How can food be a key ingredient in therapy?

Food is a way that I bring a bit of myself and what I love into the work I do. Food is not only good to eat, it’s good to talk – it can really be a special ingredient to add to a conversation. The food we eat everyday might be ordinary, but the memories that come with it are extraordinary – they always involve people and relationships. Food is about feeling. If you take breakfast, lunch and dinner, that’s at least three times a day when you feel something. Being hungry is a good reminder that we’re human, and we have needs – needs that range from physical to emotional. We need food and we need other humans – they are two universals. Food is one of the ways that we can experience joy and connection in life, whether it’s through cooking it or eating it around a table with those that we love. Food always tells a story. And therapy is about telling your story.

Therapy is also about change – that’s why people come. But for me, that’s also what cooking is about. Every time I cook, that collection of ingredients at the start is not the same as the dish I end up with, which is a powerful, and hopeful, reminder that change is always possible.

I’m too dependent, there must be something wrong with me?

Dependent is how we come into the world. A person is dependent on someone else to meet their needs from the moment they are born. Humans haven’t evolved to operate independently. So from day one, dependency is not a choice or a preference – it’s a fact. So there is nothing wrong with you. It’s only because we are dependent on those who take care of us that we survive. The main way this shows in babies is their need to be fed – they can’t physically do this for themselves. So food is mixed into relationships from the moment we are born. But this need to be fed, turns into something more emotional as we grow up. We all need close others in our lives that are dependable. But based on our early experiences, as well as what happens to us later, how much we depend on others will vary. And that is perfectly fine. What is important is to know yourself well enough to know what your dependency needs are, and to communicate that effectively to the other person – especially in a romantic relationship. Dependency is a way of saying ‘I need something’, and it’s simply more socially acceptable to downplay our needs and vulnerabilities and to keep calm and carry on. And often, we label our needs as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or with ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’ts’. But that isn’t the recipe for a relationship that feels secure and fulfilling. Your needs are your needs – and you will be needy if you don’t have the right people in your life to meet these. And the irony is, when you express your needs clearly, you actually don’t sound needy – you sound confident, assertive and like you know yourself. And those are great ingredients for any relationship.

Is conflict normal in relationships?

Conflict is not only normal in a relationship – it’s inevitable. Especially in romantic relationships. Conflict happens when two people’s needs are different and it’s the expression of this – it could be simmering resentment or something that boils over into a full-blown argument. Even if you feel you avoid conflict, unmet needs and unexpressed feelings can still be there, bubbling under the surface. And it’s important to look beneath the surface to figure out what a conflict is about – is it just about basic ‘bread and butter’ issues or is it really about something more fundamental? Although all couples have arguments, it’s not about how many arguments you have – it’s about how you argue and how you are left feeling afterwards. Conflict can be one of the most difficult things in a relationship – it’s painful to fight with each other, and it’s hard not to take things personally.

What’s not inevitable is how you manage conflict. It’s not that happy couples argue less, they just manage their arguments better. If we boil it down, conflict is simply about ineffective communication. And although it might not feel like it in the heat of the moment, you do have choices about how you communicate. The key to managing conflict is to be able to communicate your needs and feelings effectively. Sure, that might be easier said than done, but practice makes perfect for good communication. How a conversation starts predicts how it will end. In the same way, when you cook, if you start with good quality ingredients, the end dish will be so much better. Use decent ingredients to create effective communication – these can range from basic, such as starting a conversation really softly and gently, to more sophisticated, such as empathy.

Do you have to love yourself before someone can love you?

This is the message of many a pop song and pop psychology book – the idea that it’s not really possible to be in a relationship until you love yourself. Unfortunately, it’s a myth that has caused a lot of wasted days and sleepless nights – and heartache. It’s another way of saying “I have to be perfect before someone loves me”. And that’s a recipe for a relationship that will never happen – because you’ll never be perfect.

Our relationship experiences influence our confidence and trust that another person will see us as worthy of love – in other words, how much we ‘love’ ourselves. In our early years, our relationship experiences make us, but as we go through life they bake us. Yes, I’ve used that analogy for rhyme/cooking effect, but let me explain: the more relationships we have where we feel comfortable, safe and supported, the more solid we will become in that feeling that we are loveable. Having these positive experiences in a range of relationships, including friendships and even in therapy, will help you to find a romantic relationship in which you feel loved and cherished.