To practice getting comfortable with feelings, spend 10 minutes a day being still and breathing.
Find a quiet place and get comfortable. Close your eyes or leave them open, it’s up to you. Notice your breathing. As you breathe, become aware of whatever arises in your emotional awareness and physical body.
Practice watching and noting feelings as they come and go.
It might be helpful to notice physical sensations first. For example, if you notice an itch arise, rather than scratch it, watch it. Notice how the urge to scratch arises. Notice how the intensity of the itch changes. Eventually the itch and the urge to scratch will pass.
Now be aware of emotions. If an emotion arises, note what the emotion is without doing anything about it. If you notice sadness, say to yourself, “Sadness is here.” Welcome it by saying, “Hello sadness.”
Let go of any thoughts or judgments you have about the emotion. Just notice how it feels in your body. Breathe into it. Bring curiosity to the feeling by saying, “Gee, I wonder what sadness feels like. Let me see.”
Next, locate where this feeling resides in your body. Describe the quality of the feeling. How and where do you feel it? Would you characterize it as hot or cold? Heavy or light? Burning or tingly? Describe and watch whatever you notice. Keep breathing into the feeling while you mark its intensity change.
Continue letting go of any judgments or commentary that arises.
Spend these 10 quiet minutes a day simply watching and noting whatever comes up. Remember, you don’t need to act on any of these emotions. Your practice is to become a curious witness to your feelings so that feelings become more familiar and less scary. Ultimately, you will notice that feelings aren’t permanent, that they change and move through us, if we let them.
The more you do this, the more comfortable you will become with allowing feelings to arise and pass without having to push them down with food or other distractions. If 10 minutes seems like too long a time, start setting your timer for 3 minutes to start. Increase the time as you get more comfortable.
When you have an uncomfortable feeling, do you sometimes reach for food in order to make yourself feel better? This is understandable. It’s not fun to have an uncomfortable feeling and it makes sense that we want to move away from pain towards pleasure.
At some point in our life, eating was the best strategy we had for coping. But emotional eating hurts us. While turning to food may help in the short run, in the long run, our uncomfortable feelings eventually return and we will need to keep eating and eating in order to keep them at bay.
Unfortunately, the more we suppress our feelings with food, the more we come to fear our feelings. Our feelings end up becoming like monsters in the closet and we become terrified of opening up the closet door. Eating keeps the closet door shut. We never get the chance to experience what feelings really feel like or what they really are here for. We eat, distracting ourselves, and never discover if there actually is a monster in the closet. Or if what we think is a monster is something entirely different.
But all feelings are here for a reason.
And, if we let them, all feelings that arise will pass away. We don’t need to act on a feeling just because it is here. Instead, we can explore the feeling and let it run its course.
Some of our feelings have messages for us and, if we sit with the feeling, those messages become clear. Some feelings just need to be felt and they will naturally move through us if we let them.
To get more comfortable with your feelings, become curious about what a feeling actually is.
Next time you have an uncomfortable feeling, rather than thinking about it, locate the feeling in your body. Place a hand over the place you find it. What is the intensity level? Breathe. Tell yourself, “This is just a feeling. I’m going to explore it for a little while.”
Is the feeling a tightness in your chest, a queasiness in your belly, or a burning on your face? What does this feeling feel like in your body? What are its dimensions? If you focus on it, does it change over time?
As you’re watching the feeling, say to yourself, “This is interesting.” Invite curiosity in by asking yourself, “I wonder how long this feeling will last.”
Continue to breathe into the feeling. Spend a few minutes more watching it.
Notice any thoughts and fears you have about the feeling. Are you thinking, “This will last forever,” “I can’t stand this feeling,” or “I must eat to get rid of this feeling.” See if you can let these thoughts go and just notice the feeling itself. Critical and fearful thoughts will only exacerbate the intensity of the feeling while relaxing into the feeling might help ease it or allow it to move through you more quickly.
Practice being with your feelings for a few minutes at a time without reaching for food. Don’t expect that the feeling will disappear immediately. It might ebb and flow over time, this is natural. The goal here is to practice getting comfortable with a feeling rather than fearing it.
Remind yourself that if you need to, you can always eat, but by doing this exercise for a few minutes at a time, you will experiment with exploring the feeling. The more you practice, the easier it will become to be with your feelings rather than reaching for food when you’re not hungry.
Today, when you find yourself reaching for food, STOP. Ask yourself, “Am I physically hungry?” If so, make sure what you are reaching for is what you really want to eat. If it’s not, can you find something else that would hit the spot? If it’s what you want, take a breath. Put the food on a plate. Sit down, and eat consciously, fully tasting and savoring your food.
