originally published on NourishingtheMother

As a psychologist specializing in disordered eating for several decades, I have learned how to view “mothering” as an archetypal force and to recognize how those who struggle with eating and food are actually starving for “archetypal mothering.”

Archetypes are concepts that cross all cultures and all time. For example, if you could go back in time, you could find the concept of “mother” and if it were possible to go into the future, you would probably find the concept of mother. You can find the concept of mother in any culture on the planet.

Think about “mothering” as a verb, which means to soothe, comfort and nurture.

We often confuse the “energetic” of mothering with the object of mothering (our biological mothers) or the concrete, physical symbol of mothering (food). Many who struggle with disordered eating confuse physical nurture and comfort with emotional nurture and comfort. This is not surprising, given that for most of us, our very first experience of being soothed and nurtured was with food — either at our mother’s breast or from a bottle.

This is why we use the term “comfort food.” At some level we understand we are reaching for food when we want to be comforted. But we don’t consciously understand that the food is simply the symbol of the mothering we want, and can never really completely fulfill that need – just as someone wanting more freedom cannot get it by collecting American flags. The flag is the symbol of freedom, not freedom itself.

While is not unusual for those struggling with disordered eating to have some struggle or frustration with their own mothers, this does not mean that their mothers are at fault or the cause of their eating difficulties. Struggles with eating and weight are very complicated and involve many factors.

What it does mean is that typically they are hungry for nurture and longing for comfort, but do not know how or where to find it, let alone how to give it to themselves. It may mean that when it is offered, they don’t know how to receive it or don’t allow themselves to receive it.

None of us ever got the “perfect” biological mother. There are always things we wanted and didn’t get from her (or maybe didn’t get enough of) or things we absolutely didn’t want and got anyway.

When we can understand mothering as a verb, as an archetypal energy, we can then understand how we can get “mothering” (comfort, soothing energy) from a number of sources. We can get mothering from our pets, our friends, our husbands, the neighbor next door, Mother Nature etc., even if we can’t get it from our biological mother. We can learn to soothe ourselves by going for walks, listening to music, writing poetry, doing yoga, etc. To do this, however, we need to develop a strong Inner Mother that listens and responds to our needs to be comforted, soothed, and nurtured — and understands how and when and where to give it to us.

We begin to develop an Inner Mother by connecting with the sensation of being soothed and comforted and by recognizing the energetic signature of nurture and nourishment. It is She that can be there to nurture us exactly the way we want and need, who can feed and sustain us emotionally as well as physically. Always.

As this Inner Mother grows stronger, she can function as an antenna, drawing us closer towards more sources of mothering and drawing more sources of mothering towards us. It is She that allows us to receive mothering when it is offered from others.

All of us can benefit from a strong Inner Mother that is neither overly indulgent (“Chocolate for breakfast? Whatever you want, Dear.”) nor harshly critical (“Chocolate for breakfast? What’s wrong with you!”). We want and need an Inner Mother that is curious and kind (“Chocolate for breakfast? Let’s see what that’s about.”) as she encourages us in a nurturing, supportive way to grow into who we are meant to be,.

The task of creating an Inner Mother can be daunting – but necessary for a fulfilled life. Since none of us ever got the perfect mother, the experience of the imperfect mother is also archetypal — in the sense that it crosses all culture and all time.

Perhaps there is a good reason for that. It may well be that no one has ever been blessed with an absolutely perfect mother because one of our tasks as human beings is to learn how to perceive and receive the energetic of mothering, consciously and deliberately, rather than remaining stuck at the literal, physical level of existence, continually feeling victimized by the limitations of our own mothers or frustrated by the lack of nurture in our own lives.

Perhaps this hunger for mothering is a path that can lead us in our personal growth towards greater consciousness, as it forces us to move away from relying on only the concrete, literal aspects of life to nourish and sustain us.

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