How much of our relationship to food is about seeking safety? I’d like to know the answer to this question. I also understand that the answer is variable and individual and therefore impossible to answer in an objective way.
Since Abraham Maslow proposed the idea of a hierarchy of needs in the 1940s, we have generally had a picture of physiological needs as the basis of a pyramid. That means physiological needs are the priority. After that, comes the need for safety, then the need for love and belonging, etc.
But it’s really not that simple. We aren’t a perfect pyramid built one layer at a time. We need to feel safe or we may throw up any nourishment that’s available. We need love and belonging to feel safe so it’s impossible to meet our physiological or safety needs without incorporating that next layer of love and belonging. If this were not true, it would be the norm for babies to thrive whether or not they recieve love and attention.
Perhaps it would be more helpful to view ourselves as layer cakes. The layers support each other. Each is the same size. Each is equally important. When tasted together, the flavors enhance each other.
A layer cake is a stable tower when the layers are securely held together. In a cake, we use frosting as the glue that both sweetens the tower and keeps the layers connected. In people, the frosting is attachment.
Secure attachment looks like frosting applied with a steady hand. It has uniform thickness across the layer. The amount is perfectly matched to the thickness of the layers. Secure attachment feels safe.
When our attachment style develops as avoidant, dismissive, ambivalent, anxious, or disorganized, we may not always feel safe in our relationships. This can affect any or everything in our lives and may manifest in our relationship to food.
Sometimes, we will need a full pantry to feel safe. Sometimes, the urge to eat or not eat will be about the feeling in our stomach. Sometimes, we need to feel soothed by the act of swallowing.
Most often, overeating or binging and purging are characterized as attempts to fill a void. Again, that seems like an oversimplification. If a person to whom I felt anxiously attached withheld food from me during my developing years, I may feel a need to protect myself from starvation any time a similar feeling appears. That feeling may be triggered by an event that looks situationally different, but feels the same.
If I eat during an emotional flashback (heightened sensation moment), I’m not really trying to regain attachment. My lower brain is signaling me to survive. I have to calm the lower brain before I can begin to consider repairing attachment. That means getting past the feeling and/or subconscious belief that I won’t survive.
Once I am able to recognize what’s happening in the moment, I can explore the food and eating choices I make any time I experience this trigger. Without this recognition, the subconscious will continue to sabotage well-intended eating plans.
We often feel guilt or shame when we fail to follow an eating plan. Understanding that your body may be seeking safety without your conscious knowledge can help alleviate guilt and give you a beginning point for exploring how this affects your relationship with food.
With insight and exploration, it’s possible to move the subconscious to the conscious. From there, all change is possible.