Feel It All.
By Meghan Chen
My recovery journey has been marked by a deep need to grow in self-awareness. I’ve learned to sit with discomfort, to identify why I feel anxious in certain situations, and to take a step back when I’m feeling overwhelmed in order to gain perspective. I've felt victorious, shameful, sad, and proud - sometimes all at once. One of the most important things I've learned through the recovery process is that I need to acknowledge all of those feelings.
I'm a feelings-based person by nature, and for a long time, I was ashamed of being so sensitive. I didn't want to be known as the crybaby, and as natural as my emotional reactions were, they exhausted me. What resulted was an effort to swallow all my feelings, to numb them with perfectionism and stoicism. I thought that's what resilient people did, and I thought it was the only way to survive in a world where feeling everything seems to take up too much time and space. The problem with not acknowledging feelings, though, is that it doesn’t make them any less present. Feelings can be indicators, and if we ignore them, we may not only fail to understand the root cause of our responses to certain situations, but we also deny ourselves the opportunity to be truly seen and heard.
As I have worked through recovery, the key to using my feelings as a tool has been to respond to them with curiosity instead of shame. When a situation prompts a strong emotional reaction, the first thing I do is acknowledge that I am having an emotional experience and that this is okay. If I instead tell myself that I am not allowed to react in that way, whatever feelings I am experiencing are replaced with guilt and shame, which usually keep me feeling stuck instead of helping me move forward. I then try to identify what aspect of the situation acted as the trigger for my emotional reaction, which helps me to pinpoint the root cause of the issue. It may have been that someone made a comment which touched on an area of personal insecurity, or that a situation arose where I was afraid of demonstrating a loss of control. If feelings of pain and hurt arise as a result of identifying this trigger, I allow myself to experience those emotions, and then make a conscious choice to step outside of them as I navigate my next steps. As helpful as recognizing my feelings may be, I have learned that making recovery-related decisions based on feelings is not always fruitful. For instance, shame is an emotional reaction I often experience, but shame-based decision making typically leads me to withdraw and punish myself instead of challenging the ED voice and being brave. When I experience shame, after acknowledging and exploring what I am feeling, I remind myself that I can choose how I respond to my circumstances - and I want to choose joy, love, and freedom. Declaring that to myself helps me to look at things from a different perspective, and allows me to feel more rooted and at peace when I make decisions.
By sharing this process, I don’t mean to suggest that this is the one and only way to deal with feelings. I only highlight this aspect of my recovery because I know that not giving ourselves permission to enjoy food (and other things, for that matter) can be a huge part of life with ED, and this restrictive approach often extends to how we deal with our feelings as well. The insight I have gained through acknowledging and exploring my feelings is one of the greatest gifts that recovery has given me. It has allowed me to get to know myself more thoroughly, and has also made me more empathetic towards others when they respond in an unexpected way. Behind an angry reaction may be pain and hurt; behind anxiety may be fear; behind malice, insecurity.
I have learned that we have two choices when we experience strong emotions: we can react, or we can respond. The former is often done without thinking, but the latter involves a choice. Instead of reacting to shame by numbing or hiding it, we can acknowledge the feeling, take a step back from the situation, and choose to respond with compassion. We can choose to respond with bravery instead of resigning ourselves to fear. And that choice, my friends, can make all the difference in recovery.
Meghan is a Biology student and aspiring nurse whose favourite things include dark chocolate, choral music, and quiet chapels with stained glass windows. She loves TED talks and any book or movie with a good story, and is currently enjoying learning more about mental health, her faith, and how to care for the people and places around her. Her goal is to remember that she can learn something from every person she encounters and every conversation she has, because the world is full of remarkable and resilient people (like you!).