Stay Out of Your Head (and the fridge)

This is Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin, psychoanalyst, and today I’m going to talk about getting out of your head and into your heart.  When you think less and feel more, you’re not as likely to turn to food when you’re upset.

It’s impossible to think away your feelings. As an example, let me tell you about Jasmine, who’s 28, single, has a ton of great friends, and one horrible boss.  Think about Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” who was scornful, insulting, dismissive and unreasonable.  Well, that character was an angel compared to Jasmine’s boss.

So, Jasmine came in for her session and confessed (which was the way she put it, “I have a confession to make”) that she’d binged all week.  She was very upset with herself – disgusted with her weight, felt like a failure, and said she just couldn’t do anything right.

I thought Jasmine was talking about herself the way her boss talked to her – insulting and just plain mean.  It seemed to me that Jasmine was taking the anger she felt towards her boss and turning it on herself.

That resonates with Jasmine, but then she said, “So what?  How is that supposed to help me?”

She was being logical, going into her head as a way of staying out of her feelings.

I told her, “The way you talk to yourself affects the way you feel.  The way you feel affects the way you eat.  If you self-critical, you’ll feel terrible.  When you feel terrible, you’re more likely to binge for comfort or distraction – which only feeds the self-judgment, and the cycle continues.  To stop that cycle, you have to change the way you relate to yourself and your feelings.”

Jasmine needed to express her feelings about her boss, so she wouldn’t direct them at herself.  And when I say she needed to express those feelings, I don’t mean talk to her boss directly – that would get her fired – I meant letting the feelings out in session, or at home, or with friends, so she wouldn’t turn them against herself.

In other words, when you get the feelings out, you don’t need food to cope.  Makes sense, right?

Not to Jasmine.

She said, “What’s the point of talking about my feelings?  It won’t change anything.”

She was staying in her head, still using logic to not feel.  In one sense, she was absolutely right.  This was the boss from hell.  This boss was not going to change.

Like Jasmine, we all have encountered people and situations that we can’t change.  But we can change how we feel about those situations.  How do we do that?  By identifying and working through our feelings; by feeling them.

Something to consider – it’s a little morbid, but bear with me.  You’ve probably experienced loss, the death of someone you know or love.  When a person dies, do you say, “Well, he’s gone or she’s gone, and there’s nothing I can do about it, so what’s the point of crying?”

No, of course not. Whether you attend a wake or sit shiva or mourn in some other way, there are rituals to help you grieve the person you lost.

You cry, you feel a terrible loss and emptiness and then, when you’ve felt all the feelings, you eventually feel better.  The person you lost lives on in your memory and in your thoughts, but the intensity of that loss diminishes.  The situation hasn’t changed, but it doesn’t hurt as much.

It’s the same principle for all feelings.

Jasmine then said, “The way the economy is, some people can’t get a job at all.  A lot of people would be thrilled to be in my position. I have no right to complain about my boss.”

Jasmine was trying to think away her feelings by comparing her situation to other people who have it worse.

If you break your arm snowboarding and your best friend breaks a leg, does that make your broken arm less painful?

If your house is flooded and you need to redo all the flooring, and your neighbor’s house goes up in flames and burns to the ground, do you have less of a right to be upset?

If you want to lose fifty pounds, and your friend needs to lose 150, are you not allowed to have feelings about your weight because you have less to lose?

No, no and no again.  Look, we can all be thankful we’re not in Africa dealing with an AIDs epidemic and with other dire conditions.  What’s happening in Africa and other parts of the world is tragic, but those situations don’t take away our right to be upset with the problems and issues that impact our lives.

Jasmine had a hard time being angry with her boss, but no problem turning those angry feelings on herself.  Bingeing did two things for her.  It was her way of avoiding anger – bingeing provided comfort and helped her numb her feelings.  It was also gave her a reason to direct that anger inwards.  Instead of saying, “My boss is out of control and I’m so upset at how I’m being treated” she said, “See how out of control I am with food?  Then she’d be mad at herself for eating so much.

If you dismiss or minimize your emotions, they don’t go away.  They often get redirected towards yourself, which was the case with Jasmine.

You might be wondering why Jasmine had such a hard time being upset at her terrible boss.

As is often the case, the answer to a problem in the present can be found in the past.  Jasmine’s parents worked long hours and she spent most afternoons with her grandfather, who was a rageaholic.  He didn’t get frustrated or irritated or upset.  He got furious. He expressed himself by yelling, finger pointing, name calling, sarcasm and throwing things.  Jasmine grew up equating anger with being out-of-control and scary.

On some level, Jasmine was afraid that if she got angry, she’d be just as bad, as threatening and as scary as her grandfather.  Her parents never showed much emotion – and they were always away, working – so she had no model for expressing anger in an appropriate way.

When we began to talk about how her experience with her grandfather had influenced her ability to express these feelings, Jasmine gave another intellectual response.  She said in a very matter of fact way, “I guess I can see how a person would have resentment towards a grandfather like that.  I can see how a person would be affected by that.”

Again, in her head, not her heart.  She talked about “a person would have resentment toward a grandfather like that” instead of how “she” felt having a close relative whose anger terrified her.

Jasmine was eventually able to express how she felt about her grandfather, as well as her boss.  She got mad, outraged, incensed, she let loose with some very creative swear words.  She got out all her anger, and when she did that, she stopped being so hard herself.

That’s when she stopped bingeing.

If you find yourself saying things like, “What’s the point of talking about it?  It won’t change anything.”

Or, “Other people have it so much worse than me.  I have no right to complain.”

If you talk about how “people” might feel in your situation, rather than how “you” feel, you might be too much in your head and not enough in your heart.

Whether you’re trying to think away your anger, like Jasmine, or other feelings like sadness, helplessness, anxiety, fear, guilt, worry or shame, those emotions need your attention, not your condemnation.  When you think less and feel more, you’re less likely to turn to food for comfort or distraction.  When you get out of your head, you’ll stay out of the fridge.