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Eating Disorder Recovery
Joanna Poppink, MFT
Eating Disorder Recovery Psychotherapist
serving Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon and Utah.
All appointments are virtual.


Frightened Child Image Healing Work: eating disorder recovery comments from readers*

Frightened child image in recurring nightmares can hold recovery gifts

A frightened child image is particularly disturbing to a woman with an eating disorder. Yet the psyche is communicating to us with these images.  Unfortunately, our tendency is to be glad we woke up and then want to get as far away from that nightmare as possible.

Here’s an example of a nightmare with a recurring frightened child image.

If only I could rid my mind of the image of me as a little girl. It’s constant in my dreams, my nightmares. I am alone. I am scared, and I am silent.  I sometimes feel like I’m drowning when I see this image. It is so profound to me. I think if that image would go away I would be fine. But it keeps coming back. It’s so powerful.

The silent frightened child image occurs in the dreams of many people doing deep recovery work. The frightened child image is a call to attend, protect and heal part of the psyche. But that image can be so frightening and unnerving that all we want to do is run and get away.

Eating disorder behaviors create a false promise of attention and protection. We run to the binge or the food restriction to get away from the emerging feelings. We think we are taking care of ourselves. What we really are doing is abandoning something within us that is calling for help. The frightened child image in the dream is calling.

Recovery demands that we interact with the wounded parts of ourselves to bring healing to the whole of us. Education and understanding do not create recovery. It’s the courageous and kind inner interactive work that creates recovery.

But education and understanding can guide us to our inner interactive work that strengthens us, promotes healthy development, heals and eventually brings us to our needed interactive recovery work.  The nightmare and the frightened child image points the way.

Nightmares and frightened childhood image: a short hand lesson in personal imagery interaction using the dream example.

1.    Memory occurs through processes other than words.  We remember in words. We remember in images. We remember through our body sensations with no cognitive awareness.

2.    If you stay with physical sensations with courage, patience, curiosity and determination you may discover associations to past situations that include those sensations.  For example, one woman found herself jumping with great determination, to reach a low hanging branch of a tree in her garden. Her intensity aroused her curiosity, and she kept jumping. 

She remembered being a child locked in a dark closet. Alone in the dark she jumped for the pull chain to the ceiling light bulb that was just out of reach.  She remembered being able to touch the chain with her fingertips just as she could reach the tree branch with her fingertips.  This is an example of a memory held by the body and how it can be retrieved through patience, curiosity, and determination.

3.   The frightened child image is not a picture in a book or movie.  It's a living image that the woman's psyche pulls out for the conscious mind to consider. It's a part of her that needs tending. The image is like a psychic magnet that pulls and holds emotional and physical information about herself. The experience is painful, but it’s her experience. If it’s a memory, then she’s experienced it before and survived.

4.  Often a client will say to me about a frightened child image, "I threw away the image." I respond, "Where did you throw it?"  This leads to a conversation about awareness and the fact that we can't throw anything away that is in our psyche. Maybe we can move things around, bury them or raise them up. But there's no exit. 

What we can do, and this is fundamental to recovery and healthy development, is work with the frightened child image.  We can interact with it, transform it, resolve the issues associated with it. We can integrate that energy into our lives in a healthy and useful way.

5.  If this process is not known or understood, then a reasonable response to something frightening or painful is to flee or make it go away.  Those can be the best choices for external causes of pain, like getting out of a fire or having your guard dog bark to chase intruders away. 

But when it's internal pain, like a frightened child image, those choices will cause your own psyche to feel rejected and abandoned.  The image needs to be held and understood.  The feelings, emotional and physical, the image carries need to be resolved and integrated. The image needs to be transformed and integrated into the whole that is you.

Frightened child image and eating disorder recovery
6.  Another way of saying this is that a hurt, wounded, frightened part of yourself needs to be embraced, protected and healed.

7.  If this doesn't occur, what gives you relief causes you more pain.  Trying to flee from your feelings or chase them away through binge or starvation practices or excessive exercise causes you to suffer.

You are caught in a paradox.  If you find a way to get away from the image you will get short term relief through numbing or exhaustion.  But the image represents something in you that doesn't disappear. It only gets hidden.  That part of you will feel hurt, angry, rejected, unloved, unworthy, guilty for trying to get help, ashamed for not being able to take care of itself.

That part of you is left at home in the dark and lonely place of banishment, terribly lonely with a sense of hopelessness and despair.  Sound familiar?

