Healing Your Hungry Heart: Toxic Mothering and Your Relationship with Food

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One of the oldest psychoanalytic jokes goes like this: “If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.”

Our relationship with our mothers has a tremendous impact on how we see ourselves and also affects our relationship with food. If we are raised in an environment with a nurturing and supportive mother, we're more likely to have a positive self-image and a healthy relationship with food.

However, if our mothers are controlling or overly critical, that can lead to a negative self-image and disordered eating habits. After all, on some level food equals mothering and nurturing.

toxic mothering and relationship with food

The Food-Mother Connection

Why do we turn to food when we’re stressed, upset, lonely, or even tired? The answer lies in our earliest experiences of love, safety, and bonding, which are inextricably linked to being fed as infants.

When we see a parent nourishing a baby, we witness an exchange of love. Our earliest memories of feeling held and loved by our parents while being fed then creates a sense of safety and security that becomes intertwined with the experience of eating.

We begin to associate food with warm feelings of connection to another person. As we grow up, we may unconsciously use food to rekindle those feelings of love and connection. When we are upset or bored, turning to food can provide a sense of comfort and relaxation.

Food becomes a substitute for the soothing presence of another person. People can be unpredictable and unreliable, but food is always there when we need it. It provides a reliable source of comfort and familiarity, giving us a sense of stability and security in a sometimes unpredictable world.

It's essential to recognize the impact that our mothering experience has had on our relationship with food and ourselves. By becoming more aware of these patterns, we can start to make changes that will lead to a healthier relationship with food and a more positive self-image.

The illusion of the perfect mother

The ideal mother is typically portrayed in the media as nurturing, loving, and selfless. She’s often viewed as responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of her children, while also managing the household and supporting her partner. She is expected to be patient, kind, and to prioritize her family's needs above all else.

Mother's Day can be a bittersweet time for those who don't have the experience of anything close to an ideal mother. The holiday can bring up feelings of sadness and disappointment. Seeing social media posts or commercials depicting loving and nurturing mothers can be a painful reminder of what's missing. It can also trigger feelings of guilt or shame for not appreciating or even resenting the mother you have.

For those who have lost their mothers, the day can be especially difficult, as they may feel a profound sense of loss and grief.

Mommie Dearest” is a memoir by Christina Crawford, detailing her difficult and abusive relationship with her mother, the Hollywood actress Joan Crawford. The term “Mommie Dearest” has since become a cultural reference for a controlling or abusive mother figure.

Although not all difficult mothers may exhibit the same level of horribleness and viciousness, there are several common personality types that are often associated with toxic mothering.

Identifying the type of mother you had can help you better understand yourself, and illuminate a path to creating change. Here are some common types of mothers:

Intrusive Mothers:

Intrusive mothers want to know everything that's going on in their kids' lives. They read diaries, snoop through text messages, and demand to know what their kids are doing or thinking at all times.

While these mothers might have the best intentions, their behavior can damage their children's sense of autonomy and privacy. When kids feel like their every move is being monitored and scrutinized, it can lead to a sense of helplessness and even paranoia.

By imposing their will on their children and failing to respect their boundaries, they can inadvertently drive their children toward behaviors that are harmful to their health and well-being. This kind of mothering is often associated with withdrawal from others. For people with this type of mother, isolating is a way of keeping out intrusive questions and dealing with boundary violations. 

Ultimately, the key to creating change is to establish healthy boundaries and learn to assert yourself. By setting boundaries and communicating clearly with your mother (or anyone else who is similarly intrusive) can create a sense of autonomy and control that will help you navigate the world in a healthier and more positive way.

Mini-Me Mothers:

The Mini Me Syndrome is a parenting style that can damage your sense of self and individuality. These mothers want their children to reflect them and live up to their own expectations of who their kids should be, instead of cultivating their child's unique personality and interests.

Kelsey* recalled wanting to learn how to play the drums, only to be told by her mother, “Don't be ridiculous. I like the piano, not drums.”

Another mother told her daughter, “You can't vote Democrat. We're Republicans.” These types of mothers cannot fathom the idea that their children have separate wishes, ideas, and beliefs.

