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Strengthening Your Inner Nurturer
An excerpt from When Food is Comfort by Julie M. Simon
Current brain science shows that a lack of consistent emotional nurturance in infancy and childhood, when the brain is being formed, can result in difficulties with self-regulation, causing us to seek comfort and nurturance outside ourselves, often in substances, like food, and behaviors such as overeating. The good news is that our history is not our destiny and the brain can be rewired.
In When Food Is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating, author Julie M. Simon, explains that emotional overeaters can learn to self-nurture instead of turning to food for comfort, through the simple, easily masterable skills she offers. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
Most of us can access a supportive voice when we speak to small children or animals. What voice would you use if you were assisting a child lost in a department store? How would you speak to a stray dog or cat? You would want the distressed child or animal to feel comfortable while you tried to help. You would probably use a very soft, comforting voice. That’s your Inner Nurturer voice! It may feel difficult to access if you haven’t practiced it very often, but it’s there.
If you have trouble accessing your own Inner Nurturer voice, you can model the voice of a caring relative, mentor, teacher, therapist, neighbor, peer, or colleague. You can use the voice of a public figure you admire, or a television or radio personality. One client of mine used the voice of his father, who had long ago passed away. Another used the voice of a nurturing church elder.
During my own journey as an emotional eater, I had difficulty routinely accessing a wise, mature, kind, nurturing internal voice. I knew this voice existed: I used it when I spoke to small children and animals and when I comforted friends and family members. But when I was upset or stressed, this voice was nowhere to be found. The adult voices in my head tended to be neutral or harsh. I regularly criticized, judged, and shamed myself. My Inner Critic was very overdeveloped. The part of me that regularly turned to food for comfort, my feeling self, was very immature. When I attempted to set limits with myself, especially with food, that young part of me would rebel and demand that her needs be met. When I attempted to access a nurturing, limit-setting voice, saying things like “It’s best if we stop eating now — we want to lose weight,” my feeling self would respond with an adamant “I don’t care. I want something now!”
At these times, my fledgling Inner Nurturer was more of an Inner Indulger, colluding with my feeling self and getting me into trouble with food. I’d hear my Inner Indulger voice say something like “Yeah, we had a really hard day. Let’s stop for some cookies — we’ll do better tomorrow.” Sometimes my Inner Critic could act as a limit setter (more like a drill sergeant) and rein them both in, but more often than not, that young part of me had the last word.
You can learn to access and strengthen the voice of your Inner Nurturer through a simple, three-step process I call Reinforcing the Alliance. In step 1, your Inner Nurturer reminds and reassures your feeling self that she is on the scene and ready to help. Step 2 involves flooding your feeling self with loving and supportive phrases. Many of us haven’t had enough exposure to kind, compassionate people, and we aren’t familiar with the words that represent loving support. In step 3, you’ll get crystal clear on how to comfort your feeling self.
Step 1. Remind and reassure: Inform your feeling self that your Inner Nurturer is on the scene and ready to help.
Once you’ve popped the hood and validated your feelings, jot down a few sentences in your journal that convey to your feeling self that your Inner Nurturer is on the scene and available. Pick phrases that really resonate with you — ones you find particularly nurturing.
Step 2. Offer love and support: Flood your feeling self with loving and supportive phrases.
Take the time to write a couple of phrases of love and support to your feeling self. Select phrases that really call to you. Don’t rush through this step. You deserve the same loving-kindness that you offer others. Try to feel the love and support you’re giving yourself.
Don’t worry if it still feels awkward using this voice and talking to yourself in this way. It will take time for this voice to feel natural, and you may have to “fake it until you make it.” You can think of this step as a mini self-lovefest.
Step 3. Offer comfort: Calm your feeling self with soothing words and gestures.
You know how to distract and pleasure yourself with your favorite foods and engaging pastimes. But do you know how to truly comfort yourself? In this step, you’ll explore and practice new ways of comforting yourself and get clear on what feels most soothing. With this skill firmly under your belt, you’ll be able to comfort and soothe yourself anytime, anywhere.
It’s often easier to think of behaviors that are comforting, such as taking a bath or listening to music, than words and gestures. Many of us find it difficult to find the right words to comfort ourselves. And when our Inner Nurturer voice is still wobbly, its soothing words may not feel all that comforting.
Think about a time recently when you were upset. Perhaps it was an argument with someone. Maybe someone said something unkind to you. Perhaps you had negative thoughts about yourself; maybe you were feeling bad after comparing yourself to someone. Maybe you were worrying about your health, or perhaps you had a large, unexpected expense.
Whatever the situation, think about what someone else could say to you to comfort and soothe you. Take a moment and write down a few phrases of comfort. Using your Inner Nurturer voice, say these phrases out loud, as compassionately as you can.
How does it feel to say comforting, soothing phrases to yourself? Does it feel awkward and unnatural, like when you were first learning to ride a bicycle or speak a foreign language? Does your own voice feel the slightest bit soothing? If not, why is it that you don’t consider your own voice soothing? What qualities do you attribute to others that you don’t attribute to yourself? How is it that you can soothe a friend, a small child, or a suffering animal but not yourself? It takes time to build and strengthen the voice of your Inner Nurturer. Your own voice can feel just as loving, supportive, and comforting as anyone else’s. It’s just a matter of practice.