Feeling emotionally injured and powerless is one of the worst experiences in the world. And it’s a real driver of emotional eating. The problem is that usually when we feel these particular emotions, we don’t realize exactly what’s going on inside us. Instead, we automatically react with anger which often gets us nowhere beyond enjoying a moment of fleeting satisfaction—and then straight to the cookie jar to reregulate our emotions.
While reading an article about the leader of one country threatening to physically hurt the leader of another one, the article’s author made an astute observation: that it’s a mistake to confuse anger with strength. Anger makes us feel physically mighty and that’s where the confusion comes in. When we’re shamed, rejected or invalidated, anger also causes us to feel emotionally powerful, rescuing us from feeling hurt, weak and small. When anger takes over, we feel better, bigger and stronger.
Many dysregulated eaters were raised in highly or moderately dysfunctional families and felt helpless much of their childhood. To stay on the good side of their parents, they learned to stuff their anger and succumbed to feeling powerless to challenge authority. As adolescents, they either rebelled overtly or covertly or went from being “good” boys and girls to “good” men and women. When feeling powerless, they continued to react by quashing their anger or experiencing it intensely and expressing it inappropriately.
Make no mistake, although we may feel stronger in the moment, when we strike out in anger (as an antidote to feeling helpless or powerless), our actions don’t actually strengthen us. Emotional strength comes in a radically different form: from saying nothing in the moment and, instead, taking time to craft a response that will help us regain our wounded pride, from considering whether we are really less than because someone says so, or from taking the long view and deciding not to be petty and stoop so low as to even proffer a response.
Strength comes from within, from knowing exactly who you are and who you are not. It’s part confidence and competence. It stems from wisdom, thinking ahead, keeping a tight leash on your emotions, responding with intention, not allowing yourself to be a doormat while not over-personalizing everything that’s said or done to you, being appropriately authentic, and taking excellent care of yourself.
Too often these days bullies rule the roost and we lack role models for genuine strength. Lashing out at someone who hurts you indicates weakness, not strength. Anger can breed strength, but should not be mistaken for it.