Judy Rabinor

Mothers, Daughters, and Eating Disorders

Mothers, Daughters, and Eating Disorders

As we all know, there’s no single reason a person develops an eating disorder. There’s a combination of cultural pressures, genetic predisposition, and relational factors that come into play. For the sake of this post, we’ll focus on attachment to the primary caregiver and its impact on the development of an eating disorder. 

Of course, there are homes where the father is the primary caregiver but in much of the Western world, the mother is the primary caregiver.  Mothers are the first attachment figures and their goal is to keep us safe, happy, and healthy. But if our needs aren’t met early on, food can get very wound up in that.

Insecure Attachment 

The majority of people develop a secure attachment with their primary caregiver – Judy estimates 80% of people in the world. Mom doesn’t have to be perfect; she just has to be “good enough.” When a person’s needs of safety and security are met, their emotional, cognitive, and psychological processes will all develop appropriately.

But when the primary caregiver is not attuned enough – they’re not feeding the child when they’re hungry, holding them when they need it, helping them sleep when they need it etc. – the child develops an insecure attachment. The child doesn’t develop the ability to soothe themselves and doesn’t trust that their caretaker to be able to do it for them. These are the kids who are most vulnerable to developing an eating disorder – because they’ll look to food for self-soothing. And food is soothing. 

To be clear, all people use food from time to time to soothe themselves. It’s only when a person has no other way to self-soothe that it becomes a problem.

BTW, there are many ways that people can self-soothe. One person might develop an eating disorder while another person becomes a workaholic. Perhaps there is a genetic component here, but we don’t know fully yet why one person does and another develops a different self-soothing mechanism.

The Past Matters

It can be easy to feel like what happened 25 years ago shouldn’t matter today. But understanding your past is a key to changing your present.

Judy gives a great example about a young client she worked with years ago. During therapy, the girl was able to pinpoint the day her eating disorder behaviors began (so rare, I know): it was the day after her sweet sixteen, when her friends stopped talking to her. To cope, she ate two bags of potato chips. 

When she retells the story in therapy, she’s able to experience the pain again, but now in a new way. She’s experiencing it with someone who is listening and attuned to her needs. As she’s telling it in the presence of a caring person, she’s having a different experience… and that can be healing.

The very definition of trauma, to me, is less about actual events but more so about how one experiences reactions to the events. Were they able to tell a caregiver or adult about it and be soothed, listened to, and reassured? If we think of trauma in this way, the healing is all about having to “reexperience” the event by retelling and having someone respond in a way that was needed the original time. 

Let’s take the example a step further. Let’s say this client is ashamed of crying. Instead of crying and finding a friend to comfort her, she’s eating. Judy would work with the client to pinpoint the moment(s) she learned it wasn’t okay to cry – in this instance, maybe it was her dad telling her not to cry because it makes her mother sad.

So how does that relate to the day she binged on the potato chips? Because the tendencies we develop as children will follow us for the rest of our lives. She learned that it wasn’t okay to cry, so instead, she used eating as a way to soothe herself. (By the way, when we explore this it’s rarely as clear cut and simple as this.) 

Becoming Curious About Habits

What much of therapy does is help someone recognize and understand their own habits, and put words to it. In that way, they can create new habits.

For example, from Judy’s recent book, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother, Judy describes a therapy session where a girl discusses her relationship with her mom. She says “She’s the greatest,” but her foot immediately started tapping nervously. 

Through therapy, Judy helped her patient find language for what her foot was trying to say. The goal is eventually to help her put words to all of her feelings regarding her mom.

Moreover, it’s important for someone to pivot away from the feelings of shame around their behaviors and rather question why they displayed those behaviors in the first place.

When Daughters Become Mothers

Mothers and daughters relationships can shift dramatically when the daughter becomes a mother herself.

For some people, It’s not until a daughter becomes a mother that she understands what being a mom entails. It can be a significant piece of the healing journey and she can develop a new level of understanding for her mom.

