This is an abridged version of a talk delivered Nov. 17 by Kathryn Pearson at the Sangamon County Medical Society’s Physician Wellness Conference.
How are food, money and sexuality related to our relationship wellness? Relationship wellness concerns our search for unruffled peace, ease of being in body, mind and heart in our relationships, what we might call everyday wholeness or worthiness. Our relationship to food, money and our sexuality is an exact copy of our relationship to life itself. We are walking, talking expressions of our deepest convictions; everything we believe about love, fear, transformation and our spirituality is revealed in how, when and what we eat, how we deal with our money and how we express our sexuality.
Anatomy of feeling good
Many of us find that we spend a lifetime getting to know our true selves. Although you came into this world with an implicit understanding of who you were (an authentic being worthy of the love from which you’ve come), you had no way of knowing this as an infant. The only way children experience their “authentic” self is by seeing themselves in their caregivers’ eyes. Their authentic self is vulnerable, spontaneous, without shame and whole. Our authentic self requires a secure attachment to our caregivers in order to sustain a sense of worthiness, safety and security. Secure attachment implies a bond of emotional communication between the infant and the primary caregiver. Our caregivers’ experience of themselves can alter that secure attachment. Lonely, depressed, fearful or troubled caregivers may pass the sum of their limitations onto their child and create an insecure attachment which brings about anxiety or disconnection. Caregivers with positive, affirmative, more optimistic messages of themselves can give their child a more secure attachment with a healthier sense of love and belonging and safety. We come into our marital relationships with either secure or insecure attachment styles and negotiate our relationship with food, money and sex from a standpoint of fear and anxiety or one of safety, security and love.
When I begin to think about how my relationship to money got formed, I think not of my primary caregiver, but about a relative who introduced me to a nickel.
It was my first experience with money and one that I soon learned was unrealistic. Money did not come that easily in life, nor could I rely on a benevolent uncle for my financial security. It was my first lesson in noticing that asking for money was embarrassing to some adults around me and that there were differences in how certain family members were esteemed for the jobs they held and the wealth they had accumulated. Over the years I came to understand the financial deprivation that my mother’s family with 12 children had experienced growing up. There was an underlying shame that my mother carried about growing up in such poverty. Along with the shame was an anxiety about making enough money so that other people could see the family as being “good enough.” As a result of these messages about money passed on to me, I have spent a good deal of my life working on the belief that no matter how much money I have or don’t have, it’s not the test of my worth. My self worth has to do with being peaceful, not with having possessions.
Grandma’s apple pie
When I look at my first memories of food in my life, I think of pie!!
When I was two years old I had the chicken pox and wouldn’t eat. I still remember my Grandma Yeaman bringing an apple pie for me to try. It was the only thing that I would eat and the beginning of my attachment to pie – still my comfort in times of stress. Food was always plentiful in our family and used as a source of comfort and esteem, as in who could cook the best or more unusual foods. My mother later won the prize for esteem in her family by starting her own catering business and becoming very successful as a self-taught caterer and business woman. It was another way for mom to gain self-esteem by offering her talents in service to others. It was also a way that she could share her belief that we should all have a “healthy respect for food” which she believed should be prepared with love and joy and eaten slowly and mindfully. That “slowly and mindfully” has been a challenge for me and my brothers.
What I have since discovered is that our use of food has a direct connection between the physical and the spiritual, between what we put in our mouths and what we feel in our hearts. Food, like money, will never be able to bring us happiness or intimacy or peace. The only things that will ever satisfy us are connection, love, truth – our acceptance of our authentic selves, our healthy bonds with others and with a God of our understanding.
To discover what you really believe, pay attention to the way you act – and to what you do when things don’t go the way you think they should. Pay attention to what you value and on what you spend your time and your money. And pay attention to the way you eat.
You will quickly discover if you believe the world is a hostile place and that you need to be in control of the immediate universe for things to go smoothly. You will discover if you believe there is not enough to go around and that taking more than you need is necessary for survival. You will find out if you believe that being quiet is unbearable, and that being alone means being lonely. You will learn if you think being vulnerable is for sissies or if opening to love is a big mistake. And you will discover how you use food and money to express each one of these core beliefs.
The reason compulsive eating and spending, as well as the compulsive need to restrict both, are so difficult to stop is that the cure does not address the problem. Almost every compulsive eater and spender knows exactly what, when and how much to eat or spend. Calories, exercise, food and spending and hoarding aren’t the problem – they’re only the middleman. They are the vehicle to express our sense of value and worth or our sense of deficiency and scarcity. When we look at the world through the lens of not having enough, all we see is lack, hunger and emptiness.
