You Say I Have a Problem. I Don’t Think So. Now what?
By Kathryn Cortese, LCSW, ACSW, CEDS
You’ve heard it all – “I’m worried about you.” “You keep going to the bathroom after you eat. Is something going on?” “Why don’t you talk with me anymore?” “You’re looking kinda skinny. Is this a good thing?” “Why are you wearing a sweatshirt? It’s so hot today.” “You seem to be eating more lately.” “Are you sure you really need to go to the gym?” “How come you don’t come out with us anymore?” “How do you stay so thin?” “You mean the plumbing is clogged again?” “Where did the left-overs go?”
And you’ve heard – “I think you have an eating problem … an eating disorder.” “Are you bulimic?” “I don’t know why you think you look fat.” Etc. And, what you know is, “You think I have a problem and I don’t think so.” Now what?
Well, you can do nothing. You can keep secrets. You can sadly suffer silently. You can worry about numbers on a scale. You can stress about your next family gathering. You can try on 10 outfits before you decide what you’ll wear for the day. You can compare your hips to someone else’s. You can go online and look at Facebook and feel inadequate. You can wonder, “Do I look fat?” You can feel guilty because you ate 2 cookies. You can feel shameful because you ate a sleeve of crackers. You can get up at 4:00 am and exercise for 2 hours before work because you “have to.” You can tell yourself not to eat breakfast or lunch because you’re going out with friends tonight. You can remeasure your thighs with your hands. You can tell yourself you’re disgusting because you ate ice cream. You can shame yourself to tears.
But then, you can push the pause button instead and just wonder – wonder why certain people take their time to tell you they care and they are worried about you even though they know: you’ll blow them off, you’ll get annoyed, you’ll be defensive, you’ll leave the room. Why would someone approach you anyway? Can you write down some possible answers? While you’re writing, think about the character of the person who brought their concern to your attention. Is this a decent person? Is this someone with a good heart? Is this someone who would love to give you a hug? Is this someone who matters to you? Is this someone with good judgment and values?
So, why do these people approach you? Is there something in it for them? If so, what would that be?
Now, take a moment and make a list of your safe people. It may be one individual, or a few, or more. Who can you share your thoughts about this essay with? When you think about your safe person or safe people, what do you know about them? In order for a person to be “safe,” you need to feel trust. This is someone you’ve known to show a sense of humanity. This person respects you and sees you as a competent individual with skills and talents. This person walks the walk and lives by what he/she says. This person will tell you the truth, not just what you might want to hear and doesn’t take advantage of you. He/she is strong enough to be there for you, not control or try to control you, and gives you space. While being non-judgmental, this person will share his/her opinions and thoughts. This person makes good decisions which are based on reality. This person is also open-minded and is interested in you and your ideas. This person has earned your trust. Sometimes this “safe person” is a family member, a friend, a professional, someone at your school, someone at work, someone at your house of worship.
What if this is something you choose to do today – pick a person and talk about this essay. Let this safe person know that your goal in your conversation is to exchange ideas, not to agree or disagree. Just to talk. Go ahead. Give it a try.
Transference and Countertransference in Working with Eating Problems – Part 1
By Susan Gutwill, LCSW
(This is the first of a 2-part series on the issues of transference and countertransference. Part II will continue next month in our April ENewsletter.)