If the answer to “Am I physically hungry?” is “No.” Take several deep breaths. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling physically? What am I feeling emotionally?” If your body doesn’t need food, what else might it need?
If you are having an uncomfortable emotion, rather than eating, give that feeling some space. Sit down or lie down. Put your hand on your heart. Take 10 long deep breaths. Ask the feeling, “What do you need?” Often, if we listen, our feelings will let us know what they need. Most of the time, our feelings just need to be acknowledged.
Remember that all feelings, comfortable or uncomfortable, will eventually pass. See if you can allow your feelings to run their natural course.
Here are some tips to help make your Thanksgiving less stressful and more enjoyable:
1) Don’t fast before the big meal. Extreme hunger is a set up for overeating. If you get hungry before your big meal, have a small snack. It feels good to be hungry for a big meal, but not overly so.
2) Before you plunge into the meal, check inside to see what you are really in the mood for. You don’t have to eat everything just because it’s there. Eat only what you want. If you take a bite of something and it doesn’t taste good or match your hunger, then don’t feel obligated to eat it. Try something else. Notice what tastes great and what tastes so-so. Eat only what tastes great.
If you feel excited by turkey and pie, but nothing else, just eat the turkey and pie.
3) Remind yourself that you can take home or keep what you don’t finish. This is why Ziplocs and Tupperware were invented! It is fine to say, “I am too full to finish this now, but I’d love to wrap it up for tomorrow or later when I can enjoy it more.”
4) Remind yourself that this isn’t the only time in the whole year that you can enjoy these foods. If you wanted, you can even make stuffing and turkey again next week or even the next day. Supermarkets sell “holiday” foods all year round.
5) Eat mindfully. Slow down, taste, and savor your food. Notice the flavors and textures of the different foods you choose. Let go of any guilt, calorie counting or judgment about your choices, as this will distract you from being mindful and will take away from a potentially pleasurable experience. Give yourself permission to fully enjoy your meal.
Eating mindfully will also help you to stop eating more easily when full. The more present you are with your eating experience, the more satisfaction you will find. Being distracted while eating makes it difficult for the eating experience to fully register, therefore, you’ll be more likely to keep reaching for food.
6) To check your fullness level, halfway through the meal, stand up. Stretch, go to the bathroom, or walk to another room. Notice how your body feels. Do you want to keep eating or is it time for a break. Do you feel like stopping? Remember you can eat more of anything when you are hungry again. And food tastes the best when you are hungry for it.
7) If you get too full, don’t reprimand yourself. Remember, guilt is not helpful when it comes to eating. It just ruins your experience. Don’t strive for perfection. Even with people who don’t struggle with food might overeat now and again. You will eventually get hungry again. Fullness always passes. Be kind with yourself no matter what happens.
8) After a big meal, it can feel nice to take a walk. Even a 5-minute walk can help you to relax. It also aids digestion. It’s an especially nice thing to do with your dog or someone whose company you enjoy.
9) If you are with people who stress you out or if you feel upset for any reason, take time for yourself. Go into another space and sit quietly or take a walk. You don’t have to be social 100% of the time. You might even make a phone date or exchange texts or email with a supportive friend so you feel less isolated.
10) Holidays can be difficult for so many reasons. Give yourself permission to feel however you feel. If holidays are a sad time, let yourself feel sad. Write about what you feel. Feeling lonely, sad, stressed or angry are just as legitimate as feeling happy and peaceful. You may feel lots of different things. This is natural.
11) If holidays are hard for you, do nice things for yourself. Take yourself to a movie, call a good friend, read an enjoyable book, and otherwise, nurture yourself. Even if holidays are not difficult, do nice things for yourself because you deserve nice treatment.
12) In order to help take the focus off of food, remember that Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the things in our lives we are thankful for. It’s not just about food. Take time to list what you’re grateful for in your life. Appreciate these things and notice how gratitude makes you feel.
Check out Ragen Chastain’s inspiring and powerful blog, Dances with Fat.
Ragen is a Health At Every Size proponent who wrote Fat: The Owners Manual – Navigating a Thin-Obsessed World with Your Health, Happiness and Sense of Humor Intact.
Regan is also a wonderful dancer and dance teacher. You can learn to dance with Ragen on her DVD’s, “Every Body Dance Now!” and you can watch her dance if you go to her blog http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/
Do you engage in “all or nothing thinking?”
For example, do you believe that you need to eat mindfully ALL of the time for it to count? And if you can’t eat mindfully ALL of the time, then it isn’t worth it to try at all. Or, do you believe that you must exercise for X times a week or for X amount of time? And, if you can’t, then you don’t exercise at all.
Similarly, do you only value progress if you do things perfectly while you neglect to celebrate the smaller steps you take along the way? Perhaps you only give yourself credit if you don’t overeat, but ignore all the other ways you’ve listened to your body and taken care of yourself during the day.
If this is the case, recognize that you are engaged in “all or nothing thinking.” Write down all the ways that “all or nothing thinking” stops you from moving forward or from appreciating any baby steps you take.
Today, think of one way “all or nothing thinking” keeps you from performing self-care. Instead of thinking that you must eat mindfully all of the time, today, try eating mindfully for only 2 minutes. Then celebrate this achievement. Or, go for a 10 minute walk instead of waiting for a day when you can walk for an hour.
Remember, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Every single step, no matter how small, moves you forward.
Today, notice the variety of feelings that arise for you. Welcome all of them even if they are uncomfortable. All feelings have a reason for being here and deserve attention.
If an uncomfortable emotion arises such as anger, sadness, or fear, rather than eating or distracting yourself from it, breathe into it. Notice how it feels in your body. Notice any urges to push the feeling away.
See if you can give the feeling some space, even a couple of minutes.
You might try writing about it or dialoguing with it. You can ask it “Why are you here?” and “What do you need from me?” If you don’t get any answers that is fine. Just make room for the feeling. Watch it wax and wane.
Learning to welcome and be with your feelings is a powerful and healing practice. Larry Rosenberg, one of my favorite meditation teachers, echos this by saying:
“Where is peace to be found? In the same place as sorrow.
Many of us have a much easier time starting to eat when hungry rather than stopping eating when comfortably full. In addition to yesterday’s suggestions, eating more slowly will help with with your ability to stop when full. Being mindful while you eat will allow you to really taste what you are eating so the eating experience fully registers. When we are distracted while eating, it’s easy to keep on eating because we are not receiving the full pleasure of the experience.
Slow your meal down. Breathe. Stop now and again to check in with your body’s fullness level. Try standing up halfway during the meal to see how your body is responding to the food. You might walk into another room to remind yourself that there are other things in your life you might do besides eating.
During the meal, remind yourself, that if you stop now, you can always have more food later. In fact, the sooner you say goodbye to this meal, the more quickly you will get hungry again and be able to eat.
If you are able to stop eating when comfortably full, notice how not being stuffed feels. This positive feeling of being comfortably full rather than stuffed is important to focus on and remember. Recalling this memory of being comfortable after eating can help motivate us to stop when full in the future.
Do you find it difficult to stop eating when full? Perhaps you don’t want to stop because the food tastes so yummy. Maybe stopping means returning to uncomfortable feelings such as stress, boredom, loneliness, fill in the blank. Or stopping might mean going back to doing something, like working, that you’d rather avoid. The first step in helping yourself to stop when full is to bring mindfulness to exactly what is happening.
To do this, identify and vocalize what you are feeling. Say out loud or quietly, “I don’t want to stop! This tastes so good!” Or “I don’t’ want to go back to feeling lonely, sad, etc.!” Acknowledge your feelings and bring compassion to yourself. Tell yourself, “Of course it’s hard to stop. It’s not fun to feel sad, lonely, etc.”
Stop for a moment and breathe. Put your hands on your heart. Allow youself to feel the loss that comes with stopping. Let yourself frown. Comfort yourself as you would a small child. Then, think of something kind you can do for yourself if you stop eating.
Approaching “mistakes” or things that don’t go well with self-criticism is never helpful and makes it difficult to learn from our experience. Instead, try gentle inquiry. Here’s how:
Last night in group Maria shared, “I did it again. I left the house without planning for hunger. I went to the office for a long day with only a granola bar. Of course, I ended up starving and buying junk food.”
“When I came home in the evening, I hadn’t gone shopping and had nothing good for dinner. I ended up eating a crappy box of Mac and Cheese,” she said. “What’s my problem? I know better! Why do I do this to myself?” Maria’s tone was critical; her voice aggravated; her “Why?” harsh.
When we ask ourselves, “Why did I do that?” from a place of exasperation and anger, we aren’t asking a sincere question. Our “Why?” is a criticism. Code for, “I’m such an idiot, jerk, basket case, (or whatever mean thing you can fill in this blank).” Our “Why?” is a reprimand, which only elicits feelings of shame and fear, not genuine answers. This is what I call a Harsh Why.
