In response to my last post about Fast Sunday, a reader said the following:
I am so enjoying your blogging. Yay for you having that victory!! I’m still working on figuring out how hungry I am and also on not eating as a response to shameful feelings—which I just had this past weekend and then binged to numb those uncomfortable feelings–have you had any experience with dealing with uncomfortable feelings?
This post is to answer that question, the question about how to deal with uncomfortable feelings.
STEP ONE—FEEL THE FEELINGS
The first and yet most difficult step is a change in attitude from one of needing to numb, distract, or push away strong emotions (especially uncomfortable ones) to an attitude of letting myself really, truly feel them. This is most difficult with uncomfortable emotions (shame, anger, hurt, disgust, fear, etc.) because they often propel us to act in ways that numb those feelings temporarily, while really propelling us to repeat vicious cycles of binging and numbing.
What I mean when I say really, truly feel the emotions is (1) name the emotion accurately, (2) allow myself to feel uncomfortable with that emotion, and (3) begin to discover what that emotion is telling me. For example, after a binge, I feel immense guilt (among other things) so I label it as just that, guilt, and I allow myself to feel uncomfortable with this emotion. Usually feelings of guilt propel me to binge even more or to over-exercise in order to compensate for everything that I ate. But, I am learning to label guilt for what it is—simply a sensation that means I regret eating too much food because it makes my body feel very uncomfortable. I remind myself that I do not want to feel guilt again and in order to avoid that I try to avoid overeating (guilt and shame are really difficult and often complicated emotions that I will discuss separately in a forthcoming post, so keep your eyes open!)
The key here is to not add judgment of myself based on the emotion. LABEL THE EMOTION, NOT MYSELF. For example, if I feel guilty after a binge, then I label that emotion as guilt, but I DO NOT label myself as a failure, my body as disgusting and my spirit as worthless. It is hard, but possible. Sometimes when I find myself wanting to attach those judgments to myself when experiencing a particularly strong emotion, I recall the image of the fork in the road.
This change in attitude, and really truly feeling feelings is difficult and often takes many attempts and a bucket-load of determination. You need a nothing-is-going-to-defeat-me, and I-have-the-power attitude. Let me say it again—it’s difficult, but possible.
The last part of this process of feeling feelings is to look at what the emotion is doing for you. For example, when I am disgusted after a binge, the emotion is telling me that I ate too much, my body is uncomfortable, and I want to dress in the baggiest, least restricting clothes I have until my swollen belly recedes. Another example—when I look in the mirror after a particularly rigorous session of body-bashing, all I see is ugliness and fatness, leading to deep feelings of disgust for entire body. This feeling of disgust tells me that I don’t like the way things are—my relationship with food, the clothes I’m wearing, my exercise routine, my eating disorder, etc. These feelings are telling me that something needs to change—I need to attend therapy, I need to start IE, I need to be kind to my body etc. This feeling of disgust tells me that I need serious help to overcome misplaced interpretations of my body. These very feelings of disgust, ugliness, and fatness are what propelled me to seek out IE in the first place, get into therapy, and form this blog. I am a long way from healthy, but I am getting there, and my feelings—uncomfortable and strong ones especially—are helping me to get there.
STEP TWO—COPING STRATEGIES
In step one, it is essential to begin to allow myself to be anxious and uncomfortable, and even fearful when sitting with and feeling strong emotions. However, it is not needed to wallow in them. As long as the emotion is being expressed and I am learning to decipher what the emotion is telling me, then it has served its purpose. So, step two is about learning to replace eating as a coping or numbing mechanism with other, more positive methods. As I’m sure you can tell by now, I am a list-maker, and so I advocate making a list of sure-fire ways to help yourself cope with strong emotions. Below is my personal list, but understand that it is always changing and growing. Some emotions are so strong that I need to do several things on my list in order to feel better, and others are quailed after only one.
COPING STRATEGIES LIST:
- Take a bath (usually a nice, long, hot one)
- Read a book (usually a fantasy novel)
- Clean (and vigorously with lots of elbow grease)
- Cook or bake
- Sew/quilt (I love making handbags)
- Watch a tear-jerker
- Talk (to my husband/therapist etc.)
- Write in my blog/journal
- Be active (walk/run/bike)
- Just say no (to taking on too many things, to repeating the vicious cycle etc.)
- Breathe/mindfulness (progressive muscle relaxation, meditation)
- Music (listen or play)
- Laugh (I love Bill Cosby and Brian Regan routines)
- Serve (my daughters/family/friends/neighbors etc.)
Sometimes, in very rare cases, emotions are so overwhelming that allowing myself to feel them in the moment might and sometimes does lead to disaster. I’m talking about the emotions that are so strong that it feels like my body is ripping apart at the seams, that, if felt, will literally send me spiraling into an abyss so deep that the light at the end of the tunnel is lost. When these emotions come, sometimes I neglect all of the above steps for my own safety and sanity. In other words, I employ the tried-and-tested technique of distraction. I get involved in something else so totally that I ignore my emotion and refuse to let myself feel it or become overwhelmed by it.
The key here is to distract myself with something healthy, not eating. So, when those rare—and I’m talking extremely rare—times come that my sanity or safety is within an inch of being overwhelmed, I distract myself with something healthy. This distraction may come from the above list or from a different list, but I make sure to pick something that will allow my mind to be totally immersed for a time. Now, the most important part of this caveat is that once my sanity and safety are assured, it is essential to go back through what happened and what I thought that brought me to that brink of emotional abyss. Once partially removed from that moment, it becomes easier to see why I was tempted so far down the path of self-destruction. Ask some questions like “What triggered me?” “Why couldn’t I cope?” “What are my fears?” “Where can I get help?” “What about next time?”
P.S. I know that some of these things can be confusing and that maybe some of them don’t work for you. Please feel free to comment, email, or facebook me for help, advice, or simply a listening ear and an understanding heart for your own journeys. I invite all who would like to share their thoughts on how they deal with strong or uncomfortable emotions in the comment section of this post so that all may benefit from our collective wisdom. Blessings!