Disordered Eating: Reframing The Discussion, Part 3: Dealing with Feelings

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Meeting Your Feelings

Once you recognize the power of Self-Talk and begin putting it into practice, you might also discover that this helpful new skill is going to tap into some of your existing emotions and feelings. Hoped you could avoid that? Well, you’ll see that it’s an important process of becoming a healthy well-adjusted person. So, let’s get right into it, shall we?

Feelings and Relationships

A common trait of individuals with eating disorders is a tendency to isolate and avoid relationships. Some of the anxiety around interaction with others may stem from difficulty communicating our needs and feelings in relationships. It may seem easier, and less stressful, to simply avoid interacting in depth with others.

After all, there is some real truth to the saying that “familiarity breeds contempt”. It can get messy whenever we become too involved with another’s life, and in most cases, we have very little control in relationships. It can feel quite vulnerable to need someone and to depend upon their support and love in return.

When Our Support Systems Aren’t There

Many of us have been sorely let down by those meant to be our foundational support systems in life or have had traumatic experiences that have tainted our perception of what healthy relationships should be like.. This disappointment may stem from a variety of factors, which include:

  • Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Abandonment
  • Unresponsiveness to emotional needs
  • Isolation
  • Emotional Disconnect

Wounds sustained by those closest to us can lay the groundwork for avoiding emotional dependency in relationships, and often haunt us years after the rejection, betrayal or abandonment occurred. Somewhere deep in our psyche, we might decide:

“this relationship business is too fraught with potential for hurt and disappointment. It is best that I not let others get too close to me. It is much safer that way.”

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So, logically, it sort of makes sense, right? Avoiding pain is appealing to everyone. However, the problem occurs when we, by our very decision to take care of ourselves by distancing from others, we incur loneliness, isolation and a host of other unmet needs for companionship and love.

Now, we protect ourselves, to some degree, from these even more painful emotions, but this isolation prevents us from experiencing the joy and healing companionship that relationships offer us. Our coping mechanism has now created quite the dilemma.

Feelings of isolation and loneliness often create a gateway for eating disorders, especially if a person may already have risk factors for these mental illnesses, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Turning away from potentially nurturing relationships and internalizing pain can create a perfect storm of factors for someone who may be vulnerable to having an eating disorder.

Trying Inferior Substitutions to Avoid Loneliness

An eating disorder often becomes the substitute for the lack of supportive and loving relationships in our lives.

It is always there for us, and we can control the decision of when we interact with it (example: “today has been awful! I cannot wait to binge on cookies when I get home tonight! At least I have that comfort to look forward to”). Whereas, people may not be instantly available to listen every time we would like.

The dangerous behaviors associated with eating disorders, such as binging, restricting, purging, etc. can also serve as a means of numbing or escaping from painful emotions, particularly those that may be associated with loneliness and/or challenging relationships.

Engaging in eating disorder behaviors can also serve as a means of establishing some sense of control, particularly when one’s external circumstances seem chaotic and out of control.

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If a person feels overwhelmed by emotions or perhaps unable to control what is experienced in a relationship, engaging in behaviors that control weight, food intake, etc. can make one feel that they are in control of something (even if these behaviors are destructive).

The crux of the matter is that relationships require us to experience and tolerate a wide range of emotions, both positive and negative. It is important to be able to identify, tolerate and express the wide range of emotions that make up all relationships.

Learning to identify these feelings and implementing healthy and appropriate coping skills for those feelings that are more difficult to manage is an important step toward healing, trusting oneself and also recovering from a painful eating disorder.

Don’t Push Aside Your Feelings

Make no mistake, feelings matter. Emotions provide valuable information about ourselves and our perspective on life as it unfolds, moment by moment, before us.

Failing to acknowledge and appreciate feelings means missing out on important signals about what we need and want, and what is required of us.

It often seems easier to push aside our feelings and forge ahead with the demands of the day, our lives, and our responsibilities.

While this may be practical in the short term, deep feelings of grief, anger, abandonment and a whole host of other uncomfortable feelings need to be honored and appropriately expressed in order to be a well-adjusted person
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Learning to tolerate uncomfortable feelings is the beginning of emotional maturity. So, how exactly does one “sit with their feelings” you might ask? This involves a willingness to honor our inner selves, our heartfelt emotions, needs, and desires. It is to be open to experiencing our feelings and allowing ourselves to express uncomfortable feelings.