The way one has been treated and the feelings it engendered in our formative early histories are repeated in every therapy couple. This is called transference. It is not a conscious process. But it is inevitable. If our patients have been abandoned, denigrated, abused, terrified, blamed, rejected, or taken over in their histories, they will transfer their learning from such relationships past, onto their expectation of us in the important intimacy of their current therapy relationship. Paying close attention to these patient expectations tells us a great deal about our clients’ early lives. (Freud)
Freud established that transference was a critical piece of psychotherapy, similar to dreams, another “royal road to the unconscious”. He considered countertransference the therapist’s response to transference of the client, something about the person of the therapist, which should be explored in the therapist’s personal psychoanalysis and supervision. Many theorists/practitioners have changed and added to that original idea. Today, psychodynamic psychotherapists believe that transference and countertransference are both important tools within psychotherapy proper, as well about the therapist’s private life. We have learned from object relations, relational psychoanalysis, interpersonal, and inter-subjective theories, as well as from evidence based studies, that countertransference is equally inevitable and important to good treatment as is understanding transference. (Racker, Wooley, Mitchell, Gill, Gill & Hoffman, Hoffman, Burke, Tansey & Burke) Feminist psychology, with its emphasis on nurturance, and equality and the anti-authoritarian stance the of the 1960’s and 1970’s have both impacted upon psychodynamic thinking positing that therapy should be based on a real, but bounded relationship. This relationship itself is a major part of the healing and growth our clients need, just as it is the base of all human needs for growth from babyhood throughout our adult lives.
Client’s feelings towards us inevitably pull for our own powerful countertransference feelings as well. Bion, Ogden and Racker, for example, teach us that the therapist’s countertransference response can be concordant or complementary (Bion, Ogden, Racker).
For Racker, concordant countertransference feels like empathy, e.g. “oh how horrible that must have felt for you.” As therapists, our bodies and hearts may feel shaken, like we are sinking into the feelings our clients have. Often, when we share our concordant feelings, our clients feel understood, and grateful for our empathy and recognition. (J. Benjamin)
Additionally, however, clients, (most especially, guarded anorexics), also may feel afraid of being deeply known and, therefore, open to being reinjured in ways they felt earlier in life. The theory of object relations by Ronald Fairbairn is particularly useful in working with eating and body image problems and trauma. He argues that when early dependency experience is very frustrating, even rejecting, we psychically split ourselves in order to accommodate the reality that we still have to depend upon the only caregivers that we have. We adapt by splitting our own ego, and unconsciously fantasize and imagine that we are the failures, ourselves. So, for example, we binge because we are afraid to admit to ourselves how hurt we are. It feels too dangerous to know our only caregivers are not reliable. We fantasize that if only we were better, they would love us, reliably enough. So, if we were only thinner, for example, we might yet be accepted, loved, and noticed. However, we further imagine, and the other side of the split screams at us, that we will never be good enough. There is really no hope. Thus, bad experience is internalized and split in two equally false options, an enticing part (if only I was thin) and a rejecting part (I’m hopeless, I want to shrink away, I am fat and ugly). This then becomes an inner relationship which is isolated, split off, and shut away from real human relationships in a deep freeze of profound fear. Fairbairn’s work in psychodynamic thinking, following earlier work by Ferenczi, opens us to the notion of the dissociative nature of the mind born of severe trauma. (Aron, Ferenczi, Fairbairn, Hainer, Howell)
W. Winnicott, writing at the same time, reminds us that being fed and held at the very beginning is the foundational relational experience required for life itself. Remember, that babies (Spitz) which are fed but not related to, fail to thrive. Eating is a relational experience.
Winnicott, like Fairbairn’s ego objects, talked about an isolated part of self which he called “the false self.” He meant that we accommodate to early caregiver’s needs to be safe in our dependent attachment. Hence, the goal of therapy is to find the potential to be a “true self,” never fully attainable, but the animus of a rich life which in itself is dependent on a safe early relationship of dependency. (Winnicott)
In treatment, clients may show their fear of being known right away or more slowly and subtly, and they do so repeatedly at different stages of therapy. However and whenever these frightened warning signals become known to client or therapist, therapists may feel either concordant or complementary counter-transference.
Examples of complementary countertransference might look like the following. We sense our client is endlessly compliant and it begins to feel “off,” “unreal,” “impossible.” We ask ourselves, “What am I missing?” Therapists may feel pushed away from the relationship, like “who are you kidding? I don’t believe you.” And often we women therapists feel guilty for having such ‘non-idealized’ suspicious and angry feelings. (Steiner Adair, Gilligan, Ruddick, Eichenbaum & Orbach, Chodorow) Women are supposed to nurture! And yet at this moment “if you keep kissing my rear end, I am going to go nuts!” This may be a case where empathy has flown out the window and a therapist feels controlled and as if they are being forced to live in a lie.
