Emotional Eating Guide: Feel the Feelings

What can you do when you feel the urge to soothe unpleasant emotions with food?  

In my last blog I talked about why it’s important to give yourself full permission to eat emotionally without guilt.  

With guilt and rebellion out of the way, the next step is becoming more aware of your feelings.  If you’ve ever had a binge and weren’t aware of the feelings that triggered it until well after, this is an essential step for you.

But even if you think you’re pretty in touch with your feelings, it’s important to remember that feelings can be very complex and challenging to manage.  They don’t neatly arrive and depart one at a time and they don’t cancel each other out.   

Just like it is important to allow yourself to eat if you want to have a peaceful relationship with food, it is important to allow yourself to feel if you want to have a peaceful relationship with your feelings.

If you’ve ever gotten mad at your feelings and tried to bully yourself into feeling differently, you know that it doesn’t work.  It just adds guilt, frustration, and anger to the equation.    

So before you go into the practice of making a list of things to do when the impulse towards emotional eating arises, commit to giving all of your feelings full permission to exist without judgment.

If you grew up in an environment where feelings were mocked or rejected, this might sound impossible or scary.  I get it.  I really do.  

But what you’ll find is that when you allow your emotions to arise and exist, they will pass naturally, when it is their time to do so.  You won’t feel sad or angry forever.  Your feelings will not swallow you whole.  

In fact, once you’re really at peace with your feelings, you may not feel like you need to do anything about them at all besides acknowledge them and let them move through you.  

Old habits take effort to change, though, and it will take time and practice to change the way you cope with feelings.  (A therapist can be a big help if you get stuck or overwhelmed.)

So here’s the practice:

  • When you find yourself drawn to eat to cope with feelings, begin by gently asking yourself, “What am I feeling right now?”  
  • Try to simply name the feelings that are present, and don’t get lost in stories about why the feelings exist.  Writing the feelings down might help you to stay focused.
  • Notice the ways that your feelings manifest as sensations in your body.  You might scan the body, bringing gentle awareness to each area, from bottom to top, with particular attention to the heart and belly areas.  
  • Be deeply curious about your experience of having these feelings, observing shifts and changes.
  • Reassure yourself that it is ok to have these feelings, as uncomfortable as they may be.

I like to picture feelings as being like the ocean.  Waves build up, crash, spread, and get pulled back into the ocean.  There may be undercurrents underneath the waves.  The best way to avoid drowning is to stay present, move with the current, and keep breathing.  (And know when to call for help!)

While that is the practice, you might find that all this “feeling the feelings” is still leaving you with a serious desire for some comfort food.  I want to remind you once again that it is essential to give yourself full permission to eat if that’s what you really want to do.

However, you might also want to experiment with other forms of coping, and I’ll talk more about how to do that next time.  

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