The problem with this type of mothering is that it can make you feel as if you’re not allowed to be authentic and true to yourself. Instead, you feel you must conform to your mother's expectations and beliefs, which can be limiting and stifling. This leads to feelings of frustration, resentment, and even depression. Eating or bingeing are ways of managing those emotional states.

One way of rebelling against these pressures is through weight. My client Analise was a hundred pounds overweight and covered in tattoos. She said, “My mother wanted me to be skinny and look appropriate, whatever that is. Too bad for her.”

For Analise and others with this kind of mother, having a bigger body may be a way of saying, “This is my life and my body. You can't control MY body.”

However, this can be just as damaging as the mother's behavior. It's important to assert yourself in a healthy and positive way instead of in a way that hurts your body and self-esteem.

If your mother cannot recognize and accept your uniqueness, grieve what you did not get, and then encourage yourself to pursue your own interests and your own path in life. When you develop a healthy sense of self, a positive relationship with food and your body will follow.

Indifferent Mothers:

There are many reasons why mothers might be indifferent, including depression, a lack of interest in parenting, or a lack of nurturing in their own childhood. If your mother was indifferent, it can leave you feeling like you're not important or valued. You might yearn for a level of connection and mothering your mother can’t or won’t give, which feels painful. This can lead to a sense of emptiness that you might try to fill with food.

You might fill up on food as a way of expressing your wish for the kind of loving fulfillment that you never got. You might use food to fill the void left by an indifferent mother, but then feel humiliated and ashamed just for longing for that kind of love and attention. This can sometimes also lead to purging as a way of getting rid of that humiliation.

The key to change is learning to be more nurturing and supportive towards yourself and not to be indifferent toward your own emotions and needs. With time and effort, it is possible to heal the wounds of the past and create a kinder, loving relationship with yourself.

Intrusive AND Indifferent:

Mothers who are both intrusive and indifferent create confusion and pain. These mothers are overly invested in certain aspects of their child's life, such as academic performance or extracurricular activities, while neglecting other areas, such as emotional support and nurturing.

This inconsistency is not only confusing, it can lead to a sense of isolation and disconnection. You might feel like you’re not allowed to express your emotions or seek support.

This kind of mothering can lead someone to turn away from relationships and toward food, as they feel like they can't trust anyone to provide them with the emotional support and nourishment that they need. People are unpredictable and unavailable, but food is not.

Remember that you deserve to be supported and nurtured in all aspects of your life. When you give yourself the support you need, you will stop using food as a source of comfort or distraction.

Little Girl Mothers

Little Girl Mothers are mothers who rely on their children to take care of them emotionally. They often share their problems with their kids, ask for their opinions, and expect them to be concerned and caring about their well-being. When you have this kind of mother, you feel as if you have to take care of their mother instead of being taken care of themselves.

When you are mothering your mother, nobody is mothering you. This can lead to a sense of deprivation and emptiness that can be incredibly difficult to deal with. You may not be aware of your own needs and emotions because you’re so focused on taking care of their mother.

In other words, you take care of your mother. And food takes care of you. You can change this dynamic by learning to prioritize your own emotional well-being. It's okay to say no to your mother and to focus on your own needs and emotions.

Narcissistic Mothers:

Narcissistic mothers are primarily focused on themselves and their own needs, often at the expense of their children or anyone else. These mothers may view their children as extensions of themselves and demand that their children meet their needs and expectations, rather than considering their children's own desires and goals.

If you have a narcissistic mother you may struggle with feelings of neglect or mistreatment, as you are constantly overlooked or dismissed in favor of your mother's needs. You may feel like you are never good enough or that you can never meet their mother's high standards.

In some cases, narcissistic mothers may use their children as a way of boosting their own self-esteem, rather than providing emotional support and nurturing. They may demand that their children achieve certain goals or milestones in order to reflect positively on them, rather than considering what is best for their children.

Know this: you deserve to be treated with love, respect, and compassion. Setting boundaries and learning to prioritize your own emotional well-being can be a helpful first step in coping with the impact of a narcissistic mother.