In her books Women, Food and God and Lost and Found, Geneen Roth talks about two types of compulsive eaters and spenders: “restrictors” and “permitters.” “Restrictors” believe in control – of themselves, their food intake, their spending and their environments. Deprivation is comforting because it provides a sense of control. One of their core beliefs is that less is more. Eating less – and therefore being thin – is equated with being safe, and safety means survival. Spending less will keep them from having buyer’s remorse. Restrictors believe that there’s not enough to go around and therefore react by depriving themselves before they can be deprived. Restrictors are constantly trying to contain the wild energy that is stomping to be released and they can never truly relax.
For fun, we turn to their sisters, “permitters.” “Permitters” prefer to go through life in a daze. They numb themselves to their experience by getting lost in a fog of overeating and overspending. That way, they don’t need to feel pain – theirs or anyone else’s. They believe: “If I go through life asleep, I don’t need to be concerned about the future because I won’t be aware of it. If I give up trying, I won’t be disappointed when I fail.” Permitters see no point in trying to control the uncontrollable and have decided that it’s best to be blurry and numb and have a good time. Since they too believe that there’s not enough to go around, they react by trying to store up before the bounty/love/ attention runs out. They use an idealized version of the future to fill the holes of the past.
It’s shocking to see how we eat and spend or ignore our finances and our bodies. It’s humbling to see that we value being unconscious or being perfect more than we value a fundamental ease of being, and that we are paying the cost in the daily discomfort and spiritual bankruptcy in our lives.
Another of our human gifts and pleasures that we tend to either repress or abuse in life is that of our sexuality. We frequently repress our desire for love because love makes us vulnerable to being hurt, especially being hurt through the sex act. The word “passion,” which is used to express strong, loving desire, comes from the Latin root passus, which means “suffered.” All of us know that along with bringing joy, love can bring about suffering. We often repress our desire for love to minimize this suffering. This happens especially after someone betrays our love; we stifle our desire and it may take us a long time before we’re ready to love again. It’s a normal human response to repress our longings when they hurt us too much.
While repression stifles desire, addiction to sex or other love objects bonds and enslaves the energy of desire. Sex acts or persons then become preoccupations and obsessions; they come to rule people’s lives. The same brain processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addiction to work, relationships, sex, power, moods, fantasies, food, money and an endless variety of other things. Addictions are simply those irrational attachments to substances, processes, or possessions that we use to numb or distract feelings of any kind, but especially feelings of unworthiness, inadequacy or shame.
Many of us are inspired to change, but few of us are willing to be as uncomfortable as is required to actually change. In your daily moments when you want to eat or withdraw, when you don’t want to think about where your money is going or make financial choices based on healthy values, or when you have a choice of whether you spend time with your loved ones or ponder the porn on the web or get lost in the fantasy of having romance and heightened sexual experiences as in the trilogy of books beginning with Fifty Shades of Grey, where do you turn for refuge? Do you convince yourself that you have so much to do that taking responsibility for your own choices is too much of a burden? Do you return to the safety of familiar patterns? Or do you undertake the time-consuming and intense work of change?
Dealing with shame
Whether it’s the relationship with food or money or alcohol or shopping or sex, the main factor in any kind of change is whether or not you are willing to truly question your beliefs about yourself and the world – to deal with any shame (which Jungian analysts call “the swamp place of the soul”).
According to Brené Brown, a researcher, counselor and author, shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Shame is highly coordinated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, aggression, bullying and suicide. It’s driven by two big tapes that we run in our heads: “Never good enough” and, if that one doesn’t work, “Who do you think you are?”
There’s a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is focused on behavior: “I did something bad” “I made a mistake.” Shame is focused on the self: “I am bad” or “I am a mistake.” Shame for a woman has come out of a belief in our culture that women should “be able to do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.” I know many women, including myself, who have to wrestle with that one every day.
And for men the belief that brings about most of their shame is “you can never let them see you being weak.” When men reach out and try to be vulnerable, they sometimes get clobbered by us women, who want them to be strong and invulnerable.
The antidote to shame is having empathy for yourself so that you can share it with your partner. Vulnerability, acknowledging our imperfection, is our way back to each other. Vulnerability is not weakness. It is emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty, as well as our most accurate measurement of courage. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.
It’s a challenge to find out what is truly important to us in our lives – such as our ability to feel, give, receive, know, question, learn, change, love. These things comprise the wellspring of our worth. When we spend as much time investing in our inner lives as we do in getting and having more of everything, then how we live on this earth and inside our bodies will change. When this change occurs it will, in turn, affect our relationships as couples and families.
Practicing empathy and vulnerability in our everyday choices with food, money and sexuality is the first step toward relationship wellness.
Kathryn Pearson, LCPC, CSAT, CMAT, is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who focuses on individuals, couples and family counseling in Springfield. Her specialty areas include relationship counseling, survivors of trauma, treatment of multiple addictions and how addictions interact with one another.