If you’ve followed this blog for awhile (or are on my email list), you’ve heard me say many times that a huge cause of emotional eating is from us not being willing to feel our feelings. We feel the first twinge of something uncomfortable – something we think we can’t feel – and our first response is to push it away and stuff food in our mouths as a barrier to keep those feelings at a distance. We think we won’t survive if we let these uncomfortable feelings in, if we allow them space, they’ll take over and we’ll be stuck feeling terrible forever.
But that’s not how feelings work. Feelings come and go. They pass just like clouds on a windy day. They come over us in in waves, and yes, sometimes they are quite strong, but they’re not deadly. You will survive them.
Toddlers and Cats are Skilled in Feeling Feelings
I have two examples I like to use when describing how feelings really work and how easy it is to actually survive them. Hopefully you can relate to one of them! The first is that of a cat. One minute, your cat is purring happily on your lap, enjoying you petting her. She might even lick your hand and drool – that’s how much she’s loving the attention. This might last for 2 minutes or it might go on for a half hour or more, but eventually, she’s going to decide that she’s had enough and she’ll jump off you and go do her thing elsewhere, and then look at you like she doesn’t even know you. If you get up and go try to pet her now, she’ll probably walk away again, almost recoiling from your touch. She’s totally over it. Her reaction to you is so changed that it’s almost as if she has no memory that she was begging for your attention just a moment ago. The other example is that of a toddler. Think of a toddler in the grocery store. One minute, he’s happily babbling and playing with a toy he brought from home. All is well in the world. The next minute, a colorful snack in the store catches his attention and he has a complete meltdown over it. He must have it but the parent is unaware of what specific object of his desire is. He can’t communicate verbally what it is that he wants so his only tools are crying, screaming and stomping until hopefully the parent figures it out. By the time the parent has gotten through the checkout line and back to the car, the toddler is calm again and happily playing with his toy. Except for a few drying tear streaks on his cheeks, you would never know that anything dramatic had just occurred.
Our uncomfortable feelings act the same way as the cat and the toddler – they come on strong and may feel overwhelming but suddenly they’re gone and we’re still the same person we were before they happened, and a new feeling is in it’s place. You can get through this. You don’t have to eat to deal with it.
Feeling your feelings can take a little work to get used to doing regularly, but it’s actually surprisingly simple.
How to Feel Your Feelings
How do you feel your feelings?? You just feel them.
That’s really it. Step 1: Feel them.
You let them happen. You let them be. You let the awful, the uncomfortable and the stressful feelings come over you and then you don’t react to them beyond letting yourself feel the way you feel.
Feeling your feelings almost feels like you’re not doing anything. There’s very little action and doing and for some of us, this is what makes it so challenging. We are used to “doing” – eating, avoiding, restricting, resisting, distracting in every area of our lives.
Feeling uncomfortable feelings takes practice because we’re not used to letting ourselves feel that way. Most of us do better with feeling good. Have you ever just sat outside for a few minutes and enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine? You feel good doing this. It’s easy. You don’t have to work hard at feeling that way. We know how it feels to just be, for a few moments and enjoy the peace and quiet and be with our thoughts in those moments. After a few minutes in the fresh air, you feel renewed, empowered and ready to go back to your day. But your mood can change quickly even after a nice time outside – you might get a phone call you didn’t want to get, your boss may throw a huge last minute project on your desk or you may run into someone you really don’t like. Really our feelings change all the time due to our interactions with others and thoughts we’re having (conscious ones and unconscious ones). The good feelings pass and the bad ones pass too.
When a feeling you don’t want to feel comes up, think of a time when you were sitting outside enjoying the day and how easy it is to feel your feelings in that moment. You can feel your less comfortable feelings just as easily if you get into the habit of doing it.
Step By Step “How to Feel Your Feelings” For Those Who Can’t Believe that “Just Feeling Them” is All There is To It.
- When a feeling you don’t want to feel makes you want to run to the kitchen, go to a quiet place where you can be alone, without food and without your phone, ipad or TV.
- Just be with your thoughts and feelings. There is nothing to do but feel whatever way you are feeling.
- Notice that you’ll probably repeatedly feel the urge to get up – and you might keep feeling like you have to do something but not remember what that was (that’s your autopilot reaction to go comfort and distract with food). Notice that that is what you are doing (going on autopilot) and just consciously bring your attention back to your feelings.
