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Emotional Eating: One Problem, One Solution

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I have some news for you about emotional eating:

You don't eat because of the emotions themselves.

You eat because of resistance towards feeling the emotions.

It's not about the story connected with the emotion (the "triggers"). It's not because someone said or did something you didn't like. It's not because of your finances, or your relationships, or your job, or your circumstances.

It's because you are resisting a feeling.

The discomfort you feel is actually the discomfort of resistance. It can't be discomfort about the emotion itself because you haven't felt it yet! The resistance is fear of feeling the feeling.

Why we resist emotions

Partly it's what we've been taught. Children are punished for, discounted because of, or at best distracted from their feelings from when they're tiny babies!

I remember feeling frustrated when people would ask if my tiny babies were "good." If they were good, they didn't cry much and slept through the night. If they were not solid sleepers or if they were fractious, did that make them bad? I won't go into that topic now -- it's another ball-game altogether and I'm not a parenting coach, so back to emotions and why we resist them.

I can't think of one person I've coached who grew up in an environment where s/he was given permission to feel and express any emotion that arose, let alone taught how to recognize and name them. Some were only permitted the feelings of happiness or contentment (aka "being quiet"). For some joy wasn't even on the cards -- that was too show-offy, over the top, too big.

Many clients tell me they simply weren't allowed to show anger, hurt, or sadness. Guilt and shame were allowed and reinforced - and unsurprisingly it's the emotion they most commonly recognize! Neuroscience for beginners says: what you practice, grows. If you were blamed or criticized over and over again by your primary care-givers, upon whom you depended for your survival, then feeling and acting on guilt and shame would have kept you safe, in your young mind. Fear is one of those primary emotions that simply can't be helped -- but children (adults too!) are often shamed for irrational fear -- ever been told "don't be such a baby"?

Here are some ways that fully experiencing emotions are distracted from, discounted, or discouraged:

  • Wipe those tears and put a smile on your face
  • Don't cry!
  • That's enough of that now
  • Don't be frightened!
  • Don't be angry!
  • Don't be sad!
  • I can't deal with you when you're like this
  • You're too much
  • Here, have a [insert food] -- that'll help you calm down/ make you feel better
  • Calm down!
  • Look at that [bird, spider, book]!
  • What's wrong?(why are so-called negative emotions classed as "wrong"?)
  • What's the matter? (note, we don't ask people "what's the matter" when they're happy, peaceful, joyful or content! And therein lies the cultural message that some feelings are acceptable and others aren't and need to be fixed.)
  • There's no need to feel sad/angry/upset about it!
  • It's a little thing -- don't make such a fuss!
  • I'll give you something to cry about!

In the comments please add your own!

So that's where it started. Culturally, we are not taught to allow and experience the full spectrum of emotions all the way through. We are not taught that feelings are simply feelings. We are not taught that they will pass soon, especially if we simply sit with them. We are not taught that all feelings are acceptable, and a part of the human experience. We are not taught that sadness, fear, anger, humiliation and shame (indeed any feelings!) are not wrong to feel; that we don't have to fix them or try to change them.

Animals are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Can't do much about that. But added to this is the fear of the feeling. Because so-called "negative" feelings are given such bad press, and we're not practiced at feeling them -- we want to avoid something we've been taught to believe is wrong, scary and painful.

And then, negating, ignoring, suppressing and in the most extreme cases, detaching from emotions becomes a habit. After all, "practice makes perfect!"

So how does this relate to emotional eating?

Simply this:

If you could learn to pause before taking the first emotional bite just long enough to allow yourself to fully experience your emotion, you would not need to eat as a way to distract or suppress them.

One client I facilitated in this process this week, comes to mind now. The feeling she was resisting was humiliation. She was quite amazed by witnessing the feeling as it had its way and moved through her body. In her words, it was a "rich" experience. Something opened up in her. Something that would not have been available to her, if she'd eaten instead. That's not to say the feelings were pleasant. But they were fully felt, honored, given space -- and then, there was a loosening, a release.

Yes, but how?

This practice dovetails so beautifully with mindfulness practice. Here's why:

Mindfulness is paying attention, moment to moment, to your internal and external experience, without judgment. As you practice this skill you become better at developing the Observer or Witness within, without attachment to the experience. The practice helps increase awareness and decrease automaticity. It supports the ability to pause before taking that first emotional bite -- or to pause after the first few emotional bites!

Once you've paused, you have a choice.

You can choose to eat, or you can choose to allow your feelings.

I encourage my clients to set a clock for 5 or so minutes, in which they will pause and allow their feelings -- and then, if they want to choose to eat, they do so -- at least with more awareness and mindfulness. With practice, that pause lengthens, and with practice, they become less afraid of, more willing to experience, and even curious of -- the feelings that want to be felt.

Yes, but HOW do you feel?

Turn your attention to your body, and away from the thoughts (circumstance around the emotion or anything else, including trying to name or understand the emotion).

Become intensely watchful and curious about what is happening in your body:

  • Notice where in your body, your attention is drawn
  • You can put a gentle hand where you can feel it in your body
  • Notice how the feelings change position, intensity, location and other qualities, as you observe

Here are a few examples of what you might experience:

  • do you feel open or closed?
  • expansive or contractive?
  • collapsing
  • pulling
  • sinking
  • dragging
  • hot or cold
  • is the feeling soft or hard?
  • piercing
  • thumping
  • prickly

Observe and allow whatever arises until it changes and you feel a sense of release, or some loosening or opening up.

This will not take as long as you might think! When we allow our emotions -- they do just that -- move! When we resist, suppress, discount, ignore or distract from them, with food (or screens, shopping, sex, books, work etc.) they stick around and resurface later.

If you'd like to learn more about this -- if you'd like some facilitation -- let's set up a Discovery Session.