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How to Tolerate Emotional Discomfort

Clients and members of my Food and Feelings message board often insist that they can’t allow themselves to feel uncomfortable emotions. For disregulated eaters trying to make peace with food and their bodies, this is a big problem because emotions are important to identify, and experiencing them is necessary to life and “normal” eating.

There’s a common set of emotions that can be difficult for disregulated eaters, in particular the seven described in my FOOD AND FEELINGS WORKBOOK—anxiety, confusion, disappointment, loneliness, guilt, shame, and helplessness. By learning to experience and handle these feelings, you’ll be well on your way toward emotional health which will reduce your tendency to abuse food and your body. There is no route around experiencing distressing feelings and no secret, easy way to manage them. As Geneen Roth says, “The only way out is through.”

First off, stop telling yourself that you “can’t stand” a feeling because that programs your brain to—guess what!—not be able to stand it. Instead, keep repeating that you can manage whatever you’re feeling even if you don’t believe it. That is the way the healthy, adult part of your brain teaches the scared, childlike part of it to take care of yourself. Feeling emotions is definitely a way to care for yourself even if it hurts in the moment. Would you tell a seriously ill child he doesn’t have to take medicine that tastes bad or would you sit by his side calming and soothing him until the medicine goes down? That kind of comforting is exactly what will help lessen your own pain.

Second, start with rational beliefs about tolerating emotions. What are your beliefs about getting upset? Are they realistic or based on whatever happened to you as a child? Are they mature convictions that reinforce or undermine emotional health? Use my books to help sort out your beliefs and create a healthy belief system for emotions.

Third, by building emotional muscle, you’ll find that you can indeed tolerate emotional distress and this will make you proud. Every time you run from distress (and turn toward food) it’s okay to feel a ping of shame because you’re letting yourself down. I don’t mean for you to beat yourself up, but to remind yourself that you’re more capable than you’re letting on. The goal with emotions is to be able to go wherever they lead you and to experience every emotion that comes your way. Remember, as an adult, you have the internal and external resources to manage intense emotional pain. Also remember that you will not fall apart as you see it through to its end and that it will pass.