8.  If the unconscious healing forces in you are sturdy and you use your courage to heal, that image will find its way back to your awareness. The recurring nightmare with the frightened child image is giving you another chance to heal. It’s another request for help. It's an opportunity to use your patience, curiosity and determination to resolve and integrate your own fragmented parts.

9.  To reject this nightmare image is to reject part of yourself and maintain the need for your eating disorder behaviors, like binging, starving or compulsive exercise.

10.  To embrace this frightened child image with courage and the willingness to understand is to move forward into recovery as you heal and integrate. 

Have you ever put your rejection of your unwanted images and feelings together with your lived experience of rejection? If this is the first time you've considered this you are at a new threshold in your recovery work.

  • How do you respond to a frightened child image from your own mind? 
  • Do you recognize feelings of rejection and abandonment? 
  • What could be your first step toward bringing patience, curiosity and determination to your frightening and frightened child image?

Comments: Frightened child image 


So much to process in what you wrote. I had to read it several times to take it all in. When you say integrate, do you mean bringing the child me and the adult me together to form one whole person?

I do feel that I am two people sometimes. I respond to this frightened child as if she is not inside me, but some external entity who is far away and unreachable. There is often no "bridge" set up to cross over the chasm that separates me from her. I feel guilty because I can't help her. I feel guilty because I let bad things happen to her. I think she is mad at me. I do know she is very confused. No one helped her then and no one is helping her now.
Perhaps if I starve myself she will disappear, perhaps if I run fast enough I will lose her far behind me.

But..she IS me. So I am doing this all to myself, here and now. I don't want to recognize her or claim her at times. Not because she is bad, but because she represents bad things. Ironically, I feel that I am the bad one. But we are the same person, so how can that be?

Her eyes are so dark and brown...deep penetrating gaze. I can see through to her soul. My eyes have not changed. You could never mistake me from a childhood picture. Large, brown eyes, empty and sad, yet begging silently for help. No one heard.

I was strong enough to live thru that time as badly as I sometimes prayed to die. I am still alive. So, the frightened child and the frightened adult need to find a way to integrate...what do I do with this child? How can she help me now?

And how do I turn these awful images into something positive, healthy, and useful? My abuse wasn't positive, healthy, or useful, so I don't know how to do this?

I guess my first step toward working with these images would be to extend a hand to this child, but I don't want to touch her. I don't know if this makes any sense at all. oh, she is so mad at me, so hurt that I won't come get her.


I had a huge-for-me binge after reading this and writing my response...I don't usually binge. I feel like I could keep eating. I am trying to sit and let the feeling pass.

To readers who are triggered by this frightened child image article:

Slow and easy is the pace. If you are not ready to interact with the frightened child image, just let yourself be near her, or as close as you can bear. This is a time when I recommend that you participate in activities designed for the young. Read children's stories or watch tender and caring children’s programming on YouTube. Make pictures with crayons. Try doing that with your non dominant hand. You might see your handwriting from childhood.

Looking at the nightmare and the frightened child image this allows your experience to be more conscious. Your associations haven't reached full awareness yet, but they could come if you work with the image.

The child, which is a part of you, did not cause your pain. She received it and still holds it. You can help yourself release it by helping yourself to be safe, loved, protected and nurtured as you live now.

You do not have to find a way to turn the images into something positive. That is a cognitive, problem-solving task that will not work, just as a decision to grow up or dance well does not accomplish the goal.

What you do is decide to find your way to help her. Every kind move you make in her direction, however tiny, is part of your bridge building. And those moves make you stronger and more capable for the next.

You show the frightened child image that you, with kindness and caring, are on your way to her. That's all that is needed now.

How old is the child in your image? You can find shows on YouTube designed for children that age. Backyardigans? Calliou? Little Bear? Tellytubbies? Take some time in your day to give her something that is right for her. You don't have to touch her. You can sit alongside and watch something together. It's a beginning.

 Comment: Frightened child image and inner child work, five years old and a teen.


Wow. All of this cuts right to the core of the work I am doing with my inner kids (there's a five-year-old and a teen). I asked my Therapist if we can color together at my session tomorrow because the little one wants to color, and the teen has rules about it and is afraid of doing something wrong. I think the little kid part is healing faster than the teen. I am getting better at holding the little one, but teens are complicated, and I don't always know what to do when she is scared. This stuff is really hard work.

frightened child image and eating disorder recovery

Comment: Frightened child image and inner child work, four and eleven year old


Thanks for sharing the comment about the two little girls and needing to allow each to heal. I just realized on Monday night that there is the four-year-old that is still recovering from the trauma of having a mom that was severely mentally ill (suicidal) and the eleven-year-old that became her emotional dumping ground.