For example, we still live in a culture where gender roles are a thing. In that way, some women who may feel powerless, teach their daughters to be powerless. The daughter may have strong reactions like feeling anger toward her mother for this. Perhaps only until going through more of life and having kids of her own, does the daughter resonate with some of her mother’s powerless experience. She may then begin to process her relationship with her mom in a whole new way.

Podcast aired March 28, 2023

Rachelle Heinemann

Website: https://www.rachelleheinemann.com/

Listen to the podcast here.

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Why I No Longer Dread Turning the Big 8-0

Here’s what I’m most looking forward to.

By Judith Ruskay Rabinor

As published on February 13, 2023 in The Ethel, a publication of AARP

Eighty! Oh no! I felt crazed as I inched toward my 80th birthday last October. A cacophony of colliding emotions rattled my brain. I was no longer getting older — I had arrived.

Yes, I knew I was privileged, with a healthy husband and grown children who were flourishing, as were their families.  My professional work still engaged and inspired me. If, as Sigmund Freud said, work and love are the cornerstones of well-being, then I had a solid foundation going into my ninth decade. Also, reaching 80 in good health is a gift not granted to everyone. I knew that well, having lost loved ones and friends. I had much to be grateful for.

Nonetheless, during the months leading up to my 80th birthday, my emotions wavered wildly. As I was entering the “elderly” category, I hated thinking about frail bones and giving up driving at night. I hated owning my declining strength. The words of the poet Dylan Thomas echoed in my head, “Rage, rage at the dying of the light.”

So, I did what I’ve done throughout my life when facing transitions and dread. I wrote.

My Facebook page became my journal. I poured out my heart. Once again, I found that sharing my woes expanded my world. “Me, too!” wrote back family friends and strangers. The validation delighted me.

When the week before the big day arrived, I was amazed: Feelings of enthusiasm had mingled in with my dread. How thrilling to be honored with a gala party for 50 hosted by my children. The following week I went out to dinner with five of my high school friends, including one woman I had rollicked with in the playpen. Now I’m looking forward to attending my 60th high school reunion with, yup, my 80-year-old peers.

Never too old to climb a tree! Judy pictured with her grandchildren.

Perhaps these gatherings were responsible for buoying my spirits. Perhaps it was the writing that allowed me to dip into my dark feelings and access not only my fears, but my joy. Perhaps it was that I had recently taught two close friends to play pickleball and was on the court several times a week. Or maybe the sunshine offered magical powers. Regardless, what was real for me was feeling invigorated. And going forward, I anticipate bringing more joy into my life. Here’s how.

  • People

I’m a people person, and in fact, love does make my world go round. Recently I’ve been repeating what is believed to be a Swedish proverb: “Joy shared, twice the gain; sorrow shared, half the pain.” My supportive network of family and friends makes my heart sing. Now is my time to invest in love. Each time a grandchild reads me a poem or asks me a complicated question, I am transported back to my youth. “Would you want to live even if you are in a wheelchair?” asked my 10-year-old grandson Nat. “Do you believe in God?” asks his 16-year-old brother, Sam. Young minds excite and enliven me.

Research indicates that little acts of kindness lower our blood pressure and increase our self-esteem. I expect I’ll spend more time supporting friends who are ill and/or grieving. Having time to prioritize kindness is precious, and having compassion for others increases our own self-compassion, too.

  • Work

My professional identity has been as a clinical psychologist. Now I see fewer clients and enjoy doing more consulting and teaching and writing. I might even have another book in me!

  • Play

Sigmund Freud targeted work and love as the pillars of well-being, but he omitted an essential ingredient: play. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Making time for play and movement revitalizes wellness on all fronts — mind, body and spirit. I’m lucky to still be able to play tennis and do Pilates, and I’m on the pickleball courts several times a week.