Appropriately dealing with and expressing one’s feelings is also a necessary and foundational step for eating disorder recovery. Internalizing feelings, whatever they may be, without an appropriate means of coping, can add fuel to the fire for eating disorder behaviors. Keeping feelings hidden or unexpressed rather than learning to process emotions in healthy ways can compound painful issues even further.

Letting Feelings Out Instead of Internalizing

The expression of these feelings can be done in a variety of ways:

  • Speaking with a therapist
  • Talking with a close friend or family member
  • Journaling
  • Writing letters (that may or may not ever be sent)
  • Identifying where you feel the emotion ~ stomach? heart? shoulders?
  • Beating on a pillow
  • Dancing
  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Other ways of expression

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There are countless other ways that you can learn to positively cope with and express how you are feeling. It may be a trial and error period of discovering what is helpful and what works best for you. Remember that this process is individualized, so what might work for other people may not necessarily be helpful for you.

Do not let this discourage you. Continue to explore what feels therapeutic for you as you learn to healthily process different emotions that you are used to internalizing.

In our fast-paced and accomplishment-driven society, it can seem indulgent or possibly silly to waste time on such trivial matters as feelings. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Our authentic self, with all of our gifts and talents, fully blooms only when we are open to both our heads and our hearts.

Feelings and Physical Sensations

Important cues regarding our feelings can be found by paying attention to our physical state and sensations within our bodies. Obvious feeling sensations are tightness in the shoulders, clenched jaws, and headaches – often indicating stress. Some more subtle physical sensations reflecting feelings may be a heaviness in the chest, a clenched stomach or nervous shaking of your feet.

It is important to recognize that the ability to identify feelings helps me understand what I need. Sometimes, there is no action I need to take. I need only to give myself acceptance and compassion as I feel whatever emotion is currently present. Sometimes the feeling may be one that inspires us to take action to better care for ourselves.

Treating Feelings with Dignity

Many of us habitually ignore or disregard our feelings. We anticipate no direct benefit from indulging our emotions and just plow through our days. We remain stuck in our heads, with little regard for our hearts.

An important element of recovery is reclaiming the importance and dignity of feelings – both ours and the feelings of others. By doing so, we open ourselves up to feel more deeply, offer compassion to ourselves and others, and participate in more authentic and meaningful relationships.

This feeds our soul and allows us to meet our needs more effectively than the eating disorder ever could. Recovery happens when feelings are identified, experienced, accepted and expressed.

Coping with Feelings

equine-addiction-treatmentNow that we are honoring our feelings, it is an important step forward to begin identifying feelings intellectually as well.

It is an even more important step to move from our head to our hearts and truly begin feeling the emotions.

It requires enough compassion for the self that you can let go and maybe even feel like you are “falling apart” at times. It is easier to feel deeply when you have a toolkit of coping skills at the ready to make you feel safe.

Tool Kit of Coping Skills

This tool kit of coping skills for tolerating uncomfortable feelings can consist of:

  • Journaling
  • Therapy
  • Hugs from friends and family
  • Loving animals
  • Exercise
  • Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Even simpler things like a nice hot cup of tea or a long walk

It is wise to make a list of at least 20 things you can do to cope with difficult emotions rather than practicing disordered eating behaviors.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Coping with and tolerating uncomfortable feelings is a learned skill, and these skills take practice. There’s a reason people choose to numb out through extreme food restriction for the anorexic or compulsive overeating for the individual worried about their weight. The reason is to avoid these uncomfortable emotions!

Eating disorder behaviors may also offer an “in the moment” response that feels like a tangible way of managing difficult emotions. However, this is temporary, and you almost always will feel and be worse off when choosing to engage in eating disorder behaviors rather than nurturing yourself and honoring your feelings.

Once practiced, these skills build upon themselves. For example, if I can get through a particularly stressful time without using food or disordered eating behaviors to cope, then I am more likely able to refrain from the eating disorder the next time, and so on.

If I do fall back into disordered eating habits, then I can compassionately offer myself understanding and review the circumstances (and accompanying feelings) that led up to the slip. I can strategize how I will deal with this situation and the accompanying feelings the next time and learn from my mistake.

