Have you ever thought about the purpose of your emotions? If you’re like most people, you don’t think much about emotions (yours or anyone elses) and you just move through them, hoping to experience more of the pleasant, energizing ones and steer clear of the deflating ones. When unpleasant emotions such as loneliness, hurt, disappointment or rejection surface, perhaps you try to distract yourself with food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, television, internet surfing, texting, reading, drama, sex, gambling, complaining, gossiping, etc.
You may find that you’re more comfortable with certain emotions. Perhaps anger energizes you and venting and raging lets off the tension and frustration you’ve built up. Maybe hurt allows you to place responsibility for your pain on someone else’s behavior and moves you away from the powerlessness you don’t want to feel. Constantly comparing yourself to others and feeling jealous or envious may be a way to avoid a deep-seated sense of inadequacy. You may get stuck in particular emotions, like anger or sadness and not know how to “move through” emotional states and get back to balance.
The problem with distracting yourself regularly from your emotions or allowing only a limited repertoire of emotions is that you fail to learn from all of them. From glad to sad, ecstatic to desperate, they are our most precious teachers, here to signal us regarding the state of our internal and external worlds. They are like the “check engine” light on your car’s dashboard–ignoring this signal will result in more trouble down the road.
Regularly disconnecting from your emotions or getting stuck in them is a sign that you are lacking self-care skills generally learned in childhood. You have difficulty connecting to yourself, paying attention to all your emotional signals and/or responding appropriately to meet your needs. For a variety of reasons, you may have grown up in an environment where your basic emotional needs were inadequately met. Your caregivers may not have had their basic needs adequately met and may have been incapable of meeting yours. Even well-meaning, loving caregivers may be overly self-absorbed or needy and regularly distracted by their internal struggles.
When our emotions and needs are neglected, we lose touch with these important internal signals. When our caregivers are unable to consistently and predictably meet our emotional needs, we spend our childhood years trying to cope with unpleasant emotional states, insecurity and low self-esteem. While we present a “false self” to the world, we have a hurt, sad, angry, anxious, lonely wounded child within. It’s easy to see how we can begin to “use” food and other distractions for comfort, pleasure and calming. And yet, all these activities disconnect us further from our authentic self.
It’s never too late to learn to pay attention to your emotions and allow them to guide you in meeting your needs. Reconnecting to your authentic emotional self takes time and is a process. It will require some patience and practice. And it is worth the effort; you are worth the effort.
You can begin the process of getting to know your inner emotional landscape by asking yourself the question “What am I feeling in this situation? ” throughout the day. During stressful or trying situations, take a few moments and ask yourself this question. When you want to numb out with food or some other distraction, pull out a piece of paper and write the answer to this question. Emotions are just one word, for example “I feel sad” or “I feel betrayed.” Keep in mind that it’s okay to feel any emotion. All emotions are valid; there are no right or wrong, good or bad emotions.
There isn’t anything to do with your emotions except pay attention to them and let them inform you as to the state of your world. Before addressing your needs, it’s best to see if you can really feel your emotions. Stay with them for a few minutes or longer and identify where you feel them in your body. How does anger feel in your body? How is it different from the feeling you get with shame? How long can you allow yourself to feel your emotions before you look for distraction? Do you remember feeling this same emotional state at earlier times in your life–what do these feelings remind you of? Taking the time to journal about this will help you connect more deeply to your emotions and release them.
The next step in getting to know your inner world is to follow-up with the question “What am I truly longing for in this situation? or “What do I need in this situation?” See if you can get clear on what exactly you’re needing, whether or not you can easily obtain or create it. Try not to sabotage the process by quickly throwing out limiting beliefs like “I need a partner to help out, and that’ll never happen!” Just stay with identifying your need for support or companionship. Taking quality time to be with yourself in this way is a very important first step in giving yourself the support you need. It will be much easier to find ways to meet your needs when you feel clear and centered.
Try on the above two steps the next time your “check engine” signal comes on, in the form of anger, hurt, sadness, despair, or the like. Remember to embrace all of your emotions, pleasant and unpleasant. Rather than resorting to ineffective soothing and calming behaviors like emotional eating or television watching, try connecting to yourself and identifying your emotions and needs. With practice, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can restore yourself to balance.
Posted by Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT. If you have a question or topic you would like to see addressed in this blog, go to http: //www.overeatingrecovery.com.