How to be with your feelings

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To let go of emotional eating habits, we need to deal with our feelings differently. How? This month, do this very simple thing: Let feelings arise, and acknowledge them. And doesn’t that already feel better?

A woman feels her emotions

If you go quiet, your heart sends your feelings to your attention, so listen up. Laura Lloyd 2016

Me: baby screams. Feeling: Guilt that I can’t soothe her. Feeling: Anger that it won’t stop. Thought: URGH. NEED CHOCOLATE CAKE.

Radio silence from job application, feel discouraged and self-doubting, ‘deserve a beer’ and the reassurance of friends.

Partner away. Feel a little lonely. Munch munch. Drowning out the silence with cornflakes.

You feel a little off, you give yourself a something extra, something just for you. I totally get that.

And you know what? That’s actually really self-caring of you to try to ‘look after yourself’ in this way. Just, maybe, the wrong tactic if you want to be lean.

And maybe, the wrong tactic if you want to be wholehearted and authentic in your life too. But you have to thank yourself for trying.

People talk about ’emotional eating’ all the time these days – is that what you mean?

Yes, I’m talking about doing this:

Emotional eating (I actually call this ‘Narcotic eating’): Eating to numb your emotions, repressing, taking the edge off. Using food as a narcotic that gives you a temporary chemical high or a little comfort, or puts you to sleep. This is using food like ‘downers’ and ‘uppers’. 

The alternative is to be with our feelings. We’ll talk more about how to do that in a mo.

Not to be confused with…

Feelings that arise from eating. I wonder if you do this sometimes?

Habitually overeating with an emotional payoff: You overeat out of sheer habit, but the result is that you feel comforted or slobbed out or ready for bed. So you sometimes use the emotional payoff as an excuse to obey the urge to do your habit “I’ll eat this tin of rice pudding and then I’ll sleep really well because I have to get up early tomorrow”. But actually, you’re eating because the urge to do your habit is quite powerful, the emotion is just a feedback loop that reinforces the habit.

If this is you, then we need to look at habit change, rather than the emotional side of things.

Eating with a lot of emotional background noise about eating: All the emotions that go along with the urge to eat, your feelings about your body, your judgments of your hunger, the echo of stressful family mealtimes as you were growing up, and the feelings arising from your self-judgments over who you are as an eater, and maybe the feelings you have about what you have eaten in the past or just recently.

If you have an emotional snowstorm around your food, then we can work on toning down the drama. This isn’t real, authentic emotion from your heart. This is just a load of emotional sensations that are coming from your crazy thinking and judgments around food.

Of course, you can see how these two kinds of emotion might easily be two stages in a feedback loop.

And all these feelings, of course just get tangled up, and only read as one generic response: ‘stress’.

Start to notice what you bring to the table.

So what should I do to express my emotions or let them go? 

Catharsis shmarsis: You don’t have to ‘do’ anything with your feelings

You just have to let your feelings rise to your attention.

That’s all. Blogpost over.

Feelings pass like clouds in a sky

Because when they are acknowledged, they pass through.

And when you don’t acknowledge them, and shove them away and lock them down, they stack up until your psyche is a big dark basement full of junk.

The best description of this is in Mary O’Malley’s book The Gift of our Compulsions. The gift, of course, is the reminder to be your whole self, emotions included.

Does this have something to do with ‘loving yourself’?

Yep yup yop.

‘Loving yourself’ means connecting to yourself. And more specifically, not disconnecting with yourself. Repressing is definitely a disconnection.

Loving yourself means you accept all of what you are. That means when you experience an emotion which is unwanted, like say, envy, you don’t judge yourself for it. You accept that you feel that, and that’s part of you.

In fact, it really really helps to use that phrase: “A part of me feels…” right now.

Isn’t it better to ‘feel’ the whole spectrum of emotion – after all, that’s what being human is all about!

So wait. I don’t have to write a letter to my former self and then burn it on a bridge at midnight?

When you acknowledge emotions, and give them a little space and time, they pass through.

You don’t have to speak them, or rush to a journal to write them out, or shout to empty chairs, punch pillows, write letters that you burn, publish them in blogposts, seek vengeance or acknowledgement of them from other people, or try to exorcise them with voodoo, homewritten folk songs, or any other rituals.

