“Many people are afraid of their feelings, especially the so-called negative emotions. They are afraid they can’t handle their pain, that it will overwhelm them. They are afraid that if they allow themselves to feel their loneliness it will last forever, that if they fully experience their anger they will do hurtful, destructive things. They attempt to ignore or keep under tight control all their ‘bad’ feelings like fear, sadness, anger and loneliness.”
Anita Johnston, PhD, “Eating in the Light of the Moon”, USA: Gurze Books
Adults with eating disorders distract themselves from their feelings with constant thoughts of food. I find most of my clients are very ‘cognitive’ – meaning they live in their heads, allowing their intellect to dominate and ignoring their feelings and gut instincts. Many clients do not even have a good range of vocabulary for feelings – everything is lumped under two or three words – sad, angry, happy. One client I recall described everything as being ‘bored’, she literally had no other words for feelings, because it had been so long since she had either felt able to talk about her feelings, or even less feel them, that she literally had no idea what it was she was actually feeling.
Another feature of my clients is that they can sit in front of me, talking about all sorts of stuff, some of which is pretty painful and difficult, but they will shed no tears. They will not be angry. They will smile as they talk, smile and nod at me, looking like they’ve just asked if I’d like sugar in my tea, and not just told me about how awful, for example, the bullying they experienced was throughout high school.
What happens when we repress our feelings? Or seek to ‘bury’ them in food? Or try to vomit them out of our body? Well, it may feel like you are successfully avoiding dealing with them, but I’d be interested to know how your body feels about it. Physical tension, nervousness, irritability, stomach aches/IBS, headaches and other physical symptoms all result from holding in feelings over years and years. Clients come into me and I ask them what medications they are taking. Many are taking anti-depressants or anxiolytics, many have IBS and other gut related problems. This is not a co-incidence.
So what can you do if you want to begin changing and trying to recognise and deal with your feelings? Well, I’ve often recommended something like Cranio Sacral Therapy, Acupuncture or Reiki – all different forms of energy release – as a first step towards letting some of the old, repressed feelings go. If you can afford to attend a Therapist then that is clearly an option. If you can’t, then look for self-help resources that can help. Books such as The Artist’s Way can be useful, and I love Anita Johnston’s book “Eating by the light of the Moon”, mainly for women with Eating Disorders. But even joining a drama or improvisation group can help – learning how to identify and express emotions through drama is not only helpful, but can build confidence and get you out of a rut by introducing you to new people and experiences. And that’s a key part of change – doing something different.
“Unlike behaviour, feelings cannot harm you or others. They can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, and at times they may be the impetus for hurtful behaviour (if they are not expressed correctly), but they are not bad or destructive in and of themselves. Feelings can cause trouble, however, if they aren’t recognised or accepted. They are waves of energy that can either flow through us, or get blocked. They do not just disappear… When we allow ourselves to be totally immersed in our feelings, we can experience something miraculous and wonderful: the feelings will pass. They will flow through and be gone. And we will feel the freedom to move on, without being encumbered or weighted down by them.” (Anita Johnston, as before)
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Make peace with your feelings, you never know where it will lead you.
Emma Murphy is a Psychotherapist and developer of the Feeling Focused for Emotional Eating online program, available at www.changepanda.com.