Attachment Theory and Overeating

Have you ever read something and you could actually hear the lightbulb clicking on in your head? This is how I felt after reading Karly’s article on Attachment at  Basically, attachment theory says that if you didn’t feel a secure attachment to your parents as a child, then you will attach to something else to fill that void.  Don’t get me wrong, I have great parents and very fond memories of my childhood, but there was a lot that was missing too. Go read Karly’s article first because she explains it much better than I can (plus she has a lot of resources if you want to explore it for yourself).

Let me give you a little background so you might understand why I got so excited when I read Karly’s article:

Up until the age of about nine years old, I felt very secure in my little world. I was the youngest of 3 girls – my sisters are ten and nine years older than I am, so for a long time I actually  had three caregivers (my dad was around, but I always looked to my mom and sisters as my support). My mom was a working mom, but even if she wasn’t there, my 2 sisters were. I was surrounded by care and concern.

I think it’s significant to mention here that my Dad is half-German (very stoic and stubborn) and my mom was not an overly affectionate person (she’s much more of a hugger now). Back in the 70s/80s when I was a kid, the words “I love you” weren’t said much if at all. I knew my parents loved me, but showing a lot of affection just wasn’t done. It just wasn’t something my family was really comfortable with – we weren’t touchy feely folks at all.

Because of the age difference, when I got to be about nine or ten years old, both of my sisters were off living their own lives – college, starting families, etc.  Suddenly, my support system was gone. Because I was old enough to stay by myself afterschool and during the summers, I spent a lot of time alone. And that’s when I also started feeling like a burden to my mom. When I entered into my preteen years, I always had the feeling that since my mom had gone through all of the teenage bullsh*t with my sisters, she didn’t want to go through it again with me. I felt like they didn’t want to put forth the energy into raising me that they had in raising my sisters. Whether or not it was true, that was how I felt. Since my mom worked 40 hours AND did all the cooking (from scratch) AND did all the laundry AND did all the housework, she was naturally tired all the time. I guess I took that to mean that she was too tired for me.

Before my sisters left home, we all had dinner together at the table every night. After they left, we stopped eating at the table and I would eat dinner by myself in my room while my parents ate in the living room. Every night, I would come downstairs, fix my plate, and take it back up to my room where I would eat while watching tv on my little black and white set. That sound pitiful doesn’t it?  It’s also one of the reasons that I resisted letting my kids have a tv in their room (my son has one now, but only for playing games. It’s not hooked up to the satellite).

Please understand – my parents did the best they knew how. They are really wonderful people and I am very close to them as an adult. I’m not bitter about my childhood, but I do recognize that there were some things I did not get as a child that I absolutely needed. And we probably all feel that way to some degree, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to get those things now.

There was so much that changed when my sisters left home, that I needed something to feel attached to – and that’s when I remember the food thing really kicking in. Food made me feel good. It tasted so good and it filled me up, often I let it fill me up too much. Once I figured out that eating could solve my loneliness and boredom, I was all in.

Fast forward many years and many pounds later – here I am trying to get control of my overeating. I’m trying to reduce the amount of food I eat. I’m trying to cut out the sugary treats that soothed me as a child (and as an adult). I’m trying to take away the thing that filled the void so long ago and still fills it now– duh! No wonder I have such a hard time!!  No one wants their security blanket taken away, not even 40 year old moms.

So how do I get rid of this attachment to food? By attaching to something else in the here and now. By securing an attachment to the family I have now, to my friends, to God, and to myself. I can give myself that secure, wanted feeling that I felt like I didn’t have when I was a kid. How exactly I go about doing that, I’m not entirely certain, but I’m willing to explore it because something inside me says this is worth looking into.

I know that I haven’t explained this well enough, but hopefully someone else can get a glimpse of what I’m trying to convey here and it will turn on a light bulb for them as well.  And this is just one theory that might fit me – I’m not saying this THE answer for everyone, but I think it’s worth exploring.

Does this resonate with you? Can you identify with any of this? Let me know in the comments or email me!


20 thoughts on “Attachment Theory and Overeating

  1. You are so right and you explained it perfectly. It was a light bulb moment for me as well and very worth exploring further. Thank you for posting this, 😉

  2. (warning, I’m oversharing): My dad comes from a german background, my mother worked (and was frankly a pretty angry person), affection and attachment were not the name of the game in my household growing up. Throw in a whole lot of dysfunctional on multiple levels (like a bipolar little brother) and viola! Total mess. I totally relate. I learned to cook for myself, I’d leave from and come home to an empty house, make something to eat, sit in front of the television, do homework, whatever, and eventually get ready for bed. I had a little black and white in my room too, and I retreated there often (especially when my mom kept taking in stray people who often stole from me or were aggressive), and yes, I retreated with food (even more, my mother was a bulimic and inflicted really bizarre eating rules on the rest of us, so I resorted to hoarding and hiding food – and what was offered to me I scarfed because it often got taken away.)

    I’m relatively close to my parents now too. They are not who they were, none of us are. Food is more than something to fill the void for me, I can’t even put a real label on it, because it’s huge. I figured out today the biggest thing I use it for is to think. When something is frustrating me, I kinda nosh my way through it until i figure out a solution (probably all that snacking a homework, I totally can blame my school now right? Kidding!)

    I didn’t have a horrible childhood, but I don’t feel it was a great one either. I know that some of this has been solved by having my own household, providing love and security for my children in a way my own parents did not (so far so good). But I still eat my way through frustration-thinking-problems.

    I think I have one of the worst relationships with food. Personally, if I never had to eat again a huge part of me would find that a relief (although the chocoholic in my head is scream “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!”)

