Karen R. Koenig, is a licensed psychotherapist, motivational speaker and international author who has specialised in the field of compulsive, emotional and restrictive eating for more than 30 years.
She is a co-founder of the Greater Boston Collaborative for Body Image and Eating Disorders and a former member of the Professional Advisory Committee of the Multi-service Eating Disorder Association of Massachusetts.
During the past three decades, she has taught and made presentations to many venues from adult education centres to the Business Women’s Association.
Among other publications, her essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals and magazines. Among three of her books, there are ten foreign-language translations.
I was a chronic dieter and a binge eater. I had bulimia for about a year and a half; Then I went into therapy, and that was what helped me become a healthy eater. I am now 72, so that was half a lifetime ago. For the first half of my life, I had eating problems, but in the second half of my life I’ve been fortunate to be very comfortable with my body.
My mom was sensitive, and my father was stoic; she was a normal eater, but he was a clean plate person. He’d sit there reading the paper while I finished all the food on my plate. If I cried at the table, he made me leave the table.
I got a lot of unhealthy messages, and I used to diet a lot. I had this diary in which I wrote: “just eat an apple to me today, hurray!” And then, of course, we know what I would do the next day, I’d eat a whole apple pie.
I grew up to be a therapist, full of feeling, encouraging people to have their feelings, do things with them. I feel like my father needed to do that for himself, his suppression never stuck with me.
When I was 14, I told my parents— we’re talking about back in the early 60s— I wanted to go to therapy. I was pretty persistent. So I was fortunate that I had a lot of strong personality traits. I knew what was right, and I fought for it, for whatever I thought was right in myself.
I would have to see how people describe me to see if they describe me as intense. I’m pretty direct, and I have strong feelings, I’m not usually afraid to share them.
When I was in a camp, I would sit on the backs of our bunk and kids would come and talk to me about their problems. I must have said something intelligent because they came back.
I was many things. I started as a teacher, and I did administrative work.
Then I got a master’s in education, and then I just decided: I always wanted to be a therapist, I’m going to be a therapist.
I went back to school in my late 30s, I was maybe 40 when I got my degree in social work, and it just felt right. I like to do what I like to do.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTENSITY AND EATING
We use eating to self-regulate, and sometimes it’s to calm down and sometimes it’s to energise. I can remember when I’d be bored on a Saturday night, I was single, I did not need anybody, and I ate food, that was to brighten things up.
Sometimes it dims the lights and sometimes brightens it. It regulates whatever needs regulating.
WHO IS AN EMOTIONAL EATER?
Emotional eaters deal with the discomfort of emotions by using food to either ramp them up or tamp them down. It’s not that they misunderstand food cues, but they override them—I’m not hungry, but I’m lonely, so I’ll eat.
Sometimes people don’t know what they’re feeling. They also don’t understand that feelings have a crucial evolutionary purpose to our being just as eating does. So when you use one for the other, you miss out on great information in life that’s coming to you.
People are still warming up to the idea of feelings as messengers. Emotions aren’t talked about, and their purpose isn’t.
I did a talk to the bachelor levels social work class at one of the local universities, and I asked these people, of all people, what are our feelings for? No hands went up.
If they don’t know them, how can we expect the average person to?
They call feelings bad— they’re negative, they’re hurtful…
But actually, they’re just information— information on how to live life.
If you think of them that way, they’re just all value-neutral. There’s no bad or good, there are ones that make us uncomfortable and ones that make us feel great.
THE FUNCTION OF CONFUSION, LONELINESS, SHAME AND GUILT
With confusion: Let’s say you grew up with parents or family who said you always need to know what you’re doing, always have to know whether it’s right or it’s wrong. Well, life is not really like that, so people feel frightened when they are confused. They think it’s terrible, so then they have secondary feelings. First, they’re confused, and then they feel ashamed if they’re confused or uncertain.
Confusion just means you need more information, more time. It is very valuable to be confused because sometimes we have to shake up stuff in our heads to make sense of the world.
I don’t mind not knowing. I have to make some decisions, and I use the organic process: gather information, see if it proves right, go to the next level, and I only do it incrementally until I feel like, “ah now I know what I want.”