All her toxic emotions she dumped on me. I didn't have the maturity to handle her unmet emotional needs, but I sure tried with all the fervor of an eleven-year-old girl. I try so hard not to blame her, and to know that she was sick just as I am sick. All I ever wanted was a momma that was normal and wasn't sick.

I spent my whole life searching for a surrogate mom to love me how I thought a mom should love her daughter. I've spent most of my life in crazy relationships that revolve around the insanity of I hate you; Don't leave me.

I've lived knowing I was angry even raging and not knowing the root of the rage. I've built walls that are bigger than the Great Wall of China to protect myself from the world. I've pretended to be tough and rough to just protect myself.

It's working about as well as living in a fiberglass jumpsuit. I am insulated from the world but extremely itchy and uncomfortable in my skin.

Response from another commenter to the above:

What I see as the good news here for you, is that you have great insight into your situation. This doesn't make it easier to deal with or to "fix", but it gives you a platform from which to stretch and grow.

My mom could be emotionally and verbally abusive at times. One thing I am working hard on, is stopping the cycle with my generation. Her mother was rough on her, and she in turn, was pretty rough on me.

I often have to stop myself when I am seeing or noticing similar traits in myself. It sounds like you are able to do the same thing.

Another comment:

I have a wonderful quote to share that a friend posted on my Facebook wall.
"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, 'I'll try again tomorrow'" ~ Mary Anne Radmacher

Comment: Recovery and the recovery power of sharing stories while reflecting on your own experience

eating disorder recovery

Today I decided to start your book over from the beginning. I do not feel that I have been "working" the exercises to their full benefit for me. I feel that I have been somewhat skimming the chapters as I have been so full of distraction and as my mood has been very low recently.

I have two comments/questions. You wrote that many people in or near deep recovery work share these types of imagery memories. I would not have thought that I am anywhere near recovery work, or perhaps I don't recognize that I am?? If I am, this is certainly encouraging to me, as recovery work is something I am yearning to begin.

My second question is personal, and you don't have to answer. However, in reading your first chapter over again, I am left with wondering a little more about your earlier childhood experiences. You begin your story as a young teen. Did your bulimia start with the realization that you could eat whatever you wanted and still be thin? Or did you have earlier childhood situations that set the stage for this type of mindset?

I only ask because I find your story so encouraging. I am in awe of someone such as yourself who can battle such a long-term eating disorder and come back with such a positive story, along with hope and encouragement for others.

A comment you made in chapter one, that the first step in your recovery was to believe you had a future, stands out to me, as I often realize that I don't see my life more than a year (max) down the road.

I think for me, the reason for this is due to always having my guard and defenses up, not daring to hope or dream for a better life. Again, thank you for sharing your story.

Comment: New therapist

Thanks! I had to start with a different therapist about 2 1/2 years ago when my therapist of 13 years retired. I know she works with trauma, but we haven't made it there yet! I hope she shares your views! I'm keeping this article to remind myself and may share it with her

From Joanna: Frightened child image as parts of the whole person

Your sharings with each other on this theme are steeped in your commitment to your recovery work. I love seeing this.

Please remember, in conversation we talk about the eight year old, the eleven year old, what the baby needs, what the teen-ager wants. It's easier to talk this way because it simplifies a complex internal psychological experience.

However, please keep in mind that these descriptive words do not refer to something external to yourself. These "children" are images, symbols of aspects of you.

When you are kind to an aspect of yourself you will feel it. When you are uncaring and rejecting of an aspect of yourself you will feel that too. And the you that is making the decisions to ignore or accept or embrace an aspect of yourself is an aspect of yourself too.

Yes, it's complicated. Going for the shorthand of imagery and discussion of inner children gives us all a way to talk about and understand these inner complexities. You can write what they say, draw how they look, describe in words or pictures what they see and understand. But the “they” is all you.

And, you see from what I just wrote that the "they" word can lead you to think of "them" as outside yourself. As long as you keep reminding yourselves that "they" and "them" are aspects of you, you will make progress in your healing work. Please remember that every image you have and your awareness of yourself as "I" are all aspects of the one person you are.

Also, it's tough when your therapist retires. It’s a loss you’ll mourn. But it’s also a new beginning that can hold opportunities for you. Your new therapist will have different responses to you, will resonate differently to your experience. That alone will show you more psychological options you have for healing.