  • Taking risks

I love to travel and just renewed my passport. In this new season of life, new journeys intrigue me, such as a meditation retreat in Costa Rica I am about to experience.

Somewhere I read that the secret to graceful aging is having the capacity to grieve and take risks and, of course, good genes. Though my father passed away at 54, my mother had a fine long run, despite some years with dementia, dying at 93. I try to give myself space to pause and honor major losses, such as the passing of loved ones, and seemingly minor losses, like the fact that I will never hitchhike through Europe. Reflecting on our losses can expand our capacity to appreciate what is ours right here and now.

In the end, aging, like every other stage of life, contains unique and unfamiliar challenges. For years, I’ve encouraged others to explore their inner resources and resurrect dormant interests. How lucky I am to have this time to tap into mine. Who knows what new passions and joys might emerge in the next decade?

Anyone out there 80 or over? Did you dread turning 80? Let us know in the comments below.


Judith Ruskay Rabinor

Judith Ruskay Rabinor, PhD is a licensed psychologist in private practice in New York City and on zoom. She is a writing coach and the author of three books: The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother (She Writes Press, 2021), Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex (New Harbinger Books, 2010 and  A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger, Hope and Healing in Psychotherapy (Gurze Books, 2002).Reach Judy at her website: www: judithruskayrabinorphd.com.

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No One is as Bad as The Worst Thing They Have Ever Done

By Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D

“I’m wondering if you can help me?” I met with 66-year-old Adrienne (a pseudonym) on Zoom.

Her 38-year-old daughter was refusing to see or have any contact with her.  “Our relationship is over, mother dear,” were Helena, her daughter’s words when she stormed out of Adrienne’s home a week earlier. Since then, Helena had refused to answer Adrienne’s calls, emails or texts.

As Adrienne’s story unfolded, I learned Helena was born a year after Adrienne suffered two profound losses.  First, Adrienne lost Adam, her first born, infant to crib death. Then, while Helena was pregnant with Adrienne, without warning, she lost her 58-year-old mother to a fatal brain aneurysm.

Adrienne described how she’d been enveloped by depression after these losses “I must have been a terrible mother,” she admitted, realizing she had spent most of Helena’s first two years of life in bed while a series of short-lived babysitters cared for Helena. “I know that my depression impacted my daughter big time and now I am paying the price.”

After our session, Adrienne sent her daughter a letter inviting her to a therapy session. “I’m eager to work on myself and our relationship, and I know how badly I’ve hurt you,” she wrote. To her surprise, Helena accepted her invitation.

Parental estrangement is a now a major social epidemic: Children of every age are making decisions to relieve themselves from what were once deemed mandatory family obligations. Parents and grandparents are now being simply cancelled out of adult children’s’ lives.

In anticipating this mother-daughter session, I thought about how I could be most helpful.  As a daughter, a mother and a therapist, I know all relationships are imperfect.  Most of us have done things we regret and often, don’t even understand. And yet, none of us are as bad as the worst thing we have ever done.  Luckily, sometimes life gives us a second chance. Would Adrienne be able apologize in a way that would feel sincere and heartfelt to her daughter? Would Helena accept her mother’s apology?  These are the questions that lingered in my heart as I awaited our next session…

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Making Peace with Your Imperfect Mother, Anyway

Writing has always been a personally enriching experience for me, whether I’m journal writing or putting together a short article, a chapter, or a book. Joining up with She Writes Press, the publisher of my latest book,  The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother offered me an unexpected gift: Besides publishing my book, they connected me to an inspiring community authors.

Just yesterday Kim Fairley published a new memoir, Swimming for My Life, documenting her traumas in the ultra competitive world of swimming, in the midst of daunting struggles at home. While childhood neglect and trauma are not a new story,  one thing that pulled me into conversation with Kim was the topic of immature parenting – this was a familiar experience to both of us. And what pulled both of us to Julie McGue, author of the adoption memoir,  Twice a Daughter: A Search for Family, Identity, and Belonging was that all of us believe that storytelling helps us make peace with what is…not what was and not what could be.

