“This is a universal truth: We invariably experience more of any thought or feeling we try to avoid.” -Martha Beck
This quote rings true. Suppressed emotions cause problems. One problem they can cause is compulsive eating. We overeat, compulsively eat, or eat too much junk food because we are trying to avoid, suppress or minimize an emotion in that moment. And so, in the process of healing compulsive eating, we all have to face these emotions we have been avoiding, and often haven’t been aware we even have. If these emotions are ones we have wanted to avoid so much that we use food to suppress them, we can imagine they’re not going to be easy ones for us to feel. These emotions can include sadness, grief, fear, pain, loneliness, insecurity, unworthiness, sorrow–anything really. And they can be about “big” things or “little” things. And they can be about the past, the present, or the future.
In my own journey and with most of my clients, I find that one of the major roadblocks substantially changing our behavior and choices with food is the suppression of anger. Without exception, I’ve found it is only a matter of time until we realize we have some anger (or a whole lot, if you’re like I was), and that feeling through anger and finding what’s underneath is an unavoidable step. It is so automatic for us to feel a tinge of anger-spectrum emotions–annoyance, frustration, irritation, anger, rage–and then reach for the food, but we have to interrupt that process and look deeper.
Years ago, I had gotten to a place in my healing food addiction and eating disorders where I had stagnated, and I didn’t know why. I felt like I had cried some stuff out, I felt like I’d come to terms with some truths about my life and past, and I had filled up stacks of journals with my inner reflections. I felt like I theoretically, intellectually understood what I needed to do to change my eating. And my behavior around food did shift a bit. I lost some weight. But then nothing further was changing. I kept reflecting, I kept journaling, I cried more, but it didn’t seem to change much. After a while in that stagnation, I realized what was happening: there was a whole group of emotions I had been completely avoiding: anger, frustration, annoyance, and when I really tuned into it… even rage.
My heap of emotions of this nature were about many things, as they are for every person who accepts they currently have anger within them. They can really be about anything. I couldn’t name all of mine here, but for example, I realized that underneath my food compulsions was anger I had from my childhood and how I was treated, anger at how people throughout my life had hurt me, anger at how I felt like life was overall just too hard in so many ways and I couldn’t do handle it. I had rage at how fed up I was of having a food addiction and extra weight, how much it had all limited my life, how hard I was trying and how impossible it seemed to change. I was angry that I had to heal my food addiction at all. I was even angry that I was angry! Sometimes, the anger I felt was even more like hysterical rage. But I didn’t want to think of myself as someone who had “anger issues” or any rage. It conflicted with my self-image.
I really struggled to realize or accept that I had anger for a long time. And the reasons why I didn’t are quite universal; and I hear them from others all the time. I always saw myself (and others reinforced) that I was grounded; I had the big picture. Was mature, chilled out, stable. Was a nice, agreeable girl.
The truth is, anger does not have to be a part of our lives — suppressed or expressed anger. Anger is not an inherent human emotion that we can’t do anything about. We can have anger, and most of us do and will until we admit it. That’s the irony–once you admit you’re angry, you’re much closer to healing the reasons why. And you can heal those core reasons permanently, which will mean you also will no longer be angry. And releasing our anger by way of feeling it allows space for other things to grow — like creativity, love, connection and gentleness… things that can only exist in their fullest form when we’ve moved through and released anger. And of course, we will eat in much more self-loving, balanced and healthy way, and we won’t have to try to do it.
Here are some examples of beliefs that cause us to suppress anger:
- Anger is petty and immature
- If I feel angry, it means I am not grateful for all the blessings in my life
- Anger is selfish
- Anger is not spiritually evolved and if I have it, it means I don’t “get it” in some way
- “Good” people don’t feel anger
- There is no point in “feeding” the anger or “focusing on the negative” (the false belief that acknowledging and feeling anger makes it grow)
- My life/family/parents weren’t that bad; I shouldn’t have much anger or rage
Many of us have subconscious fears about anger, too, such as:
- If I tap into my anger, it will never end
- Other people (my parents, partner, friends, etc.) will be dismayed if they know I have anger (suppressing anger like this is a form of people-pleasing)
- If I feel my anger, I will take it out on someone and hurt them
- I will go crazy if I feel my anger
- My rage will consume me
- I will feel out of control if I feel it
- I will not be loved/accepted if I am angry
- I will die if I feel my anger
Anger can end up driving much of our lives, our eating, and our weight. And the way we heal it is to feel it. You must go through it. Not by throwing your anger at other people of course–it is not justified to direct it towards another person, even if you see it as their “fault”. The way we can get rid of our anger is by feeling it alone, without projecting it at others. Anger has an end point; the emotional experience of it is finite. Underneath anger, we will find some of those other emotions I listed, such as fears, grief, sadness, loneliness, etc. That may be the next frontier for you after anger, but it is often hard to get to those when you have anger layering over them. Believe me, I tried skipping over the anger to all of those other emotions, and sometimes it worked as far as emotional healing, but often it didn’t.
As you drain the anger, frustration, and rage from your soul by way of feeling it fully (and subsequently feeling through the emotions underneath anger), you will find that you feel lighter, more at peace, and you feel more love. You’ll find you won’t reach for food compulsively when you’re in those situations that used to trigger frustration and anger. Anger can be such a pressure cooker that is so wearing, and when you take the lid off, the relief and release can be immense. So yes, I’m saying part of the resolution for the problem of eating too many donuts may be to go and have a good proper tantrum. Take Spock’s example:
Here is your journal exercise to do on this topic. These questions will help identify beliefs and fears about anger as well as identify what you have anger about.
1. List at least 5 things you feel annoyed about.
2. List at least 5 things you feel frustrated about.
3. List at least 5 things you feel angry about.
4. List at least 5 things you feel rage about.
6. Finish these sentences:
A. I believe angry people are ______________________.
B. When someone is angry I feel ________________________.
C. Anger is _________________________________.
D. I believe my own anger is _________________________.
E. If I feel my anger, ____________________________.
F. Underneath my anger, I think there will be the emotion of _____________________________.
This is a big topic and I have much more to write about it, but for this first post on it, I want to begin the process of acknowledging the beliefs and fears we have about anger, and coming to accept the truth about what we’re angry about.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic of anger and compulsive eating!