The Hunger for Unconditional Love
“I feel empty inside,” a teenager describes from behind her curtain of hair. A poised mother of three voices these same words. A skilled teacher, a graceful gymnast, and a vibrant singer—they all share this experience. This feeling of emptiness.
Is it such a bad sensation? Yes.
Empty means hollow. These women feel fragile, brittle—ready to break. They feel as though a piece is missing inside of themselves. Longing to fill this empty space, bulimics binge and then purge—pushing out these painful feelings. Anorexics embrace the feeling of emptiness, turn it into a sought after goal. When this doesn’t make them feel better or causes their emptiness to become even more intense, what can they do?
Their perfectionism pushes them to try harder, restrict more. If they are thinner, they believe there will be more love in their lives. Isn’t that what society promises? Ad after ad shows excitement, popularity, and praise coupled with leanness. Magazines and music videos promise that slimness equals love.
But without the power of self-love, external answers cannot fill this inner void. If anything, it makes the emptiness worse. If a girl believes thinness will bring love and she ends up still empty and fragile, the disappointment is intense.
What can parents, other family, and friends offer to fill this emptiness?
Unconditional Love and Acceptance.
It sounds simple, but is not easy. However, it is one of the most important things that we can offer our children and other family members. Researchers have studied the need for social support, but it doesn’t require science to understand the fact that people need each other. People seek out family and friends to share good news and to celebrate. They share pains and disappointments because sometimes the most important thing is knowing you are not alone. Even more important then not feeling alone is the sense that you are loved and accepted—completely loved, warts, worries, dramas and dreams included.
Abandonment of Self
When growing up, children often craft their personalities and passions to please important people in their lives—particularly their parents. The “abandonment of self” has been discussed by William Shaver, MD, and other researchers. Everyone has certain talents that make up his or her unique character. When traits are rewarded in childhood, those qualities develop more strength. When other traits are ignored, they are pushed away. A child can sense what the parent sees as important. In attempting to please the most important people in her life, she works to develop the part of her personality that is rewarded. She smothers the part that is not as well accepted.
The problem? All of these traits, beliefs, and dreams are an integral part of the person. Individuals deny a huge part of themselves when those qualities are shoved away. And if those aspects are shoved to the back, what’s left? That big hole of emptiness.
“I feel empty inside.”
Does that mean “I feel that you don’t value whole parts of me?”
Does that mean “I’m missing something because I haven’t let myself be me?”
Does that mean “You don’t love this part of me, so I don’t love it, but I have nothing else to put in its place?”
“I feel empty inside.”
Two Kinds of Hunger
In the profound book, Eating In the Light of the Moon, Anita Johnston describes, “There are really two different kinds of hungers, those that come from the stomach and those that come from the heart.”
The problem with eating disorders is that these two types of hunger have become fused. Individuals are hungry for love, but unaware of the depth of that specific hunger, they focus on food—either filling themselves almost to a bursting point or rejecting it for fear of their intense longing.
Often families ask, “What can we do?”
Unconditional Love and Acceptance.
No Strings Attached
When offered the suggestion that parents need to show their child unconditional love, the responses can be surprising. Fathers have taken out their daily planners and written down—unconditional love. But this emotion can’t be put on a list and then checked off as completed. It has to be lived every day.
Another father related that when he and his family first came to the clinic, they had been told that the most important thing he could offer was unconditional love. He turned to his daughter in a family session and angrily swore at her, saying, “And that’s what I’ve offered, so why aren’t you better?” Unconditional love cannot have strings attached. Unconditional love cannot have an angry, bitter tone. Unconditional love cannot be directly tied to healing.
Healing may follow if the love is constant, but the love cannot be a carrot: “If you get better, I will love you.” The hunger is now. It is intense. This empty void needs love poured in with the message “I love you no matter what. I love you even if your view of the world is different than mine. I love you even if you want to pursue dreams that I don’t completely share. I love you no matter how much you might want to push me away.”
Simply. I love you. Unconditionally. No strings attached. No expectations.
Easy? No. Necessary? No question.
A Poignant Example
In the book How Can You Say That? by Amy Lynch and Linda Ashford, one of the most poignant examples in the first chapter is a father’s phone call with his daughter who was just accused of shoplifting. Uncertain what to say, he finally found his response, “There is nothing in this world that you can do that can make me stop loving you.”
Can you tell that to your children?
They need to hear it.
In an editorial, Sue Thomas Hegyvary describes a comment by a psychiatric colleague, “If one entire generation of children were unconditionally loved, most psychiatrists (and presumably most psychiatric nurses) would be out of work.”
Shouldn’t we start with this generation? Shouldn’t we feed their hunger for love?
By Martha Peaslee Levine, MD, & Richard Levine, MD
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2006 Volume 4, Number 2
©2006 Gürze Books
About the Authors
Martha Peaslee Levine, MD, & Richard Levine, MD, are located at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Martha is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry and Director of Partial Hospital and Intensive Outpatient Eating Disorders Programs. Richard is Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry and Chief, Division of Adolescent Medicine and Eating Disorders.