Most of us need something to “do” when we’re first starting out with this stuff. We’re so not used to just allowing ourselves to be that we will feel like we’re wasting time or that we’re doing things wrong if there isn’t a clear linear path to progress. There isn’t one so you can stop looking.
4. If you need something more concrete in the beginning stages of this work, here’s a writing exercise to help you feel your feelings and pull your attention back to them:
- Get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.
- Write down exactly what you are feeling. Describe it as best you can. What does it feel like? What does it make you want to do? If it had a color, what would it be? Where in the body are you physically feeling the feeling? Describe any physical sensations and where you feel them. Is the feeling heavy? Does it vibrate? Does it give you energy or take your energy away?
Flesh out as much as you can about this feeling. Doing this will help you start to recognize this feeling the next time you feel it, and it will also help show you that it’s something that is harmless. By the time you finish describing it the feeling will probably have just about passed.
What Not To Do When Feeling Your Feelings
I’ve already mentioned that when we’re feeling our feelings it’s important to not avoid, resist or push away the feeling (which we often do by “doing”). Another thing that we have to do when learning how to just “feel” is to not find ways to distract ourselves. Obviously distracting ourselves with food is how we got into this situation to begin with and so distracting is something we’re really good at.
If you look at advice articles on how to stop eating too much, the advice is almost always full of things like have a glass of water, chew on something crunchy and low calorie like celery, go for a walk, call a friend, read a book etc. Now, I think those things can sometimes be helpful overall when learning new habits that don’t include eating junk food – but they’re not helpful to someone who has spent years not feeling their feelings and is trying to learn how to do that. In those cases, going for a walk or drinking water just serves as a temporary filler or distraction which will defeat the whole purpose of this. Sure, going for a walk when you don’t want to feel uncomfortable will probably make you feel better (and it’s good for you), but for today’s purpose, we’re not trying to make ourselves feel better. We’re trying to learn how to be ok when we feel badly. Teach yourself that you don’t have to “fix” your feelings, you just need to be able to feel it and food will becomes less of a coping mechanism (because there’s nothing you have to fix – nothing went wrong and this will pass!).
Don’t do anything right now. Just feel. Your job is to get comfortable with being with yourself and not do anything other than that.
If you find yourself resorting to avoiding, pushing, resisting or distracting yourself – planning your next vacation, thinking about cooking dinner, reaching for your smartphone (which is supposed to be in the other room, remember?) come back to the writing exercise above. Start writing again. See if your feeling has changed from when you first started to write.
Am I Better Now?
That’s really it. I know, you might have expected a complicated process but really feeling feelings is something simple that we innately know how to do. We’ve taught ourselves to not feel them and it’s just a matter of relearning how to feel.
As with most things I write and teach my clients about, this is not something you do once and then are suddenly great at. It takes a lot of practice, vulnerability and a willingness to embrace your fears. You will occasionally resort to old habits of trying to comfort yourself with food when you feel bored, frustrated, angry, sad, confused etc even when you think you’ve mastered this skill. But keep coming back to it over and over. Be willing to feel your feelings always, no matter how terrible they are and no matter how badly you don’t want to feel that way. You have no choice really. You can either feel the crappy feeling now and have it move on (like the cat or the toddler above) or you can avoid the feeling and eat instead, only to still feel crappy later anyway!
Just like with all the other peaceful eating skills I talk about, feeling your feelings is just one of many things we need to do for ourselves to be well. It’s a practice that you can develop and customize and make your own, so that you can have the relationship with food that you’d like to have. This alone won’t make you better, but it’s absolutely necessary if you’re an emotional eater.
Can you feel anything without turning to food? That’s the goal. When the day comes when you are willing to feel any feeling, not because you like feeling bad (no one does), but because you know they’re just feelings and you can handle anything, that’s how you’ll know that you are beating this stuff. What’s the worst that will happen if you let yourself feel what you’re feeling (instead of turning to food)? Nothing. I know you can handle any feeling. Now it’s your turn to convince yourself of it.
Do you want help putting this practice in your own life? Contact me to set up a free consult and let’s see if we’d be a good fit to work together.
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