I’ve been hearing a lot in the media about being happy. Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) is always reminding listeners that outside things aren’t going to fix your emotional issues and just yesterday I heard that idea repeated on a morning radio show that has nothing to do with weight loss. I hate to sound Zen about it, but happiness comes from inside. Those cupcakes, that new gadget or a pair of shoes aren’t going to make you happy. The same goes for people: our happiness and sense of self-worth cannot be dependent on someone else validating us. Unfortunately, that’s what most of us do!
We all know what it means to eat our emotions. At the risk of sounding like an escapee from a Star Trek convention, when we let our emotions run our lives, chaos ensues! This doesn’t mean we have to crush our emotions down inside us and never let them out— that is just as bad as allowing them to run loose! The truth is that a lot of us are overweight because we never learn how to deal with our emotions. We are taught that we should always be happy and that feeling sad, worried, unhappy or any other ‘negative’ emotion is a bad thing which needs to be avoided at all times. It is okay to be sad or unhappy or anxious. Those are all perfectly normal emotions and our problem is we need to accept those emotions when we feel them.
This is where I remind you that I am not a therapist or any kind of health care professional. However, I am person who has dealt with some pretty cruddy emotions throughout life. When I get stressed, anxious, bored or angry, my usual way of dealing with it was to find something to eat- anything would do!- and eat until I forgot about it or the emotion faded. It took a long time (as in, most of my adult life!) before I finally learned that emotional eating is just making everything worse, including my health. We all know how we feel after we’ve done it: ashamed, guilty, upset at ourselves, which triggers the urge to eat again!
It’s okay when we don’t feel happy. It’s okay to be sad and to admit that “I’m just feeling a little sad today!” The media and other people lump emotions like sadness, anger, anxiety, and others like them as ‘negative’ emotions. Given the situation, they might be completely appropriate! Last week is good example for me: July 26th is my grandfather’s birthday. He died seven years ago. I was very close with both of my grandparents and I miss them very much. When I think about them (like now), I usually start tearing up. Feeling sad, crying, and missing them are not negative emotions. Yes, I am sad because they are not here anymore, but these emotions come from the strong bond we had when they were here. In short, I miss them because I still love them and that is not a negative thing!
Feeling angry, being anxious or upset can be perfectly appropriate emotions. If I’m worried about a friend of mine who’s not been well, if I am upset because I can’t find something important I am looking for or if I am anxious about an upcoming interview, then these are all normal. Even if I am recalling a bad situation and I feel that anger or anxiety again, it is still normal. What is not normal is allowing those emotions to dominate our lives or to refuse to deal with them. When we obsess over people who have hurt us or wronged us or cut us off in traffic, or when we refuse to feel these emotions because they aren’t ‘happy feelings,’ then we are hurting ourselves. We need to find a way to feel these not-happy emotions without obsessing over them or pushing them away or running from them with food. When we accept that they are normal emotions and it’s normal to feel them, we are one step closer to letting go of the emotional eating chaos and we are one step closer to being happier overall.
Obviously, if you have serious emotional issues or if you have problems learning to deal with your emotions, you should find a qualified professional to help you with this. FYI: if you need a professional, you are still normal! Most of us, especially men in my generation, are not taught how to deal with not-happy emotions, which is where a lot of our problems come from. We are taught that if we are not happy all the time, we are somehow broken or defective, but being happy 24/7 is impossible! Things happen in life which are not always fun to deal with and so we find ways to cope, and some of those coping methods hurt us.
One of the ways I learned to cope with some of these not-happy feelings is just by venting. Most of us do it, but again society and the media sometimes looks down on this practice. I will post about something online, write about it in a blog or call my friend and just rant about it. Frankly, I will have a little tantrum about whatever it is that has made me angry, and then once it’s over, the feeling is gone. Having a tantrum is usually seen as being juvenile, but if I’m angry I am allowed to feel angry and if no one is hurt or insulted by my tantrum and the anger is expended, what’s the problem? Bear in mind, I have my tantrum at home (where only my pets can hear me and they are used to hearing me swear a lot) and no one else is affected by it. The same is true for sadness: we’ve all heard about ‘women going on a crying jag’ after a break-up or a fight, and there is usually a negative connotation for that as well, but if I feel like crying, especially over losing a loved one, then it’s normal. Venting or expending the emotion lets you feel it and deal with it and then it’s out.
From my experience, when we suppress emotions, they will eventually come out and usually in inappropriate ways or times. I heard one therapist refer to is as “gunnysacking.” You get mad because your significant other leaves their clothes lying around but instead of dealing with it, you shove it down inside and you keep shoving things like not taking out the trash, not paying the bills, popping their gum, etc., into that same emotional gunnysack until she comes home late without telling you she’s running late and then you explode at her. The same thing happens when we keep pushing down anxiety or sadness or anger: our emotional gunnysack keeps getting packed tighter and tighter until it finally rips open and when we come up for air, we’re surrounded by pizza boxes and cheesecake tins. Done that a few times!
Happiness isn’t just a state of mind: it’s a process. In order to be happy, we have to let ourselves feel not-happy. You know that emotional void everyone tries to fill with food? It’s there because we are suppressing our emotions! When we let ourselves feel all of our emotions, there is no void– so there’s nothing to stuff full of cupcakes! That means when she leaves her shoes in the hallway for everyone to trip on, you have to tell her it upsets you. When you feel like crying because you had a really crappy day, let yourself cry. When he forgot your birthday, tell him it hurt your feelings, and it’s okay to feel hurt that he did! It literally clears the emotional air and when your riot of emotions isn’t simmering just below the surface, something amazing happens: happiness bubbles to the top. You find you are too busy being happy to eat the cupcakes in the office. Instead, you find you want to eat something that makes you feel proud or productive or just healthy. You don’t want to stop feeling good by eating something that makes you feel blah. What’s more, you become more aware of what foods or practices make you feel good and which make you feel blah! When you’re happy and you know it, you don’t need the cupcakes– because you can’t clap your hands when they’re full of food!