Recently, I sat at my dining room table with a dear friend who is a successful, career-oriented woman. She’s also dangerously overweight. “How can such a smart person not be able to figure this out?” she asked me, tears streaming.
My friend admits she uses food to numb unwanted feelings of guilt, sadness, and anger. “Ice cream got me through my divorce,” she says.
Ice cream, cocaine, sex, booze—I completely get it.
The biggest problem with addictions is that they work. For a while, whatever it was you didn’t want to feel, you feel less or not at all. Sooner than you dreamed possible, you’re hooked. What began as a handy escape escalates into a destructive addiction that could someday take your life.
When a person who has been numb for years finally seeks help, the return of emotions can come as quite a shock. In recovery, we sometimes say with a wink to newcomers, “Don’t worry, you’ll feel better soon.” But what we mean is you’ll feel everything better soon—including pain, resentment, anger, boredom, sadness, guilt…
No wonder learning how to feel our feelings is such an important part of recovery (and a good way to help prevent addictions, too).
I don’t know about you, but when painful feelings knock at my door, I tend to respond in one of two ways. One is to fling the door open wide and let my feelings barge in, create chaos, stomp all over me—and eventually, everyone else, too.
The other response is to shove a piano in front of the door, suppressing what I don’t want to feel in hopes it will go away. If it does, I usually find myself depressed. I think that’s because when I refuse to feel sad, I lose the ability to feel happy, too.
Lately, I’ve been trying to practice a middle way, a more intentional approach. It goes something like this: When negative feelings knock, I open the door and stick my head out. “Ah, I see you there,” I say. “I feel you.”
Sometimes, I invite them to stay for a while. I sit down in my favorite chair. I become very still. I might light a candle or pray. I notice what is happening in my body and heart. I give my feelings my full attention. I try not to judge them as “good” or “bad,” “wrong” or “right.”
Instead, I ask, “Why is guilt, anger, or pain visiting me today? What does it want to teach me?” If I feel a need to express strong emotions, I do—even if it means a private mini-tantrum.
And guess what happens next? My feelings don’t hurt nearly as much as I feared they would. You may have heard it said, what you resist—persists. That’s definitely true with feelings—and so is its opposite. As I surrender to hurtful or scary emotions, the monster loses some of its teeth.
I can respond instead of just react.
I don’t have to eat or drink or do anything to escape or get numb.
I get to experience every second of my awful, wonderful life in all its aching glory.
And who knows? The next knock at my door might be joy.
P.S. After Dave read what I was trying to say here, he pointed me to a poem by the Persian poet, Rumi. I think it’s beautiful and true. You can find it here.