Emotional Intimacy

group-woman-talkingIt is a deliciously fulfilling experience to connect emotionally on a deep level with another person. No matter how much we disregard our needs for this intimacy with others, it remains a steadfast lifelong longing that must be fulfilled in order to truly experience a meaningful life.

The eating disorder was partially developed to falsely fill this need for an emotional connection. The eating disorder tells us that it is the one secure, reliable and constant relationship that we can count on. It is available to us 24/7, to comfort us and drown out all uncomfortable feelings.

However, in order to receive the gift of true intimacy, we must open ourselves up to other highly flawed individuals to love us and support us, and we must do the same.

I cannot promise that this is easy or comfortable. Sometimes we experience bitter disappointment in the very relationships we need to provide us the love, support, and companionship that our hearts long for.

On the flip side, we also get to experience joy, security, connectedness, and love. I figure it is about an 80/20 ratio of 80% good feelings and 20% painful feelings in any healthy long term relationship. As you can see, relationships are not for cowards. Rather, they are for brave souls who acknowledge the deep longing in their heart for love and companionship with others.

Well adjusted individuals are willing to accept that sometimes their relationships will not adequately meet their needs. They will also acknowledge that the odds of success increase dramatically when these relationships are forged with friends and loved ones who demonstrate the character and kindness that good relationships require.

Dignity of Feelings

Authenticity is highly valued in the field of eating disorder treatment. It means to be your authentic self and to be fairly transparent in close relationships. There is a dignity about someone who is obviously comfortable in their own skin – simply being themselves, with no holds barred.

These folks are typically very easy to be around and seem to inspire others to loosen up a bit, too. This often feels like a relief to the person still relying upon pretenses to buffer their own insecurities.

Feelings Exist – That’s All

young-student-girlFeelings are not good or bad, they just are. Even the most painful feelings will dissipate if given the chance to be fully expressed. We are feeling beings and are entitled to a vast rainbow of emotions in our human experience. We can respectfully acknowledge our feelings, and the feelings of others, without having to succumb to them.

If I feel tremendous anger in an argument, I can acknowledge that intense feeling and yet still allow my rational mind to keep me in check and not act out in a harmful way toward others, verbally, emotionally or physically.

Intense Feelings

If an intense feeling, like anger, comes over me, I can also make choices: I can excuse myself from the situation, I can pummel a pillow, I can go for an intense workout, I can vent in my journal or to a friend. The feelings will not kill me, and I can trust that the feeling will lessen over time.

Feelings can also be intensely rewarding, like feelings of joy, love, and excitement. I can feel these feelings and enjoy the pleasant physical sensations these feelings bring, without having to act on the emotion. I can recognize these positive emotions and express them appropriately, even if it means waiting to share my joy, happiness, excitement, with someone I value and trust.

Embracing Emotions

My emotions are not frightening. I can handle highs and lows because that is what being fully human is all about. I can respect the various emotional states I feel throughout a day, and honor these feelings by expressing them, or simply allowing the sensations of the feeling to wash over me.

The power comes not from the feelings themselves, but how I experience and react to them. What a liberating concept.

In closing, feelings really do matter. Take a moment to slow down and listen to your heart. It is a wise investment of time and energy to acknowledge, accept and express your feelings.

This is part 3 of 7 of Disordered Eating: Reframing The Discussion. See Part 4


Jacquelyn EkernAbout the author: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder. As president, Jacquelyn manages Ekern Enterprises, Inc. and the Eating Disorder Hope website. In addition, she is a fully licensed therapist with a closed private counseling practice specializing in the treatment of eating disorders.

Jacquelyn has a Bachelor of Science in Human Services degree from The University of Phoenix and a Masters degree in Counseling/Psychology, from Capella University. She has extensive experience in the eating disorder field including advanced education in psychology, participation and contributions to additional eating disorder groups, symposiums, and professional associations. She is a member of the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), Academy of Eating Disorders (AED), the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC) and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (iaedp).

Jacquelyn enjoys art, working out, walking her golden retriever “Cowgirl”, reading, painting and time with family.
Although Eating Disorder Hope was founded by Jacquelyn Ekern, this organization would not be possible without support from our generous sponsors.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed and Updated By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 31, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.