Kim, Julie and I will be presenting a panel at book fairs: Making Peace with Your Imperfect Mother, Anyway. From three different daughter vantage points, each of suffered. Each of us felt neglected, by our mothers, either concretely or emotionally, generally unintentionally.  But all three of us had an impulse to make pace with our mothers, anyway. Hence the title, Making Peace with Your Imperfect Mother, Anyway.  If you’re interested in bringing our panel to your community/mental health center, for a day of learning, training or fun, please email me for details.

A Long Bright Future (available here)

Swimming for My Life (available here)

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Many of us get stuck on previous hurts and wounds. We review old pain, often endlessly. I  am very familiar with this syndrome: in fact, looking back at old, unresolved pain was my motivation in writing my last book, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother. 

In my many years of writing and coming to terms with my own wounds, I was aware of The Negativity Bias, a concept from Neuroscience psychology: we are wired to remember the negative rather than the positive. While this Negativity Bias was a survival strategy for primitive humans (what would enhance a rabbit’s life: remembering the beautiful flowers at the river’s edge or the lion lurking in the forest? ) it is no longer essential for us, yet alas, it remains although we no longer live in the forest or the jungle. Unfortunately, this primitive wiring remains. This is simply the way, we humans, are wired.

To come to terms with old wounds, here’s an exercise that may help (it’s one of my favorites, you may recognize it from a previous newsletter):

Take a pause. Bring to mind an old or new painful experience.

Recognize what is going on, and just be with it

Allow the experience to be there, just as it is

Investigate with interest and self care

Nurture yourself with compassion

You can take your time and explore RAIN as a stand-alone meditation or move through the steps whenever challenging feelings arise.

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Renfrew Perspectives Winter 2022 Article – The Unexpected Gift of My Freudian Slip

The Unexpected Gift of My Freudian Slip

By Judith Rusky Rabinor Ph.D.

Elegantly dressed in a long black wool coat with a lush fur collar, Ella swept into my office that windy November morning, “I’ve come to a decision,” she said. “I’m leaving Al when Jeremy goes to college next September. I’m getting divorced.”

You can read the full article here.

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Lilith Magazine Book Review by Ilana Kramer

Much gratitude to Lilith Magazine and especially to Ilana Kramer, who so astutely  reviewed The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother. Ilana’s review highlights one of the most important themes of the book: the devastating impact of misattunement. So often I hear people speak about relationship ruptures and failures which occur not due to monstrous behaviors, but to the subtle trauma of misattunement.

What is misattunement? Simply speaking, misattunement is being out of sync with another person’s needs, feelings and thoughts. Misattunement occurs between parents and children, partners, siblings and even between friends.

Attunement is considered a critical component of bonding, especially important to parent-child bonding during infancy and early childhood. Even as adults, our need for attunement is a crucial part of feeling connected to one another. Attunement is the subtle process of letting another person feel that you are aware their needs and feelings by responding in a timely, appropriate manner.

Many people confuse attunement with attachment. Both are important: attachment makes a child feel safe, while  attunement makes a child feel valued. Attachment is more about holding, protection and taking care of another on a physical level. Attunement is mostly non‐verbal: that special look of love, tone of voice: how you speak  (not just what you say). Genuine attunement is about being feeling seen and known by another.

You can read Ilana’s full review here.

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Why write? Writing helps me think…and think about what I think about…

“Writing helps me think,” is another favorite quote I find myself repeating, this one from Dani Shapiro.  I have learned so much about what I cherish about being a psychotherapy in writing A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger Hope and Healing in Psychotherapy  Gurze Books, 2002 about the complexity of parenting after divorce, including my own, (in Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes Your Ex  New Harbinger Press, 2012 and about the importance of acknowledging ambivalence and the complications of all relationships in my latest book, The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother,  She Writes Press 2021.

