By Sarah Dosanjh MSc CTS MBACP (Acced.)

sitting with feelings

One of the most unhelpful beliefs about recovering from emotional eating is this idea that it requires learning how to ‘sit’ with your feelings AKA just feel them. This belief is upheld by an assumption that if we feel our feelings they will pass, but is this true?

Perhaps unsatisfyingly, the answer is sometimes.

Sometimes when we feel, there is release and relief in letting the feeling out and yet other times when that feeling breaks through it seems to open up bigger chasms of anxiety and/or hopelessness.

I believe the answer lies in safety. You can push yourself into experiencing your emotions, but if this triggers a sense of not feeling safe you may find yourself unable to emotionally process whatever is happening in (or to) you.

The just-sit-with-it crowd might suggest you sit with that feeling of not being safe until it passes. This is not how it works and if you believe it is, you’ll activate shame making the whole thing even messier. No wonder we turn to food.

My dear pal and podcast co-host Stefanie Michele talks about regulation pretty…well, regularly and no doubt my consistent exposure to this is having an influence as that word pops into my head a lot these days.

For me, self regulation becomes possible when I make my thoughts safer through practicing thought work, self inquiry and non judgment. Safer thoughts create safety in my body. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case for everyone. I’m a cognitive processor (not to be confused with overthinking). You may be the same or you may be more of a sensory processor (of course most of us will have a bit of both in us). Perhaps you get stuck with your thoughts and you need to move your body, focus on your breath, receive physical comfort or any other kind of somatic experience in order to feel safer before looking at your thoughts.

Recovering from emotional eating means finding other ways to emotionally regulate. This doesn’t mean never emotionally eating (I still do this sometimes), but it’s about having a wider range of regulatory tools at your disposal.

Notice if you are beating yourself up every time you reach for food to soothe an emotion. This is the spiral that leads to feeling even worse when all you’re trying to do is feel better. Maybe you judge yourself for not being ‘good at feeling’ your emotions. Instead of telling yourself you should sit with your feelings, try this: acknowledge (recognise what you are feeling) – validate (non judgment/self-compassion) – investigate by asking yourself what might help you feel safe right now.

It’s all very well to say we need to process our emotions, but until we feel safe enough to do this compulsive behaviours will run the show. I have created a video where I polled therapists to gather the best tried-and-tested advice about how to feel your feelings and you can watch this here.

For more content about how to stop bingeing and heal your relationship with food, head to my YouTube channel The Binge Eating Therapist.

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