Over the course of our lifetime, we are taught how we should respond to and express our emotions, what emotions we are allowed to feel and when, and how much emotion we are supposed to feel in any given situation. Unfortunately, these lessons are often unhelpful, and lead us to feeling like we should be able to control our emotions – we come to fear them, and react to them by either stuffing or numbing, or acting out from our emotions. Both of these forms of response work for the eating disorder, which often comes in as a coping mechanism to “help” deal with difficult and painful feelings through behaviors like restricting, bingeing and purging, over-exercising, and even shape-checking.
Part of recovery for many people involves starting to heal their relationship with their emotions and unlearning the unhelpful lessons, while re-learning a more skillful and gentle way of relating to their emotional world. The first step is recognizing that there are no “good” or “bad” emotions – the presence of any emotion shows that we are human, and therefore all emotions have a place in our life. There are definitely more pleasant and unpleasant emotions, but labelling them as good and bad places a moral judgement on the emotion – we get the sense that feeling a “bad” emotion makes us a bad person.
Emotions can be extremely informative – think of the caveman who felt fear at the sight of a long stick, thinking it is a snake. Our caveman will have a flight/fight/freeze response that will ensure his survival. The fear has possibly saved his life, if the stick had actually been a poisonous snake!
Although we don’t face the same physical danger that cavemen did, our emotions are still meant to convey information about our environment and how we feel about it. They can also help us tune into what our thoughts are doing, and so recognizing that we are feeling anxious as a result of our thoughts can help us stop unhelpful mind trains. Some good questions to ask yourself when you are experiencing an emotion are:
What am I feeling?
What has happened today or in the last few days that could be contributing to this feeling?
What are my automatic thoughts about this emotion (am I judging myself)?
What could be the purpose of this emotion?
What can I do to help myself cope with this feeling until it goes away on its own?
Reflecting on our emotions in this way can give us the space to look at them more gently, and avoid reacting from the emotion. It’s important to remember that when working to repair your relationship with emotions, the goal is not to feel better. The goal is to get better at feeling!