The farther that I get from my past eating disorder behaviors, the more I understand that restricting food and over-exercising were my maladaptive methods for coping with tough emotions. When I refused to eat, I was refusing to feel sadness or anger. It worked–for a little while–and then I stopped feeling happiness too. When I was driven to exercise, I was running away from myself and the feelings I did not want to have. But, the more I exercised, the more I needed exercise to keep escaping. I wish that in all those years that I was starving myself and purging calories with exercise someone had just sat me down and asked me, “How are you feeling?” or even “What are you feeling?” Then again, I am not sure that I would have had an answer at the time. I was so numb for so long. Maybe at least I would have been reminded that part of being human is feeling. Part of feeling joy is being vulnerable to sadness, part of appreciation is feeling anger when there is injustice, part of feeling love is feeling hate…and it’s ok to feel polar opposite emotions at the same time!
When I stopped restricting and over-exercising, I began to feel. The feelings were (and sometimes still are) overwhelming. I felt sadness and anger first, as if because I had worked so hard on shoving both of those emotions down, I had so much more of them to experience. I was paying back significant emotional debt with added interest. My theme song as I cried in my car on the way to and from the UCSD Intensive Outpatient Program was Stubborn Love by The Lumineers, particularly the line “It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all.” While I have been more sad and angry in the last couple months than the previous ten years combined, I have also experienced more joy and happiness. I now embrace the pain that lets me feel the happiness too.
The other day, I felt sad. Usually, I try to construct a narrative around why I feel sad. I look for reasons or excuses for feeling an emotion as if trying to rationalize away the emotion. However, this time I did not try to explain my sadness. I let myself feel the sadness as a passing wave. And it did pass! I will still probably default on trying to evaluate, and maybe troubleshoot ;-), my emotions when I experience them, but I am appreciative that I am learning new, effective ways to cope with my feelings.