    Figuring out what went wrong is fine, but the real trick is figuring out how to go forward, to choose a new relationship with food. It’s such a bizarre thing, food. Necessary for survival, pleasure-giving, security-giving, quantitative. Whatever relationship you establish, it’ll require constant reevaluation…and probably a bit of compromise. That chocoholic, she’s a demanding beast. 😉

  3. You explained it very well and I totally can relate. My parents divorced when I was nine, my dad disappeared from our lives, my mom had to go to work, and as the oldest child, I took on the household responsibilities…and food became my comfort. Knowing this is important, but now I need to do something with that knowledge…it’s time, past time even…

  4. Great post. I have understood for years that my binge eating and attachment to food is very emotional, and that I use food as my safety net and friend — but at the same time make it my enemy by letting it take control of me. It’s a constant battle, and just *knowing* this doesn’t make it as simple as stopping it. Still trying to figure it out…I know that when I exercise regularly, THAT becomes my attachment and a feel-good-place to go to, but I can rarely keep it up for more than a few months..and the cycle begins again from the start. I know therapy would probably help, but I can’t afford it. Hopefully I’ll get this all figured out before I’m 70 😀 Good luck to you with all this, it sounds like you have a great safety net that you can use as your tool for healing.

  5. My darling Jill,

    Thank you for the link, and thank you for so honestly sharing your story. Wow – it sounds like you’ve done some diggin. It makes a lot of sense that you sought connection and love in food. I have so much compassion for that tender little girl, for your parents, and for all of us.

    I loved what you shared about connecting with friends, loved ones and God, because that’s been my experience, too – those are things that help us feel safe to shift some of these self protective habits.

    Life takes so much kindness, I think.

    I feel grateful to know you!

    In love and care, Karly

  6. I don’t think I wanted the light bulb to go on.

    I read your post the first day it came out and had it opened up on it’s own tab to leave a reply. My lack of response may have come across as me ignoring you, but I was more ignoring the questions you posed.

    At first, I was convinced I didn’t relate to the attachment idea. After all, I heard, “I love you” from my parents often, and they were kind to me, and I think I had a pretty good childhood.

    Then it dawned on me, I don’t remember much, if any, cuddling, etc. I don’t blame my parents. My mother is handicapped and almost gave me up for adoption because she didn’t think she could take care of me. She wasn’t able to pick me up. I spent most of my time in a stroller, crib, or pen. She also worked nights. (I’m an only kid, btw).

    My dad, who I think is the best dad in the world, was loving but had hang-ups of his own stemming from his childhood when he was molested along with his other siblings from their dad. We had even discussed recently how he could have been a more affectionate father but didn’t want anyone thinking he was doing to me what his father did to his children.

    The past year I’ve come to realize I don’t hug my kids enough. I’m sweetly surprised when they come to hug me. DH complains I don’t reach out to him, either, that I seem just fine alone. But, boy, I reach out to food a lot. I don’t nourish friendships. But I nourish my face. Yes. Lots of comfort and self-soothing in food.

    Interesting. Thanks, Jill.

  7. You did a very good job explaining. And I think this is very helpful information. thanks for sharing. I am putting a link up to this post (hope that is okay).

  8. “I guess I took that to mean that she was too tired for me.”

    That is by far the most gut wrenching thing I’ve heard in a long time. That makes me so incredibly sad for you!

    Remember – don’t be too tired for yourself. To do the things you love, to take time for yourself, to listen to yourself, to play, to laugh, to grow… don’t be too tired for yourself. Please.

    Have a great day! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the reminder Heidi – there are a lot of times when I AM too tired for myself. I need to remember that I can be tired later, after I’ve done what I need to do for me! 🙂

  9. Sitting here at work crying–because this is such an amazing break through for YOU. And because it resonates so strongly for me. Thank you for sharing and articulating this. And many thanks to Karly. She is one wise woman.

    I feel so alone right now–with all kinds of things going on that I can’t really share with anyone, ya know? And I felt very alone as a child & adolescent. No wonder I fill my life–still–with food. I have never thought of food as something to cling to or attach to or belong to. For comfort, yes. For escape, yes. To get numb, hell yes. But I’ve never pictured having to give up the attachment to food so I can attach to people.

    This is such a huge AHA moment. Can’t wait to see where it takes you next.

  10. That probably sounds a bit harsh, but my mother got a little too attached after my sister moved out. I am not sure what exactly it was. Either it was because there was only one child left in the house which made her simply have more time to focus on me or if she really got more attached to me seeing my sister going. Anyways, I found it quite difficult. I wasn’t used to getting that much attention, and frankly I wasn’t that happy about it. I just wasn’t used to being hugged so much and whatever else came with it. I wasn’t much of a hugger myself, but you sure can get used to it ;).

    I used to be a lot more solitary as a person. I don’t like to depend on people or share thoughts and feelings. It’s not that easy starting a relationship being like that. There are a few things I just don’t tell. Ever. Often I feel like – why should anybody want to now that? I don’t think that is something I will get rid of. But I realized that life is much nicer if you have friends and people who care about you. Even if you don’t tell them every small detail of your life.

    I live now about 300 km away from my parents. My mother got used to not seeing me that often, and I learned to let people get closer. She stopped overcompensating when I am around and I am a little more understand of her. So it worked out fine in the end.

    1. I can relate to some of that. My husband is a talker – whatever is on his mind is what comes out of his mouth, but I don’t share every detail like he does. I always think “why would anyone want to know what I ate for lunch today?” I’m much more introverted than I appear on this blog!

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