For many of you, the majority of your unwanted eating, binge eating, and particularly emotional eating is caused in huge part by the inability or unwillingness to feel uncomfortable or negative emotions. I definitely know that this was the case for me.
My unwillingness to feel sadness contributed hugely to my emotional eating and had some far-reaching negative effects in my life. I didn’t want the pain, the discomfort, or the judgement of sadness, so I did my best to ‘turn it off’.
This was because of 2 things.
- I’d been diagnosed with mild depression before (though it didn’t feel ‘mild’ to me), and I was terrified that giving into and feeling my sad emotions would spiral me back to that place.
- As a child and teenager, if I ever got too sad for too long, or was too open with my sadness, my parents told me some variation of ‘your behaviour and emotions are making us all feel bad. Could you please make more of an effort to be cheerful’.
What they were really saying is “We love you very much, and seeing you in pain hurts us. We’re not sure how to support you, but we know you’re strong enough to get through this.”
What younger me heard was “your pain hurts the people you love. You should stop showing it to them”. So I did my best to do this – and seeing as I’ve also always loved myself, I stopped really showing it to myself either.
And things progressed from there, growing increasingly worse as I got older. But I couldn’t really see it. And once that extra layer of fear around sadness was added by my depression experiences in my early 20’s, I wasn’t doing too well with this emotion. I believed myself too weak to handle it, and that were I to show people, I’d hurt them or annoy them with it.
Basically, sadness = pain + rejection
Emotions and eating
As I’m sure you’ve experienced in your own life, food became a go-to option for hiding, calming, and attempted self-care. Some days, it still is.
I had an awesome breakthrough experience when disaster struck and, as a result, I got professional help in dealing with it. My therapist asked me two questions that changed my life – and I continue to use them now, years later.
- If your best friend was feeling like you do now, what would you want her to do?
- If you feel this emotion, what’s the worst that could happen?
Almost without fail, my answers are that 1) I’d want her to share with me so I could help her, and that I wouldn’t shun her, abandon her, or think less of her for her pain; and 2) that… I’ll just feel really bad and cry a lot… and then eventually move on.
I realized that I could share my emotions and get support AND that I have the strength to feel them and not fall into an endless pit of despair. Experiences since then have only reinforced this.
Once I started directing this energy towards my emotional eating – big changes started to happen!
Inside Out – the movie
I just watched the movie ‘Inside Out’ for the first time. Yeah, I’m slow, I know. But wow – did it speak to me! I could see myself and what I’ve learned over the past 10 years reflected so clearly.
If you’ve seen the movie (and I’d totally recommend it, if you haven’t) you know that the emotion/character of Joy doesn’t want Sadness to really interact with Riley (who’s head they live in) at all. Sadness isn’t allowed to drive, touch memories, or at one point, move outside of a small circle drawn on the ground.
And this is exactly what so many of us do! We limit our sadness (or other emotion we perceive as ‘unwanted’), shove it into a small space, and refuse to let it be felt.
When Riley’s mum come to her room to thank her for being so cheerful in a tough situation and tells her that dad needs them to be happy right now – I could so, so relate to Riley’s reaction! She does her best to feel happy, and not show her pain to her parents. She perceives that her pain will be unwanted, hurtful, and shameful. She denies herself the crucial experience of feeling sad.
I think it’s really important to see that in the movie, when Sadness is gone from Riley’s “headquarters”, Joy is gone too. It’s showing us that you can’t have one without the other. As Riley can’t feel Joy or Sadness any more, she begins to act out, become apathetic, and find new ways of coping that are less than ideal.
To cut a long story short, Joy realizes Sadness’ important place in Riley’s life. That Sadness helps Riley develop empathy, and that feeling and showing her Sadness to others means she gets the help and support she needs.
(As a side note: I find it really interesting that Sadness is portrayed as the chubby character in this movie. Sadness is a bit fat and Joy is slim. A discussion for another day.)
Back in the real world…
This has been one of the most powerful journeys and realisations of my life so far: That having a healthy, and even loving, relationship with sadness is actually a wonderful thing. Giving myself the time, space, and permission to feel it has changed my life, and my relationship with food and weight. I now know that I am strong enough to feel my emotions, and that they are all there to show me what’s important, what’s going right, and what’s maybe not working so well for me.
- I trust myself to be strong enough to feel
- I give myself permission to feel
- I don’t try to judge or argue myself out of my feelings
- I give my emotions respect
- I trust those I care about to help me through
And this works for me. It also works for some of the women I work with. Tessa says that:
“Sam told me that it was okay to feel negative emotions. That it was okay to be angry, sad, frustrated, bored, lonely. All my life, I’ve felt like I needed to get rid of these emotions. Hide them or eradicate them, I was the happy bubbly girl and I needed to fit that part. Sam gave me the permission that I didn’t know I needed to acknowledge and feel these negative emotions, rather than shushing them with food.”
She’s been binge free for months now.
How to feel it:
Of course I’m not going to leave you hanging! Here’s an exercise and handout I use in my work (and my life). It’s a simple, but powerful exercise for giving your emotions voice and motion. It helps you legitimate how you’re feeling, feel it, and then move on from that place. You can grab it here – use it for sadness, anger, anxiety, anything.
Really feeling your emotions is obviously so key. I feel like Inside out shows us this in a powerful way. It’s not just the ‘good’ emotions that we should be feeling – they all deserve our time, our space, and our expression.