute, and called her CarboMama.
Ben’s parents thought their baby was a feeding problem- Ben refused to finish all his cereal; he turned his head away and closed his lips when his mother brought the spoon up to his mouth, so she squeezed the hinge where his jaws came together to make them open, and just shoveled the cereal in. She believed she knew how much he needed to eat better than he did. Soon Ben learned to eat everything on his plate and belonged to the “clean plate club;” he forgot how hunger and fullness feel and now he eats everything. Ben’s appetite is his mother’s barometer for feeling good or bad about herself. The more he eats, the better she thinks she is. And Ben wants her to feel good.
Food soothed Ben and Susan’s intolerable fears, rage and loneliness, but their needs for real love were mostly unsatisfied, so they turned off their feelings to protect themselves; on the way they lost their joy and their connections with the body, where emotions are contained and processed. Soon food became more important than people.
Children cannot tolerate thinking that their parents are inadequate or maybe harmful– they feel safer inventing a fantasy parent who is all good– but an imaginary person can’t satisfy real needs and the children remain unsatisfied; eventually they feel that their needs are bad, and, finally, that they themselves are bad for feeling needy. Some early Object Relations thinkers, Fairbairn (1952 and Winnicott (1965), for example, describe the infant’s dilemma with a disappointing caregiver.
Ben wanted to make his mother happy, which meant eating too much, but he pretended to himself and to his mother that he enjoyed eating what she gave him, even though his stomach hurt. Winnicott named this the false self, a personality created to please other people, and without needs of its own, because if you want something, people might not like you. Orbach (1986) says that this false self is located within a false body, one, perhaps, that only exists in the head, and is cut off from the neck down; the body is frozen—a symptom of deadening family attachments.
Faulty attachments are the hardest to leave behind, like unsolved puzzles they just stay with you until you figure them out. Contemporary attachment theory calls this insecure or anxious attachment. Children feeling insecure or anxious look towards their parents for relief, but Susan and Ben’s parents were the cause of their anxiety. That’s why Susan didn’t go to her parents when she was scared at night.
Object Relations therapists tailor their methods to the individual–cognitive behavioral therapy, group work, Jungian theory and other methods can be useful components of treatment—but ground zero is the relationship between client and therapist. Starting with a gradual getting to know you, two people learn how to talk to each other; when they feel safe feelings emerge to be explored and expressed within secure parameters in real present time, person to person, just what the client missed growing up. The therapist’s reactions will often be different than the client expects. Clients may surprise themselves too and start acting differently.
So, for example, Susan may discover the implications of wearing a size 0, and begin to value strength and health over size; Ben’s body may thaw and become his own, not just a machine to please others.
They both will find nourishment in real relationships with other people.