You can do all that if you want. I probably would, but only because I like theatre 🙂

They are just tender little things, like pet fairies, and all they want is you, yes you Fairy Queen, to see them and nod sagely.

Shouldn’t we talk about our feelings?

Sometimes articulating emotion really helps, and sometimes it just magnifies and complicates and catastrophises. *CARTOON* starts domestic arguments that paint pictures of psychological abuse arising from the fact that you feel soooo resentful you just have to talk about it because your husband never puts the bog roll actually into the bogroll holder. And then he says, why do we have to talk everything to death? And you say, because I need you to acknowledge my feelings etc etc etc etc etc etc STOP

So I say just let them be part of you and stay aware and open.

Even if you don’t ‘do’ anything with them, they will still pass through.

The trouble is, we fear pain.

Our thinking brains are naturally self-protective in their functioning. So those negative emotions? We just don’t want to feel them. We’d do anything to avoid emotional pain.

Not this month though.

This month, you don’t have to eat through them, numb them, fight them, get them out, make them stop, analyse them, out-reason them or try to wish them away.

Even pain. Even guilt. Even anxiety. Even rejection. Even self-pity.

They hurt. Sure. But instead of just going “Ow! Ow! OW!”, have you really taken an interest in how they feel?

Curiosity is your secret superpower

When you watch your feelings, and give them space, and maybe even a very specific and eloquent name (have you ever felt the delicacy of a pang of homesickness? Are you a little uninspired today? Did you get caught in a rainshower of self-pity? Can you sense your anxiety mount as you pile on self-pressure? Are you angry because you’re feeling self-righteous? Did you indulge a moment of regret?)

Here’s the truth. They can’t hurt you more than they already hurt you. And, as the self-help adage goes, the universe never gives you more than you can handle. Once you’ve acknowledged your feelings, you’ve already seen the scope of it.

Are there any tricks or techniques to acknowledging your feelings?

That’s a good question.

You could try this:

A body check-in

Deep breath, close eyes, scan up through your body. Where can you feel the emotion? How does it feel in your body?

You could use your breathing to journey through a feeling

Don’t choke up. Don’t hold your breath. Sing if necessary 😉 It’s your party, you can cry if you want to.

Living in questions (courtesy of Mary O’Mally) – anchor yourself to these questions in the moment of unwanted feeling or urge:

  • In this moment, what am I experiencing?
  • For this moment, can I let this be here?
  • In this moment, can I touch this with compassion? (put your hand on your heart and be nice to yourself)
  • Right now, what do I truly need?

What should I do when the urge to push away my feelings is very strong?

Say to yourself, ahhh! That’s my desperately self-protective brain trying to keep me safe the only way it knows how. “Hi brain, I’m OK. I’m just going to hang with my heart for a few minutes, no need to keep blowing your whistle”

Are emotions ‘the real you’? Should you identify with them? Or are they just a messy human byproduct of negative thoughts?

Mindfulness says that the ‘real you’ is the part of you that’s able to be conscious. Hence the emphasis here on attention: the ability to say “Ah, that’s sadness” with buddhalike knowingness. (Nod slowly, hands in mudra)

Which is probably why I mistakenly spend many an hour analysing my emotions in order to try to ‘step outside’ them and have some kind of objective distance. But the problem with analysing is, it just piles a bunch of thought on top of the emotion, which is very sticky and heavy and holds onto the feeling for much longer.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy suggests you ‘unthink’ your feelings. Change your thought, change your feeling. But really, you probably just have to let the bad-feeling-driving-thought pass through.

“I’m just going to ingest these 240g of fuel and then resume being a red-blooded human”

Food is energy, and food has energy, and it is sad that we’ve tried to robotise it with a load of packaging and calorie-counting.

As Marc David says, ’emotionless eating’ wouldn’t be very nice at all. Eating should be joy, celebration, inclusion, connection, belonging, family, friendship, gratitude, soulfulness, trust, intimacy, abundance, embodiment, even comfort.

Eat with emotion. If you don’t feel anything, either you’re distracted, or depressed. Food is a way to come back to your body wisdom, and listen in to yourself. It’s a good place to start with both of these situations.

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Do you emotionally eat? Emotionlessly eat? Dive into the comment section and let me know.