I wish you every success on your recovery path

Comment: kindness to frightened child image


Wow. There is so much in this. I have been working with a therapist for almost 2 years...trying to get my head around some of the issues that you write about that caused 30 years of eating disorders. It is so slow. I've tried therapy before...but just found a therapist that sounds a lot like you...he is gentle and kind. It's been slow, but I've made more progress than in the past. I can totally understand not wanting to get close to that inner child...and find it even harder if I think about it as being good for me...or as being kind to me.

I've had some things surface when prompted to just sit with it and see what comes up. For example, I kept having these feelings of needing to wipe off my face and arms...when I considered it further with my therapist, I had these memories of hiding in the basement under the stairs and having spiderwebs all over me. It was hard...but it was also releasing.

I've been reading your book (I bought one for my therapist, too!) and trying to follow the exercises and stuff. But I'm finding it all so hard. My house is chaotic (4 kids) and I seem to always feel anxious. I am thankful for your book. I love how you write to us...with a compassion that comes only from knowing.

From Joanna: Sharing stories and body experiences

I'm glad you're here. Thank you for your story, especially your body memories. Connecting body sensation to image memory can be integrating to your entire psyche. I don't think this is truly understood until a person experiences it.

The more these stories are shared the more people have an opportunity to learn that many body sensations are signals to provoke awareness and self compassion - and have nothing to do with food or eating.

And I'm so glad Healing Your Hungry Heart is helping.

Comment:  Night binges

The past few days I have begun to wonder if my evening "binges" are associated with abuse that happened at night. I can go all day eating well, eating healthy, staying within proper nutritional guidelines, but lately after dark, I just seem to binge so much. if so, I have some work to do with processing this and getting thru this. I am glad to see the possibility of the association, however. It is always better to be able to identify a trigger vs. feeling like you are just a terrible person with no self-control.

Another comment: Night binges

I am exactly the same!!- Don't binge but I feel fearful in the evenings and find it a huge challenge to eat in the evenings on my own.....

I took it back to when I started the ED - My mother stopped feeding me in the evenings when my brother left home- not sure why she just couldn't be bothered I guess- So I took this as a sign and from then on started to not eat at other times too -

So it could be some part of you is relating back to the abuse especially if it happened at night-

It's great that you identified this as a trigger- must feel so powerful for you- so instead of being a terrible person- you are strong and brave for acknowledging this -

Also congratulate yourself on how well you do during the day, then allow yourself to eat small in the evening- this is how I try to work with it- it gets easier and helps me to feel more in control of the situation rather the situation controlling me!  Hope this helps!

Commenter: Night binges

Thank you! I have been giving myself a really hard time because after starving myself for so long, I had started allowing myself to eat small meals, gradually allowing myself a decent caloric intake...and NOW, I just feel my eating has gotten so out of control especially at night.

And now to make things worse, I am on run/aerobic restriction due to a torn ligament in my knee. So, I can’t get those calories burned off the way I used to be able to. I am watching my weight steadily go up and each day I promise myself I will do better.

But, yes, I need to focus on this night eating and its possible related triggers. Thank you for helping me to remember that I am not a bad person. And hopefully, tomorrow will be better. Thanks! 

Response Comment to Night Binge

Yes it will!- Try to think of it too as now that you are moving forward and creating new behaviors and patterns for yourself your ego (Old self) which has kept you safe before doesn't like it and it"s scared to death you are going to leave it with no power - !!  

The old part wants to leave but we are afraid of the unknown, so we keep going back to what feels safe and familiar - Does that feel about right- ?!!

Not sure am explaining so well- I try to laugh and joke with the ego when I see its there- not easy though - The old part wants to leave...-so these times are when you have new plans and they work for a time, then we get anxious and panic - that’s just the ego scared of the changes - like you say you well for a time then it falls off for a few days- Step by step and keep acknowledging the good parts -

Try not to focus on anything. Don't give it your attention, i.e the weight and the gym etc - I read about how what we focus on and think about most we get more of - good and bad - so if you focus on things you bring them more to the forefront and they cause more anxiety - right?

It's like Joanna says in her book- rather than trying to change things, then we fail or beat ourselves up (Specially around weight etc ) Instead start something new.... Take care

From Joanna: The challenge is to bring safety and joy to that frightened child image. By doing this you bring safety and joy to yourself. Free of the old fears, you are also free of your eating disorder.

Helpful links:

A Conversation with Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Trauma, trust and triumph: psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk on how to recover from our deepest pain

frightened child image and eating disorder recovery

Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice serving California, Arizona, Florida, Utah and Oregon.

Author of 
Healing Your Hungry Heart: recovering from your eating disorder. 

To schedule a free telephone consultation write: 
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