Boredom means we want something to do— Stimulation.
Loneliness means we want connection or attachment. It seems a wonderful evolutionary tool.
Guilt and shame have a similar purpose. Guilt is: “what did I do wrong?” Shame is feeling defective. Shame is that tap on the shoulder. To physically fit into society, I think there are times we do need to be ashamed of ourselves. Sometimes we disappoint ourselves; shame makes us reach higher.
It has functions, but again, they’re all value-neutral. It depends on the context.
ON THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON
I read The Highly Sensitive Person a long time ago. I think it’s really valuable for people, some of it is just temperament, some of it is what you learn. I do think that some people just feel feelings more strongly— But again to me it is value-neutral. If you’re somebody who feels a lot you get to be the therapist to people who feel a lot, that’s very wonderful.
TO HEAL FROM EMOTIONAL EATING
The first thing is to understand the purpose of emotions; they are to tell us what to do. That’s what they’re there for. If the bear is charging at you, you feel fear; you will run.
I have a quote, it’s the only quote ever in my office by R. D. Laing the British psychiatrist: There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain we can avoid is the pain of trying to avoid pain.
If you figure out a way to live life without pain, call me, because I want to get in on the ground floor, whatever your manufacturing.
What I teach you is how to manage it in such a way that it doesn’t feel as badly, but you get to either choose pain now or later, but you never escape it.
What we’re talking about applies not just to food. It’s all sorts of defences anyone has—overworking, shopping, numbing out, drinking, or a way of relating to the world that has worked at some point, but no longer or it breaks down at some point.
What was perfectly reasonable in childhood when no one was home, or your parents were arguing— was once adaptive, and now it’s maladaptive. It flipped over, it’s the wrong strategy to adulthood.
A good number of my clients come in and ask me for skills, they’ve got the hope, but they say: tell me how to do this. What are the strategies? And I think there are a lot of them.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THESE STRATEGIES?
One that I use a lot with comes out of something called rapid resolution therapy.
The main idea is that we are triggered emotionally by memories from when we weren’t safe.
I was talking to a client whose father died when she was younger; she said her brothers sexually abused her, and they moved from one country to another when she was young, and so the world wasn’t very safe. Men weren’t very safe for her. And so she goes to date now, and she’s hyper-vigilant, and that was probably useful when she was younger, but now she has a different way of deciding if men are going to be good to her or not.
Those memories, those feelings come out of memory, what I call ‘recall’ rather than reality.
Ask yourself: Am I safe? Can I manage this?
You have to ask yourself and stay aware.
Ask “where am I, am I in recall or am I in reality?”
Say: “Oh, I’m really frightened, but I really have no reason to be frightened, I’m going into a meeting with people I know. “
Sometimes it has to be practised right, to say that over and over. So they could reassure themselves that they’re safe.
This is Rapid resolution therapy. John Connolly is the originator of it. It’s pretty powerful stuff, yeah, it’s excellent for trauma.
TRAUMA AND EMOTIONAL EATING
There is a relationship between trauma and eating. If regularly dysregulated by outside things that happen in the family, a child’s nerves system will always be looking for the worst. It increases cortisol; it disrupts the production of serotonin and dopamine and things that calms us down. It can take a long time to repair.
UNCONSCIOUS BLOCKAGES THAT STOPS US FROM HEALING
One blockage is caused by us using food as comfort. The idea of just suffering without comfort is horrible, so people are very conflicted even though they say they want to give comfort eating up. They also don’t want to give it up because THEN they’re really going to be hurt.
Another blockage is using food to keep people away. A client today was talking about two bad marriages, she’s a very attractive woman she used food to stop men from hitting on her. I’ve found that for some sexual abuse survivors, it is a way of saying “you have no idea how I’ve suffered. Don’t treat me lightly.” It’s a way to say ‘I have a problem’ without using the words and telling the story.
Traits that make you vulnerable to emotional eating are: Being approval seekers and people pleasers, perfectionism, all or nothing thinking, being very hard on themselves, impatient for change and maybe a little impulsive.
Not that there aren’t people without eating problems who have those traits as well, but they really seem to mesh well with food.
