Importance of Sitting with Uncomfortable Feelings in Eating Disorder Recovery

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Many of the vices that can become dangerous mental illnesses involve avoidance of uncomfortable emotions.

It is because of this that mental health diagnoses, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, commonly co-occur with eating disorder diagnoses.

This is also the reason that learning to tolerate and accept uncomfortable emotions is key to eating disorder recovery.

Why Do We Avoid Uncomfortable Emotions?

It might seem that the answer to this is buried in the question – these emotions are uncomfortable.

This is true, and yet, the reasons that we struggle to tolerate uncomfortable feelings are not simply because we don’t like them.

It certainly begins in this way.

When we are children, we engage in all of our behaviors in order to escape pain or distress and experience care and contentment.

This is why many avoidant emotionally avoidant coping skills begin in childhood or adolescence.

Negative sensations, feelings, experiences arise and we do our best to cope in those moments. At times, we may have helpful guidance, however, sometimes support is not there and we develop ineffective methods of coping, such as substance use, self-harming, or, what we are focused on in this article, eating disorders.

There are many ways in which eating disorder behaviors can result out of avoidance of feeling out of control, unworthy, overwhelmed, depressed, and/or insecure, to name a few.

While these habits worked for you at one point, they are harmful to you, are not effective long-term, and are not the only, or even the best, option.

Have compassion for the frightened and confused younger version of yourself that developed these habits. You don’t know what you don’t know and, when you know better, you can work on doing better, for you.

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Where to Begin

If you have been avoiding uncomfortable emotions using eating disorder behaviors, it can be very difficult to behave differently.

Essentially, it is like having a surgical procedure done without anything to numb the pain because you are choosing to no longer use your old habits and have not yet developed any new habits.

A helpful therapeutic model to consider in learning to deal with negative and uncomfortable emotions is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) [1].

This model teaches skills in 4 main areas – mindfulness, interpersonal effective SS, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance [1].

It is the latter 2 that can be most helpful in learning how to cope with and control your emotional experience and responses and to cope effectively with distress as it arises.

These skills begin with learning how to exist in the moment, recognizing non judgmentally what is occurring within and around you.

As you do this, you can assess the situation to determine what is an effective way to proceed.

Acceptance can be hugely beneficial in sitting with uncomfortable feelings. Negative emotions are an inevitable part of life. We cannot numb them because, in attempting to do so, we numb out every other emotion as well.

Accept what cannot be changed and practice learning to exist within that reality.

It is also helpful to communicate these emotions effectively. It feels “better” to bury them but this does not help to resolve them and often plants the seed for relapse into eating disorder behaviors.

You can also practice mindfulness skills such as meditating, deep breathing, or grounding to calm your emotional response even amidst negativity.

Give yourself grace as you navigate letting go of your old emotional avoidance behaviors and develop new skills.

It will take time, you will fall back into old habits, and, even so, you are capable of sitting with and coping with uncomfortable emotions without eating disorder behaviors.

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[1] Linehan, M. (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York. NY; The Guilford Press.

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a 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.

Published May 7, 2021, on
Reviewed & Approved on May 7, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC