How did we get so afraid of feelings?
After all, emotions, including the so-called negative ones, are a natural part of being human. Everyone experiences them – each and every day. Yet some people cope with difficult emotions by repressing them. It becomes an automatic habit to sweep unpleasant feelings under the rug and to stop consciously noticing what the body is feeling.
Emotional eating can in part be the consequence of not allowing feelings to flow naturally. Emotions themselves are felt in the physical body. Notice how emotions can sometimes be felt as a knot in the stomach, a gripping feeling in the chest area, a tightening of the shoulders and neck, or perhaps a pounding tension in the head. If an emotion becomes blocked and is unable to flow freely, it gets trapped in the body. A natural response is to seek some way to make ourselves feel better.
Eating, or starving, can serve as a temporary antidote to the feelings of sadness, depression, hurt, anger, self-hate, guilt, stress, boredom, and so on. For some, the act of not eating all day serves to numb awareness of the physical body and emotions. Limiting food intake can create a false sense of being ‘in control’ and can lead to a feeling of calmness.
For others over-eating, binge eating, or bulimia work more effectively to create a momentary solution. These behaviors can briefly calm, distract, and sometimes divert attention away from the original emotion. Food itself, especially carbohydrates, can release powerful chemical and hormonal responses that create a sense of temporary well-being. Any of these eating patterns can work by reducing tension and anxiety, suppressing feelings you can’t stand, removing your attention from an uncomfortable situation, and so on.
Holding down emotions is usually an attempt to protect ourselves from feeling pain. It is coping strategy designed to keep us safe. Somewhere along the line an unconscious decision was made to avoid conflict, deny our feelings, and be strong by handling things ourselves. Eventually, it became such a way of life, that there is now fear associated with letting feelings flow.
Even though suppressing emotions was once an effective coping mechanism, it comes with a price. Unfelt and unexpressed emotions do not simply go away. It’s actually the resistance to feeling emotions when they arise that causes difficulty. As M. Kathleen Casey once wrote, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Pain is something we all experience. Suffering is caused when we attempt to suppress the discomfort we feel.
Feeling isn’t fatal. But it’s tough to convince emotional eaters of that. One of the greatest obstacles to working with emotions is fear of the unknown and fear of the unexpected. When beginning to work with emotions it is natural to feel afraid. Much effort was formerly spent treating emotions as if they were deadly. As a result, all that emotion has been locked up and kept under control. It’s scary to think what would happen if all those suppressed emotions were release.
The process of opening up to hidden feelings often takes time. At first, it may feel like a flood of emotion, but as the pressure of unexpressed emotions releases, you will feel lighter. You will not cry forever. The anger will not keep on exploding forever. The pain will not go on forever. Learning to gently and compassionately be with what you are feeling allows healing to occur.
Emotional Exploration Exercise
Each day for a week write down the emotions you experience. You may choose to write them down as you go through your day, last thing at night, or first thing in the morning. Whatever suits you. Don’t justify or excuse or give reasons. Simply list them to get some idea of how emotional your life actually is.
The next week, repeat the exercise above (writing down your emotions), but this time consider how you dealt with each of those emotions. How does food (or the lack of food) seem to help? If the end result wasn’t so good for you, consider other ways that may be appropriate expressions of those emotions.
The first question to ask yourself is “What am I feeling?”
- Identifying emotions can be difficult if you habitually minimize or deny what you feel. If you’re not used to acknowledging your feelings, the answer might well be, “I don’t know.”
- There is always a cause for our feelings. The problem may be that we’ve hidden our emotions from ourselves and others for so long. You might try locating the specific area in your body where the emotion is coming from. Check your head, shoulder, throat, chest, heart, or stomach. Notice the areas that are and are not feeling the emotion.
- Try asking yourself, “What feelings am I not expressing?” If that still draws a blank, then ask yourself, “If I knew what I was feeling, what would it be?” Feelings are by their very nature unclear, vague, and foggy. Allow yourself to be with what is still unknown. A starting place might be to state, “I feel an uncomfortable feeling in my (example) stomach area.”
- Decide which general category the ‘uncomfortable’ feeling falls into. Is it sad, angry, or fearful? Once you have the category, refine the description until you find the emotion or feeling that most closely resonates with the feeling in your body.
- Having uncovered the emotions that had formerly been stored or repressed, take a look at them. No need to analyze and criticize. No need to judge yourself, blame yourself, or tell yourself that you “shouldn’t” feel that way. Only look at them objectively, and tell them (the feelings) and tell yourself that it is okay to feel this way.Remind yourself that what you resist, persists. Realize that no matter how severe the emotions seem, feeling them is not dangerous. Identify the feeling with your head, acknowledge them with your heart, and let them flow through you.
- Let yourself feel your anger, your sadness, your fear. Really feel it! Go ahead and cry, or beat your pillow … whatever you feel you need (just don’t hurt anyone). Feel them. Experience them. Feeling them will allow space inside to feel other, more positive, experiences.
- When you focus on a feeling, it may become larger and stronger. This can be scary and we may think we can’t stand it. If you begin to get overwhelmed by the emotion, redirect your awareness. Notice again the areas of your body that don’t feel the emotion. Find some distance from the place in your body where the emotion dwells.
- Remember to make the distinction that you are not your emotions. You are a person having an experience. If you are currently experiencing hopelessness, it is not the same as you – you are not hopelessness. You are a person experiencing hopelessness because of the thoughts you are thinking. Ask yourself, “What would I have to be thinking in order to create a feeling of hopelessness?”
- You do not need to cope with painful feelings alone. A supportive friend, trained counselor, or nutrition therapist can offer support, guidance, and a safe environment.
I am now filled with faith, certainty, and confidence.
I now feel these emotions in my body.
Green Mountain at Fox Run is pleased to bring you this article written by Annette Colby, PhD, RD, a counselor located in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Colby specializes in working with people with disordered eating, chronic dieting, compulsive overeating, binge eating and weight and body issues. She has dedicated her professional life to empowering individuals with new vision and innovative healing strategies.
Read more about emotional eating and weight: Stopping Emotional Eating and Getting the Help We Need.