Critical Mothers:

Critical mothers are focused on their children's flaws and shortcomings, often pointing them out in a critical and negative way. They use criticism as a form of control or manipulation, trying to shape their children into the person they want them to be rather than accepting them for who they are.

If you had a critical mother, you may struggle with feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, or feel like you can never measure up to their mother's high standards. This can lead to self-doubt and a lack of confidence in your own abilities and strengths. You might feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells around your mother, never sure when the next criticism or negative comment will come.

In some cases, critical mothers may be dealing with their own insecurities and may use criticism as a way of deflecting attention away from their own shortcomings. They may be overly focused on their children's flaws in an attempt to distract from their own perceived inadequacies. This explains their behavior but an explanation is not an excuse.

You are not defined by your mother's criticisms. Learning to develop a strong sense of self-worth and self-acceptance lessens the impact of that criticism. Remember that you deserve to be treated with love, respect, and compassion, not just from others but from yourself.

Controlling Mothers:

These mothers try to control every aspect of their children's lives, from what they wear to who they spend time with. They are domineering and dismissive of their children's desires or opinions, believing that their way is the only way.

Children of controlling mothers struggle with feelings of powerlessness and a lack of autonomy, feeling as if they have no say in their own lives. This can lead to a sense of frustration and a lack of self-confidence, not trusting your own thoughts or decisions, and being unable to assert yourself.

In some cases, controlling mothers may be motivated by a desire to protect their children, but their methods may be misguided. They may believe that by controlling their children's lives, they are keeping them safe and ensuring that they make the right choices. However, this type of parenting can actually be harmful, as it can prevent children from developing a strong sense of independence and self-reliance.

You deserve to have control over your own life. Learning to set boundaries and assert yourself in a respectful way can be a helpful way of coping with the impact of a controlling mother. Remember that you have the right to make your own decisions and live your life on your own terms.

Addicted Mothers:

Growing up with an addicted mother usually means experiencing neglect, abuse, and instability. These mothers may struggle with addiction to drugs, alcohol, or other substances, which can have a profound impact on their ability to parent. They cannot provide their children with emotional support, stability, or consistency, as their addiction may cause them to prioritize their own needs over those of their children.

Children of addicted mothers struggle with feelings of abandonment, as the addiction essentially takes her away from them. They may also experience feelings of guilt, since kids often blame themselves and believe they are somehow responsible for their mother's addiction. The lack of emotional support or stability can lead to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Remember that you deserve to be treated with love, respect, and compassion, and that there is support available to help you navigate the challenges of growing up with an addicted mother. While it can be incredibly challenging, healing is possible.

Nurturing Mothers:

Having a nurturing mother is a wonderful experience, as it provides us with the emotional support and care that we need to grow and thrive. A nurturing mother consistently shows an appropriate amount of curiosity and care about your emotional and physical well-being, allowing you to have your own identity and supporting you in your personal growth and development.

Children of nurturing mothers feel a sense of security and comfort, as they know that their mother is there for them and cares about their well-being. This leads to a range of positive outcomes, including greater self-confidence, a sense of autonomy and independence, and a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

Even if you didn't have a nurturing mother growing up, it's never too late to cultivate a nurturing response to yourself. You can learn to treat yourself with kindness, compassion, and care, just as you would treat a friend or family member. That means learning to be gentle with yourself when you make mistakes, and practicing self-compassion instead of self-criticism. It can also involve setting aside time for self-care activities.

You deserve to be treated with love and care, and that it's possible to develop a nurturing relationship with yourself, even if you didn't have a nurturing mother growing up. Ultimately, cultivating a nurturing response to yourself can help you overcome challenges and difficulties, and leads to a greater sense of happiness and fulfillment in your life.

Keep in mind there are two mothers; the actual mom who raised us, and the mother that we internalize.  When you can find a way to nurture, accept and support yourself, you will be less likely to use food to cope with sadness, emptiness, frustration, loneliness, or any other painful or upsetting state.

Ultimately, it's important to remember that our mothers, like all parents, did the best they could with what they had at the time. While it's easy to look back and see the flaws in their parenting, it's crucial to approach the situation with empathy and understanding. By doing so, we can heal the wounds of our past and create healthier, happier lives.

 The Author



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Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.


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