Saturday, October 29, 2011


"Stroking", as it is referred to in psychological terms, can be a fairly inclusive term. It means comforting, soothing, rewarding, or validating yourself. Humans need it, more than they often like to admit. It's why we enjoy compliments or feel better after we get a good grade on a test. It's why people want to be an "inspiration" to others or receive positive and supportive comments on their blogs.

It is not a weakness to desire strokes, though people often view the need for them as a reflection of neuroses. The idea that we should receive all of our stroking from internal means is a reflection of the Western mentality that we should be 100% independent in all respects. Obviously, some forms of "self-stroking" are carried out as we grow older and find higher level means of feeling good about ourselves. People can feel good about a job they know they did well rather than rely on others to constantly tell them. We do grow more comfortable and capable of assessing our value in various respects and "complimenting" ourselves through time, but it's a peculiarly occidental notion that we should never need anyone else to be psychologically whole.

I will be the first to admit that I am extremely poor at "self-stroking". This is something that I have come to realize rather acutely over the last week or so while my husband has been abroad and I have been alone. He has gone on such trips before, and it has always been difficult for me, but this time has been much harder. I realized that this is largely because of my changed relationship with food.

My parents were not particularly good at raising my sister and I. They got married too young and for less than positive reasons. Both were psychologically damaged. My father was not demonstrative at all because he was so uncomfortable with his positive feelings. My mother offered conditional affection and had self-esteem issues which caused her to condemn, judge and criticize and she was prone to emotionally unstable reactions. Neither provided a very good environment for young psyches, and what "stroking" they offered was unpredictable and often related to concrete rewards, especially food. When you are very poor and can't express your feelings because of your own issues, buying your kids bags of chips, candy bars, and cheap sugary soda is the easiest path to giving them strokes at the lowest overall "cost" (psychological and otherwise) to yourself.

For my parents, food was a co-parent. When they couldn't say "I love you", food did it. When they wanted us to settle down or give us something to make us go away and leave them alone, food did the job nicely. I have come to realize that food took on a great importance because of the way they used it. It was the parent I carried with me into adulthood, fulfilling needs that were supposed to be filled by family.

One of the emotional transitions that I had to make when I changed my habits was transferring "stroking" myself with food to other things. This is not an easy transition. Most people know that they "reward themselves" (a shallow and inaccurate description of stroking) with food. They know they need to stop doing it, but they fail to recognize that they need to replace it with something else. While it'd be great if realizing you were doing something destructive meant you could simply choose to stop doing it, people don't work that way. You can't simply conjure up a means of self-stroking instantly to replace how you deal with food.

For me, a lot of the burden of giving me strokes has fallen on my husband. As time has gone by, I have attempted to cultivate a greater internal integrity in this regard. To do this, I've done more things which help me feel better about myself like working outside of my home and deriving satisfaction from my ability to do the job well. I've also focused more on productive behaviors and tried to gain satisfaction from accomplishing them. These include moderate exercise and writing for my other blogs (which are independent of this one and unrelated to body or food issues). I've also found that FaceBook can serve a small role in this process by acting as a social conduit. It can be gratifying to post about your life and have people express happiness at what you offer.

Unfortunately, the current progress of the internal stroking cultivation as well as the very weak stroking from other sources is quite inadequate. Either these sources are too small or the neural connections which are being built aren't strong enough yet to substitute for the far more potent strokes that I receive from my husband's presence and food. Though the ties to food as a source of stroking are much weaker than they used to be, they still whisper at me from the darkness and beckon me back. It's easy. It's instant. And, it is so satisfying on a sensory level. It also does not impose upon anyone else. I often feel terribly guilty because of the burden I place on my husband to support me.

The problem during my husband's absence hasn't been that I've gone running to the pantry for comfort, but rather than I've suffered terribly during his absence. I've had crushing sadness and the sort of depression that put me on the edge of being incapable of taking pleasure in anything. This has been hard on him because my pain manifests itself in accusations that he doesn't really want to spend time with me, didn't consider my needs before making his plans and that he is, at least in part, responsible for my suffering. This is not what I mean to convey to him, but it is how he feels. For me, this is all a reflection of my self-worth issues. I feel abandoned, and then I feel I deserve it. My anger and aggression as I act on my pain only confirms more fiercely that I am unworthy of love or care and my self-estimation plummets even lower as I hate myself more for how I act. Losing weight and adjusting my relationship with food has improved my mobility and external quality of life, but it has wrecked havoc with my esteem because I never derived my sense of value from my body. A better body didn't equate to happiness for me, just less unhappiness.

It may seem incredibly unfair to place this burden on my husband to those who are not living in my skin, but this is a reflection of my particular "sickness". My needs and the demands I place on him are no different than those of a someone who has a physical illness and needs support. The fact that they are mental changes nothing. As I have said before, if I were in a wheelchair and needed help, no one would blame me for holding him accountable for my hardship if he left for a week. We seem to think that mental issues are simply something people can choose to get over. If only it were that simple. I'm doing the best I can as quickly as I can, but it's not something I can magically grab out of thin air or pop a pill to cure.

The realization that I need to continue to develop more potent and various forms of self-stroking is a part of the solution. However, that is only a starting point. Developing them and not resorting to any form of instant gratification (like buying something) is not an easy thing. It's not only that I can't predict what actions will be effective (and I can't) but also that they lack the expediency of food. People often think that the desire for instant gratification is a reflection of childishness, impatience, and weak character, but, at least for me, it's a way of ending psychological pain. Without those emotional analgesics, I am left to suffer. The long term efforts to find and carry out higher order means of self-stroking heal the wounds at a glacial pace.

I am making progress toward being less reliant on my husband, but losing food as a way of supporting myself emotionally took away a lot. My improved physical condition didn't do much for my mental state because that was made when I was a child. My sense that I am worthless, despicable, and unlovable is recorded first and forever in my brain. Those recordings can be answered differently (refuted or supported), but they cannot be erased. I will always have to fight them. It's just a matter of finding other (effective) weapons than food.


Jan said...

Oh my goodness that really resonalted with me. I feel like you are writting what's in my head. However I do not have the insight that you have. Yours is amazing.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you, Jan. It really makes me feel like my public musings (and emotional exposure) is worthwhile when I hear that it resonates with others.

Take care, and I'll be in touch again when I have some time.