Attachment Deficits and Emotional Hunger
It can only be described as heart hunger.
Like when your belly is hungry for food it aches until it gets fed. That’s what it feels like. It aches in a whole body kind of way. It’s hungry for food to quelch the deep heart and belly ache that’s been there all along. “Feed me” says the emotional hunger. “Feed me now or I feel like I might die.”
So just like a hunter looking for food to fill the belly knowing that peril is close at the edge of complacency, our survival depends on finding a source of emotional nourishment. We are programmed to attach for safety. We are not designed to survive outside a tribe that truly looks out for our safety. Not a tribe that cannibalizes itself with cruelty, gas lighting, dissociation as a constant norm, violence and rewriting stories that deny plain truths. How can anyone move into adulthood without emotional hunger under those circumstances?
Living with lack of safe and secure attachment means we look for it until we find it. And, when we are particularly hungry due to lack of attachment food, we take what we find on the path. Our survival depends on it. That’s what our evolution has dictated until recent times. Not belonging to a tribe meant we might die. And now, that’s how it still feels in our bodies. Sometimes, the emotional hunger subsides when we realize food isn’t coming and we try to numb out sensations of hunger. We numb out all over because emotional hunger is a whole body thing. We need to not fall apart until our next meal arrives or is discovered. We find many ways to distract ourselves from real hunger for food, don’t we? Same goes for emotional hunger. But the numbing only lasts as long as it over powers our need to attach. Some people turn to stronger sources of numbing: food, drugs, work, spending money, gambling, sex, etc etc.
Yet the hunger grows as we get older, crying to be fed or to be healed. One or the other, isn’t it? The holes in us get bigger or smaller. They don’t stay the same.
If we don’t heal our original attachment deficits, we might off load our emotional hunger onto our kids.
We might think we are loving our kids but we might actually be trying to feed our emotional hunger through the love and attachment we want our kids to have for us. Over involvement, resisting our kids’ individuating, lacking boundaries, thinking attachment means staying overly engaged in our kids lives as they grow into adults can be some signs. We can’t have emotional hunger truly fed by a partner so we will look at the next best thing, our kids. We might think we are loving our kids but we might be actually showing love SO THAT we get fed by them and they fill that empty space in us. Sometimes our kids will pick up on our holes and scramble to make sure we are ok because them being ok depends on us being ok.
Emotional hunger is a whole body, whole organism sensation. It’s painful. Empathic people feel other people’s pain.
To feel it, we might be swallowed up by it. If we don’t have enough food, all we can think of is food, no?. If we didn’t have the safe and healthy attachment we needed in our childhoods, the emotional nourishment we need to grow our spirits and minds and hearts, it’s like trying to grow healthy bones out of empty calories, out of Fruit Loops or, even worse, saw dust.
We take it from people we know we should stay away from when in so many ways they show us we should turn away. Turning away means sitting with the ache of emotional hunger. We rejoice in those moments we feel full. But they don’t last. Attachment deficits leave holes in us that need repair. They need the spiritual power of grief to heal. They need the sting of pain or even anger to be signalled into repair. The kind of pure pain that isn’t clouded by dramatic endings or beginnings. To repair, the original source of these wounds needs to be felt and held and guided into a new type of wholeness that has nothing to do with getting what we really really wanted. They require giving up on those people we so wish could have or would have or should have but have no ability to repair the damage. We have to grow up now without the people we wished could have ushered us into adulthood as relatively whole, with heart and spirit bellies full of attachment food.
That original pain is the alchemist. We can learn to come back to life to ourselves when we can see that living with that emotional hunger won’t kill us, won’t eat us up from the inside. Medicating it with temporary fixes never lets it repair. We can’t run from it. It’ll catch up with us eventually. Today, we have even easier ways to run from it like shopping for people in online catalogues coupled with sped up intimacy via constant texting and contact.
Online dating is like Uber Eats for people living with an attachment deficit.
We can chase away the emotional hunger with a new fix. We never have to sit with it. We can escape with simply turning to our phones for some empty calories anytime we want. Sure, some of us with attachment deficiencies might ‘luck out’ and find ‘the one’ who can lead us to healing. I’m a skeptic though. The fantasy of THE ONE is another temporary cure for emotional hunger. Even drifting off into the fantasy in our minds can fill those attachment deficits for moments at a time. We dissociate from our pain when we get pulled into the dream world that someone can permanently take away the pain of what we didn’t get.
There is hope.
We aren’t meant to walk this road to wholeness alone. Just like we weren’t able to survive alone from the time we were born, when we needed the emotional nourishment to grow a healthy spirit and heart. We can repair those holes with the help of people who get it. Childhood trauma and attachment experts get it, the ones who know we are more than brains and minds. They can be part of holding us so we no longer look for escape in dissociative behaviours that temporarily take the sting away.
Humans have experienced traumas from the beginning of our history. The difference now is that we have this pervasive idea that we should be able to recover outside a tribe or community. There was always a healer in a tribe. We need to find our wise healers who know how to bring us into wholeness again. We need the wisdom and care and love that can’t be found in one person alone. We need each other. We can get enough attachment nourishment from people we don’t need to dissociate around, which includes the people from our original tribe that might be fast asleep from their own attachment deficits.
We can learn to replace our emotional hunger with a capacity to choose the quality of our nourishment. We can learn to say no to food that is empty and lacking. At some point, we might be able to sit with the feeling of waking up to our pain, like a leg that was asleep coming back to life. It doesn’t feel good for a while. But, at least we get the use of our leg back.
At least we stop filling ourselves up and never feeling full.