“ Why can’t I just control myself??” If you have an eating disorder you have probably asked yourself this question over and over, either in anger or despair. So today I want to tell you the answer by going way back to your roots.
It turns out there’s a basic skill called “self-regulation” that has everything to do with handling impulses and emotions. If you’re lucky, you had parents or caregivers who had this golden skill so they could just pass it on to you unconsciously, free for the ride. If you weren’t so lucky, your caregivers weren’t blessed with the skills of self-regulation. They couldn’t pass them on to you because nobody passed self-regulation on to them.
Although children are learning self-regulation skills (or not) throughout childhood, there’s a very important, very early time where transmission really occurs in earnest. It’s what developmental researchers call a “critical window,” a time when the brain sprouts a staggering amount of extra equipment dedicated to a particular task. The critical window for transmission of self-regulation is during approximately the first 18 months of life. A brain researcher named Alan Schore put it together that all that cooing and gazing that goes on between a parent and infant involves a process in which infants are gradually enabled to manage more and more stimulation, including positive and negative emotion. In this process the lucky infant is growing actual brain structure for future self-regulation.
How many of you got a say about how things were done back then? I didn’t think so. For the majority of you, your eating disorder represents, among other things, a valiant unconscious attempt to compensate for the brain-building that didn’t happen for you during that time. This would be too-tragic and mean-spirited a story to tell if it weren’t for another amazing thing scientists have learned about the brain, which is that it gives us a second chance. It may never be as simple as the unconscious download from a well-regulated parent in infancy, but you can still acquire self-regulation skills in conscious ways as a teen or grown-up. Check in next time when I go over the brain’s amazing ability to keep growing itself and the ways you can harness this ability to develop the skills of self-regulation.