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How Families Not Expressing Feelings Can Led to Eating Problems

In a radio interview of her new memoir, one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, speaks of growing up in a family that didn’t talk about secrets. In many families of dysregulated eaters secrets are left undiscussed and feelings, in general, are neither aired or shared. Sadly, such avoidance may cause or exacerbate eating problems.
How did your family view emotions when you were growing up—as scary, mysterious, unfathomable things to ward off? Did your family keep secrets and hold back feelings?

Here are examples of experiences that might have wrongly skewed your view of emotions. A father turns stone-faced and walks away whenever his daughter talks about her feelings, causing her to believe that having them is wrong and sharing them only upsets people. When they’re angry, parents give each other and their children the silent treatment for days. A mother giggles inappropriately whenever her children express their upset. Sometimes family tragedies, even murders or suicides, are never mentioned or discussed. Blow-ups occur but are swept under the rug as if they hadn’t happened.

If you had these kinds of experiences, you may not understand that emotions are neural impulses that guide you towards a better life and away from emotional and physical threats. Emotions may be uncomfortable, but they are neither good nor bad. The more you view them as just plain information, the better off you will be. Imagine being able to note, experience, and even value distress. With this mindset, you’d say, “I’m distressed right now, but I wasn’t ten minutes ago and I might not be ten minutes from now. I am okay about what I feel.”

Make a list of five beliefs that each of your parents (or care-takers) had about emotions. What did you learn about emotions from them? How did they fare in life with these ideas? What do you know now that contradicts their way of thinking? Make a list of five rational beliefs about emotions that will help you grow healthier. (Use my Rules of “Normal” Eating if you need help.) Post the beliefs somewhere you can read them daily. Imagine what life—and eating—will be like when they take root.

If you fear your feelings and are uncomfortable discussing them, try to understand why this is. Practice identifying your emotions and sharing them with people you trust. See my Food and Feelings Workbook for more information about feelings in general as well as for specific emotions that often trigger emotional eating. As always, if you need help with sorting out emotions and life experiences, seek a professional therapist.