DEALING WITH PERFECTIONISM
The way I approach perfectionism is I tell people this: pretend you have four baskets, you get to decide what you’re perfect or excellent at. One is perfect excellent; the other is good, fair, then poor.
I’ll give them examples. e.g. I want the pilot of an aeroplane to do a perfect job, or a surgeon, or an Olympic athlete who is performing. Maybe some other things, but not many. You don’t have to clean your house perfectly; you don’t have to make a cake perfectly.
Then you get to decide which goes where. Like for me, I want to be a great friend. I want to be a great therapist, and then there is, ‘I’m a good writer’. I don’t think I’ll ever be a great writer. That’s fine with me.
NICE BOYS AND GIRLS SYNDROME
There are times you want to be nice— Somebody has a gun to your head and wants your purse, you probably want to be nice. But if somebody hurt you all the time, disappoints you, shows up late, says mean things to you, I don’t think nice is appropriate.
Nice gal, nice boy syndrome is when you get the whole box of crayons, and you just pick always the nice one— don’t hurt somebodies feelings, don’t disappoint them, don’t make them feel bad. Then we sort of wrap our lives around that, and we’ve become like pretzels trying to make their lives better. We twist ourselves up. It’s just a lot of work, it’s exhausting. We do it unconsciously.
I said to a client today; you can cause adults disappointment, adults can handle it, we’re supposed to. It’s not a bad thing if someone’s disappointed. And it makes us stronger. I can’t imagine what a person would be like who was never disappointed and certainly no one I want to know.
The key is although it feels unsafe, it isn’t. And that’s the pivotal point if your father hit you, or your mother didn’t talk to you for three days because you talked back to them, that was unsafe, and it was very smart to be nice. But now that’s not going to happen, and if it does, you’re an adult. In an adult to adult talk, you are safe to say what you want.
I teach it to people. Over time, they’ll come in and say, “Somebody did this to me, and I told them off, it feels so empowered.” It’s a good feeling.
A small experiment I recommend is: You’re in the supermarket and a place where it’s mostly strangers, and someone cuts in front of you, you say: “Oh I’m so sorry, but I think you were behind me.”
Also, not saying ‘I’m sorry’ all the time. My office is a sorry free zone. They can say it once if they were late, but that’s it.
Grown-ups expect to be heard. People can take the small steps to feel empowered and then they want more of it.
I also tell them they’ll never forget how to be nice. You will never take your foot off the brake. You’re not mean because you don’t want to be mean. Mom was mean because she didn’t realise she was mean. So you can never be mean.
Nice boys/ gals are basing what it feels to be upset on how they felt mostly as a child, and that’s what they think other adults feel, which would be awful. But the other adults don’t feel like that. We have fully formed brains now; we have a different experience to look at upset, such as: “okay, I didn’t get invited to the party, the world won’t end.”
A THOUGHT EXCERCISE
What’s the biggest subway station you’ve ever been in?
Say, well, you want to go to the Bronx. So when a train from Brooklyn comes by do you get on it? How about Staten Island? How about Washington Heights?
No, no, no.
Our thoughts are the same way. They come around; you don’t have to get on them.
If you realise you are on the wrong train, you get off.
Think about thoughts like trains, only get on the ones that are going to the destination.
The other thing I use with thoughts is— let’s say this is about picking bananas, when you go to the supermarket, you could just take all the bananas and put them in your cart, and say no. What do you do? I’d pick out the bananas that I like.
Well, you do the same thing with your thoughts. You just don’t take them all home.
Taking the worst of you and making the best of it.
A BOOK THAT CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
The Moving Little Women.
When I read the book, the character Joe in it had a bad temper, and I don’t know how old I was when I read it, but I thought I had a bad temper, and I didn’t want to be like her, and because of her, I do think I did change that, and I’m not anybody would think of as having a bad temper now.
The one by R.D. Laing about pain— to me that just covers it all.
There is a great deal of pain in life, and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain. — R. D. Laing
WHERE DO WE FIND YOU?
Okay, my website is https://www.karenrkoenig.com, and my big news is that my eighth book will be coming out at 2021.
I have about 1400 blogs; you can sign up for them and just get them in your mailbox. I have a Facebook page on normal eating so people can stay connected.
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.