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Like Mother, Like Daughter: The Legacies We Carry

Recently I stumbled across the film  Nocturnal Animals. A horrifying psychological drama about how the values we inherit shape our lives. When the film ended, I was left thinking about my own life. I kept replaying a short, provocative conversation between a perfectly made up and impeccably coiffed mother, played by Laura Linney and her idealistic daughter.

Over a martini lunch at an upscale restaurant, Linney warns Amy Adams, her newly engaged daughter not to marry the man she loves.

“He is just a writer, not very talented and will undoubtedly come to nothing much,” mother warns daughter. “In a few short years you will tire of him and break his heart.”

Amy Adams is enraged. “I’m not you, mom,” she tells her mother. “I am me and I want something different for my life—I don’t want the life you’ve created.”

“All women,” says Linney, turning to her daughter, “turn into their mothers.”

The daughter protests, insisting she shares none of her mother’s shallow, materialistic values.

Dryly, Linney warns her, “Just you wait.”

As the film unfolds the mother turns out to be correct: within a few short years, Amy Adams abandons her writer-husband in search of a more up-scale life and creates unimaginable chaos in both their lives,

As I thought about this compelling film, I was drawn back to examining my own relationship with my mother.  As a young woman growing up, I expected my life to unfold totally different from hers, yet, now she is gone and I realize just how much of my mother’s essence I have absorbed.

What about you?

Do you ever notice — or fear you are turning into your mother even though you may have been determined to carve out your own identity?

If so, the key here is to recognize that our primary caregivers create a strong influence on us, and if your mom was your primary caregiver, there may be some parts of her you mimic, like it or not.  But the good news is, with self-reflection you open the possibility of change.

Take a moment and think about the parts of your mother you emulate and would like to embrace. Now think about the parts or her you would like to avoid replicating.  Remember to be compassionate to yourself—and your mother, who may have bequeathed you her strengths, her frailties and some of each.

Here are some statements that can help you in your self-assessment. I hope some of these lines bring a smile to your face:

  • When I least expect it, I hear my mother’s tone of voice come out of my mouth when I talk to my children, my husband, my friends.
  • I realize I handle money — frugally or over-spend — like my mother.
  • I realize I send my children helpful e-mails just like my mother loved to send me newspaper clippings.
  • I recognize I dress like my mother.
  • I recognize that like my mother, I can’t help but give opinions even when I know I am annoying family or friends.
  • Your attitude about others’ table manners resembles your mother’s views
  • You complain about your partner the way your mother complained about her partner.
  • Your attitudes about food, weight and exercise resemble your mom’s attitudes

Don’t panic if you realize you have picked up more than you realize from your mom.  You may want to congratulate her for the strengths you inherited.  And if you are panicked by some of what you have learned: the first step in changing anything is recognizing what is—and making a commitment to change. If this article prompted any important reflections for you— write me!

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Making Peace with Your Mother, Rewriting Your Story: Workshop

Making Peace with Your Mother, Rewriting Your Story: Workshop

Last Friday I gave another presentation for The Renfrew Center Foundation on Zoom: Making Peace with You r Mother, Rewriting Your Story to 100 people on Zoom call. In talking about the mother-daughter relationship, I am amazed how many women still yearn to connect to their mothers. This does not surprise me. My latest book, The Girl with the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother (2021) was about my journey. Often, I am asked why I wrote this book.

The answer:

After my mother passed away in 2011, my own descent into grief surprised me. I was awed to realize how much I loved my flawed, imperfect mother, deeply and dearly. In fielding questions from participants in my workshop last week, I was struck with how often my own journey was replicated my workshop attendees. What’s important to stress here, is that making peace is not the same as forgiving: making peace is to reach a level acceptance. As Paula Caplan reminds us in Don’t Blame Mother, “We are taught to believe that pent up anger is a danger; the real danger is pent up love.”

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