A Harsh Why is a smoke screen. We are not looking for answers, but for a way to beat ourselves up. The Harsh Why is a distraction which keeps us stuck in self-judgment.
If you’ve done something you’re not pleased with and notice yourself asking “Why?” in a harsh, unsympathetic tone, switch to a Soft Why. A Soft Why doesn’t blame or assume the worst. It won’t generate feelings of shame or fear. A Soft Why is curious and kind. It tries to understand. A Soft Why is looking for information so it can help.
I suggested Maria switch to a Soft Why to understand her difficulty planning for meals. When she asks, “What’s my problem? Why do I do this to myself?” Maria assumes she is flawed. But if instead she could ask, “I wonder why it’s hard for me to plan ahead. I feel better when I do, but something prevents me from doing this. Why?” She is not assuming incompetence or stupidity. Her Soft Why assumes there must be a good reason for her behavior which she hasn’t yet understood. Through gentle probing and thoughtfulness, she may be able to figure out what’s going on and what she might need to better care for herself.
She might discover through this process that planning ahead triggers resentment about having to take care of herself. Maybe Maria’s angry because no one ever planned properly for her and now she has to do it for herself. Maybe her resistance is a form of protest. Perhaps she’s still waiting for someone else to come and take care of her.
Before she can accept that she must be in charge of taking care of her own needs, Maria might need to feel angry and to grieve. If she asks, “Why?” in a kind and curious way, she may discover what her resistance is trying to say and what’s needed to move forward.
A Soft Why is friendly, not punitive. It opens the door to possibilities and makes room for complexity. A Soft Why helps us relax so we can feel safe enough to examine and learn about our behavior.
A Lesson in the Soft Why
When I was fourteen, I shoplifted. After school, the three of us friends went to Alexander’s Department Store. I pocketed a Bob Dylan cassette tape, Susan stole a Grateful Dead, and Jill picked the Doors. None of us had ever done anything illegal before.
Security caught as we were leaving the store. We were escorted to the basement of the building and held in a small cell. Two stern men in uniforms interrogated us, and then reprimanded us. I was mortified. A few hours later we were released and banned from ever returning to Alexander’s. I felt deeply ashamed and frightened. What was I thinking? Why did I do something so stupid? I had always been so good. I had never stolen anything in my life. Now I was a criminal.
A few weeks later, when I opened the door to my house after school, I noticed my mother sitting stiffly on the living room sofa. Something seemed off. Instead of her usual, “Hi, how was your day?,” rage flashed across her face. Instantly I knew she’d found out. After the incident, I bargained with God. I promised never to shoplift again and to be good for as long as I live if God fixed it so Alexander’s would forget to inform my parents. No such luck. The letter that the department store had threatened to send had finally arrived.
My mom was livid. She yelled and screamed like never before. “Why did you do this? You know better! What is wrong with you? This is not how I raised you! I’m ashamed of you! I’m too ashamed to even tell your father that you did something so stupid!”
Welcome to the Harsh Why.
I knew she wasn’t looking for answers. And if she was, I couldn’t give them. Her rage left me terrified, humiliated and speechless. I couldn’t think straight.
Later that night, Susan called to see if my mom got the letter. I told her yes and asked, “Did you get in trouble too?”
She said, “Not really, my mom and I had a long talk about why I did it, especially since I could have bought the cassettes. She told me about a time she did something similar and explained that sometimes we do things when we are younger to see what we can get away with. But sometimes we do things to get our parents’ attention. She wondered if I had wanted her attention since she had been working all the time. I think that may have been some of it.”
“We talked about my missing her and some of the stuff that’s been going on for me and that was helpful. I guess I also thought it would make us cool somehow,” Susan said. After talking to her mom, my friend was not left with shame, but rather insight into her behavior.
The benefit of the Soft Why.
Next time you overeat, eat mindlessly, watch hours of junky TV, or avoid moving your body and you find yourself asking a Harsh Why, stop. Shift to a Soft Why. You can even add an, “I wonder.” As in, “I wonder why I did that?”
Let your “Why?” come from a place of kindness and curiosity. Be patient and listen for answers. They may not come at once.
The Soft Why will help you examine the roots of your behavior. It will help you become mindful of your fears and feelings and, over time, will allow you to discover what you might need to move ahead.
If you don’t berate yourself, but instead become curious, things will eventually become clearer. Don’t assume your actions are a result of stupidity or laziness or that you are simply a hopeless case. Even if you don’t understand your behavior yet, know that there are always good reasons for your actions–reasons that deserve compassion and attention.