Surviving Difficult Emotions: The Only Way Out is Through

difficult emotions - image of woman standing in front of the ocean,, arms stretched wide, sun shining behind her; her face is not visible

Standing in a busy doctor’s office, medical professionals buzzed around me. On a table, my anxious four year old sat clutching his arm. He was waiting for them to put a bright orange cast on his broken wrist. With wide eyes, he stared at me and panic stirred in my belly. I made my best attempt to look calm despite the difficult emotions racing through my body.

As we waited, my phone buzzed. Hesitating momentarily, I answered because my husband rarely calls during his work day. “Have you seen the email?” he asked. I had not. A dear friend of mine had lost her battle with ovarian cancer. I was heartbroken. Not only was she my friend, but she had been my children’s’ music teacher since they were in diapers. And she’d taught my oldest son piano for years. I was devastated.

Inside I felt a range of intense emotions.

And yet, I hung up the phone, turned to my son, and pasted on a smile. At that very moment, a friendly young man in scrubs quickly began wrapping gauze around my frightened son’s tiny arm. I was devastated. Yet I felt numb. And I acted as if nothing had just happened.

Looking back on that moment, I often wonder how I didn’t cry. My eyes remained dry while a lump formed in my stomach. Later I questioned myself- am I a hard uncaring person? No- definitely not.

I am super sensitive and extremely empathetic. Yet, somewhere along the lines, I learned to bottle up my emotions.

The danger of swallowing your emotions

I understand why I swallowed my emotions that day. My son was afraid and he needed me. I was surrounded by strangers in a busy setting. Had I gotten the news when I was alone, I probably would have cried. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that for the moment I bottled up my feelings. What struck me was just how easy it was for me to push them down.

People who struggle with eating disorders are often very good at pushing down their feelings.

When we obsess and focus on our weight, food, and body size, it serves as a powerful distraction from the real issues we are facing in our lives.

While this may serve us well in certain situations (such as when you are stricken with bad news in a setting like the one I described) ultimately if we do not deal with our emotions, they build up within us. Our bodies store emotions we’ve repressed and eventually this hurts us. Emotions are “energy in motion” and if we don’t process or deal with them, they remain inside of us. Sometimes this manifests into physical symptoms. Other times we blow up over the simplest situations. Or we can end up going through every day with a constant low level buzzing of irritation and dissatisfaction with life.

An eating disorder can become a way of distracting ourselves from going through and processing emotions. When I am obsessed over calories, food, or the size of my stomach, I don’t have to think about the bigger issues confronting me. The problem, of course, is that those feelings don’t go away. In fact they fester and grow.

The only way out is through

I often think about difficult feelings as a dark tunnel. Imagine you are all alone in the dead center of a pitch black tunnel. Terrified, you want to get out as quickly as you can. But the only way to get back to the light is to go through the darkness in one direction or the other. We can close our eyes and pretend we aren’t in tunnel, distracting ourselves with other thoughts. But when we open our eyes, we are still in the darkness. And the only way out is to move through the tunnel.

Likewise, when we are in difficult emotions, the only way to get out of them is to FEEL them. How do we do this? First, allow yourself to identify the feelings. Getting curious about your feelings and labeling them without judgement or criticism is important. Once you’ve identified how you are feeling, allow yourself to feel. Where do you notice the emotions in your body? Can you breath into the feelings, imagining you are sending your breath to all of the places you feel them in your body. There is no correct way to feel your feelings. Every person and situation is unique. For some people, crying helps express their feelings. Others may want to write, dance, or even punch a pillow.

When you are not used to allowing yourself to experience difficult emotions, it can feel overwhelming. I was always afraid if I allowed myself to experience my feelings of sadness or anger, I would sink lower and lower into them, eventually drowning. That I would go down so low, I’d never come back up again.

The irony is, by trying to avoid my feelings, I was actually holding onto them, allowing them to fester and build within me.

If I find myself in a dark tunnel, I can’t distract my way out of it. The darkness doesn’t go away just because I pretend it isn’t there, silently calculating calories and macro nutrients. No, I’ll still be in the dark tunnel the moment I stop the obsessions with food/body/weight. The only way to get out of a dark tunnel is to literally move through it. The same thing is true for your feelings.

The good news

Yes, it is uncomfortable to sit with intense and dark feelings. It can feel scary and out of control. But if you allow yourself to go through the feelings, they will not last forever. And the good news is- you are a warrior and you can do this. People who struggle with eating disorders are incredible humans. They are able to undergo physical pain, endure hunger, and stick to rigid rules and limits.

All of the energy you have put towards controlling your food and weight can be shifted to focus on your recovery. You are capable of tolerating even the most difficult feelings.

The only way out is through, but you can do it. And you don’t have to do it alone.

Going through the difficult emotions

That day at the orthopedist, I did not shed a tear about my friend’s death. We rushed directly from that appointment to pick up my older two sons from school. The lump in my stomach expanded to my throat as I imagined telling them their beloved music teacher did not in fact get better, despite our nightly prayers. Other moms made small talk as we waited for our children to be dismissed from school. My mouth was dry, and no words could come out of it. I stared blindly as they spoke. I tried to act “normal” and my eyes remained dry.

No, the tears and the grieving came much later. Sometimes, at the times I would expect. Like at her memorial, on her birthday, and when telling my boys the devastating news. Other times I was completely surprised to find myself sobbing in grief. Like the day I drove by and saw her music school is now a smoothie business. Or when I walk by the piano in our basement and notice the dust gathering on it. The pain and sadness is much less intense. But it is still there.

The thing about recovery is that it has a little to do with food and body and a lot to do with changing the way we live our lives.

Instead of trying to control our food and weight, we must trust and let go. The same is true for feelings.

We must trust that we are resilient and strong enough to go through that dark tunnel, to come out the other side. We can withstand the difficult emotions.

Recovery also means there will never be a life without dark tunnels. No one has a life without pain, loss, and suffering. But the flip is, when we allow ourselves to go through the difficult emotions, we are also free to experience the beautiful highs as well. The joys, the love, the excitement, and the pleasure.

So the next time you find yourself in the middle of a dark tunnel, remember warrior: the only way out is through. And you can move through any difficult feeling.

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