Complementary feelings are often dramatic and negative. Another example might be, “Do I have to hear you complain for the umpteenth time about how much you hate yourself for eating. We have been here so many times and you keep saying the same things, as if we had never worked on this.” Or we may ask ourselves “Why am I not buying this?” Or, “If I am so noxious to you, why don’t you go find someone else to work with?” Or, “You haven’t spoken in months. What are we doing here? Anything?”
Yet another countertransference response may indicate that we are swimming in the same soup as our clients, because of our own unresolved anxieties about eating and living in our bodies, i.e., I call this cultural countertransference and it is rarely discussed. I will expand upon this kind of countertransference in Part II of this series.
All therapists’ countertransference feelings are by definition, powerful. We alternatively may feel guilty, frightened, proud, fearful of confronting our clients, and more. But they all tell a story we need to enter and explore, again and again.
This critical and central piece of all our therapeutic work is carried out by what Harry Stack Sullivan, the father of Interpersonal Psychotherapy, called “detailed inquiries.” (Sullivan) He meant that we “get into it” with patients, that we explore their thoughts, behaviors, and feelings in detail. In a sense, we need to hold the curiosity they do not yet have.
We therapists have to be able to join our clients, again and again and again when they come in telling us they binged, threw up, or ate without hunger. We need to investigate, in great detail, their many moments, or episodes, of hating their bodies, of shaming themselves because of their bodies. The complaints usually begin with the same ritual that sounds depressed and/or like a monotone or super anxiety and are all filled with despair: “I did it again.” “I hate myself.” “I am so fat.” “I feel disgusting.” They may have eaten an entire pizza or a handful of grapes and a little bag of popcorn that was not on “their program.”
Our job is to bring these repetitive complaints that may sound like whining, alive. My definition of whining, by the way, is complaining without feeling entitled to the underlying pain. That is why they often sound annoying. But it is also hard to stay present when patients are super-anxious. These presentations regularly induce therapists into complementary countertransference responses. Whatever the presentation, what helps is to ask questions like:
What had happened just before you felt so fat, this time?
What had happened on your way to feeling fat? How did it make you feel?
Do you feel you are entitled to feel that way? No? Why not? How were feelings and especially your feelings treated in your family, your marriage, your friendship group? How do you feel our society feels about these kinds of feelings? Where does that show up in your life?
And where do you feel that in your body? We need to bring our clients into their bodies, where all feelings reside. Sometimes I do an exercise where I ask my clients to close their eyes and feel the couch. I then do a progressive relaxation to help them focus and enter the space of feeling. Or, clients shaping themselves into body sculptures, for example, can enact in their bodies what the inner self looks or feels like. These methods are endless and are personalized to what the therapist knows about a particular client’s history.
A great deal of therapy time brings clients back to the feelings they had when alone, this time with the therapist in accompaniment as witness. After the intense focusing I have suggested, therapists might ask, “so how do you feel now?” This works with compulsive eaters and for binges.
With anorexics, the path is rockier. Their defenses embrace more of their being. In other words, there is less of a healthy central ego/self. Our job is less directive, educational yes, but more focused on their life story, trying to “hold” a space for growth of self-in-relationship.
In doing all this, there is an inevitable transference/countertransference dance that is very challenging and essential to the heart of good therapy. We work in a real relationship where our impatience, horror, love, empathy, and hate, registers and demands to be understood. When we become curious about the details of these feelings, it opens the door to compassion and finally, some dignity to otherwise entirely shameful feelings.
To help with this demanding process, the ethics of psychodynamic therapy ask us to have our own deep psychodynamic therapy as well as clinical supervision. These are required in order to notice and work with what is unconscious and embodied. It is essential that therapists know what this kind of therapy feels like and what it can accomplish. As my first long term therapist put it to me, “I need to be as clean as possible, to know where my own responses are coming from, so that I can help you.” How relieving that felt to hear! She could own her part of our relationship…“response-able.”
