“Don’t feed your feelings with food.”
“Tune in to your emotions and address them head-on.”
“Stop using food to numb out or to push away your feelings.”
What if I could give you a magic spell that would allow you to do these things. Would you use it?
As much as many of us dream of the day when food loses its power, when cravings disappear, or when the urge to overeat just doesn’t happen, the truth is, that we overeat for a reason – always.
And if food is a way to cope with tough emotions, when you take the food away (even if you do it joyfully), you’re likely to find those difficult feelings staring you right in the face.
Yes, if you tackle emotional eating, you really do have to find a way to take care of your feelings. Here’s what’s so important to remember though: every ounce of emotional resiliency and skill you nurture will make it easier to take care of yourself in ways that really meet your needs (which numbing out with food doesn’t do).
What to do if you’re pretty sure your overeating is a way of coping with difficult emotions
Start with self-compassion
Be gentle with yourself. Recognize that doing things differently, even considering tackling your tough emotions without turning to food, is a courageous step. Be kind, respectful, and gentle with yourself. This is a vulnerable time, but you can do this – one step at a time.
Practice naming any feelings that you are aware of
Do this in any way you’re able. You might know that you feel sad or you might know that you feel tightness in your chest. Try spending time tuning in to how you feel (emotionally and physically) and see how precisely you can label the experience. If you feel “bad”, can you be more specific? Try on specific feeling words (angry, sad, hurt, embarrassed…) and see how they fit.
Google a list of emotions and use it as a cheat sheet. What’s the facial expression or posture that goes with this feeling? It may sound strange, but emotional eating is a way of putting distance between our feelings and ourselves. Think of what you’re doing as practicing saying hello to what’s going on inside you. No judgment, there are no unacceptable feelings. We all have all of them.
Start growing your skills and tools for handling feelings
Remember self-compassion here. Acknowledging what you don’t know or can’t do (yet) is a strength and it takes bravery. If you have feelings you don’t know how to handle, you have a range of options. Coaching or therapy can be very helpful if you want or need the help of an expert. Note: If you’re struggling with depression or feelings that are causing you to feel unsafe or limiting your ability to function, start by finding a qualified therapist to work with. Talk with your family physician if you don’t know how to approach this.
Here are other ways to grow your ability to handle feelings
Start by naming (saying out loud) what you know about what you need or want.
“I’d like to get more comfortable with anger.”
“I want to feel calm and confident about having difficult conversations.”
“I need to know what to do when I think I’ve disappointed someone.”
“I want to understand what feeling sad without getting something to eat feels like.”
“I want to learn how to have hard feelings without feeling like I can’t do it.”
“I would like to learn how to feel my feelings instead of numbing out – especially anxiety.”
Consider your best learning style. Do you love to read? Do you learn by observing? Are you a group person or someone who works best one on one? Books, videos, online and offline courses are more accessible than ever. Leaning into the approach that works best for you can make a big difference.
Ask questions. You don’t have to bare your soul to ask a friend “What do you do when you’re sad/bored/angry?” or “How do you handle tough situations like _______?”
Too often we judge ourselves for having struggles with food and we feel guilt or shame. This guilt and shame can keep us from being open, curious, and finding better solutions.
Circle back to self-compassion and repeat the steps
Building new, strong skills that work well takes practice and patience, but if you’ve come this far, you’re probably farther along than you believe. If it feels like the process isn’t working, isn’t fast enough, or is getting bogged down, get help. Getting out of your head, getting a fresh perspective, and having guidance and new insight can make all the difference.
Take a deep breath, give yourself credit for your courage, and keep taking steps.
They add up.