As a psychotherapist who leads workshops in emotional eating, participants frequently ask me, “Why do I eat my feelings?” My experience shows there are four different flavors of emotional eating (also known as compulsive overeating or binge eating disorder.) Each of these patterns of overeating has its roots in a different stage of early childhood and requires different strategies to be overcome.
The acronym STOP can be used to remember these four types: Sampling or Grazing, Traumatized Overeating, Overworked overeating, and Picky overeating. In this blog, I’ll describe Overworked overeating, what it looks like, where it comes from, and first steps in making it stop.
Overworked overeaters power through the early part of their day, doing as much as they can and eating as little as possible, until tiredness and hunger overtake them. Many overworked overeaters skip breakfast. If they do eat breakfast, it is a low calorie meal, often lacking in sufficient protein and healthy fat to fuel a demanding work schedule.
Once they get going, overworked overeaters rarely stop to take breaks or eat a snack. Many of them will eat a quick lunch at their desk while continuing with the task at hand. Their first and primary focus is to accomplish as much as possible. Eating, relaxing, and socializing take a back seat to getting work done.
At the end of their workday, overworked overeaters find themselves hungry, tired, and frequently resentful of all the demands placed upon them. Dinner is not enough to fill them and they end up binging, usually in the late evening, on typical snack foods high in carbohydrates, fat, and either sugar or salt.
From a developmental perspective, overworked overeaters have not yet resolved issues which they first encountered when they were two to four years old, sometimes known as the “Terrible Twos.” At this age many children stage temper tantrums, demanding their own way rather than listening to caregivers’ requests. Children are learning about making their own choices and using their power to influence other people. “My way,” can become a frequent refrain of this time period. The terrible twos can be a hard stage for parents and children both.
Toilet training is also an important focus for this age. As children learn to control their bowel movements, they are taking on this task of self-mastery and sticking with it. This can leave them with a feeling of pride and accomplishment, and set the stage for them to take responsibility for other chores as they grow and develop.
But while taking responsibility is a sign of maturity, adults also need to know when to refuse it. Overworked overeaters are known to take on responsibilities at work, at home, with their children, or caring for people in difficult circumstances. If they are not discriminating, these overeaters risk biting off more than they can chew. They frequently have a hard time asking for help from others, or making statements like, “Right now, I just can’t take on one more thing.”
How can overworked overeaters begin to shift their eating habits? They need to practice doing things for themselves rather than others. Taking the time to eat a nourishing and well-rounded breakfast, including protein, a fruit or vegetable, and some healthy fat, is a great place to start.
Actually taking breaks during the work day to get up and walk, eat a healthy snack, or talk to a friend are other ways for overworked overeaters to give to themselves. Taking some “down time” after work to relax or go for a walk can be a great way to recharge before evening activities begin.
Another focus for overworked overeaters is learning to say “No” to some requests. It can be a breakthrough for these overeaters to realize they don’t have to take on everything that someone else left undone. Some projects are just not worth the effort. Sometimes, someone else will volunteer. Beginning to consider whether or not they want to take on a task can be an important step forward for overworked overeaters.
The, “Me, first,” exercise can also be useful for overworked overeaters. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper to create two lists. The first list consists of the things you do for yourself. The second list includes tasks you do for everyone else. Just looking at how long the second list is, compared to the first, can be eye-opening. Figuring out how to add to the “Doing for me” column and subtract from the “Doing for others” column can be difficult, but ultimately rewarding for this type of overeater.
Overworked overeaters have a tendency to place high demands on themselves and expect quick, perfect results. While this can be a strength at times, it can become self-defeating when they fail to measure up to their own (impossible) standards. Appreciating what they successfully accomplished at the end of each day, and what kind of difference it made for themselves or others, can keep their motivation high and set them on the road to adding further changes in the future.
Step by step, overworked overeaters can gradually begin creating a life which is about feeding themselves (both physically and emotionally) rather than just feeding others.