Unbearable Emotions and Feelings

The term “eating disorders,” like so many diagnostic labels, describes a spectrum of experiences and dynamics; while two people might both overeat and purge, the psychological reasons why they do so can be very different.  I’d like to discuss one of my clients who suffered from bulimia, along with the emotional factors involved, because her story sheds light on a much larger issue:  how we may cope with unbearable emotions and feelings by trying to get rid of them.

When I began working with this client (I’ll call her Sharon), I had little experience with eating disorders. I understood that there might be a connection between childhood sexual abuse and bulimia; I was aware that low self-esteem and perfectionism likely played a role.  The first time we met, Sharon told me she’d been sexually molested by her step-father during her early teens; while she didn’t strike me as having particularly low self-esteem, she did seem quite perfectionistic and self-critical. In our early sessions, however, what struck me most was how little she could tolerate her emotions and feelings.

A pattern began to emerge:  whenever an experience threatened to stir up emotion (it could be an intensely pleasurable feeling just as well as an anxious or painful one) the powerful urge to overeat would arise. Eventually she would give in, binge eat and force herself to vomit afterward; an enormous sense of relief always followed.  We came to understand that what she wanted was to feel empty, void of emotion.  Her bulemia, in a very literal sense, was a process of emotional evacuation.  By throwing up, Sharon felt she’d gotten rid of the unbearable emotions and feelings along with the food she’d eaten.

The solution wasn’t permanent, of course:  the feelings usually came back.  Sometimes evacuating her feelings gave her enough time to find an alternative way to remove or avoid the cause of those feelings; on other occasions, emotions would resurface and she’d go through the binge-purge cycle again.  In almost every situation, her goal was first to avoid having any feelings if possible, and then to get rid of them whenever she couldn’t.

Sharon’s mother was a very logical, remote woman who also tried to avoid any kind of emotional turbulence.  The fact that she somehow managed not to know what must have been obvious, that her husband was molesting her daughter, shows just how far she would go to avoid facing painful and difficult situations that might agitate her.  In other words, Sharon grew up in a family with little tolerance for emotions and feelings; she never learned how to cope with them in a mental way and developed bulimia, in large part, as a physical alternative.

There are many other ways to avoid or evacuate unwanted emotions and feelings; the process of projection isn’t usually as literal as it is in this case of bulimia.  But I believe it’s something we all do at one time or another.

Finding Your Own Way:

You might have a hard time identifying with Sharon’s methods, but you may use eating in related ways.  Many people turn to food as comfort, of course, trying to satisfy an emotional need by physical means.  Others use food as a sort of numbing agent.  In earlier posts, I’ve discussed different emotional drugs people can use but those tend to function as stimulants; what about food as an anesthetic?

As to the larger issue of avoiding intense emotions and feelings, you may find more common ground with Sharon.  Here’s a personal example. When my children were small and the emotional demands of rearing them were high (in addition to the emotional demands of my psychotherapy practice), all I wanted at the end of the day, after everyone was fed, bathed and in bed, was to watch repeats of “Law & Order” with a glass of wine.  Nothing stimulating, nothing unexpected … just the comfortable routine of crime and punishment, with characters who never surprised me.  Sound familiar?  At the end of your day, do you numb out in front of mindless TV shows with alcohol or ice cream?  Maybe it’s because, after the stimulation of your day, you can’t take any more intense feelings.

How does your own routine serve to limit the kinds of emotions and feelings you have?  Are you a creature of habit?  Sometimes repetitive ways of doing things allow us to know (or believe we can know) what we’ll feel in advance.  Who of us really likes the shock of unexpected feeling?  It might be a wonderful surprise if the Publisher’s Clearing House guy showed up at my door, telling me I’d won the sweepstakes, but I hate late-night phone calls that mean bad news, death or a serious accident.

You’d think, given the shortness of life and the wealth of possible experiences, we humans would constantly be searching for new sources of stimulation and excitement.  It’s surprising how many of us prefer the comfort of routine and the set of knowable emotions and feelings that come up in our ordinary day.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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33 comments

    I’m not really sure what causes me to binge…it sometimes just seems that I do it out of boredom. I’ve never purged…..never felt the inclination..but I do feel the shame that ultimately follows a good binge…of course I comfort myself with “Oh well, as soon as the weather gets a little better, I’ll get out and start walking again” My concern is more with”body image” than with why I do it ! Seems as though I should be working on trying to figure out the reason for this self destructive behavior..Comfort food, sounds right..Boy I can come up with a dandy ice cream sundae….whipped cream and all….other times though, it’s something like chips, I’ll sit and eat a whole tube of Pringles in a sitting…but mostly it’s sweets..chocolate omgsh, a giant size Hershey Bar can disappear during a movie..I’d like to be able to overcome this behavior….is it necessary for me to understand the reasons why, will that help me change the behavior ? Or is it simply, acknowledge the behavior and then work on self discipline ?
    The will power thing , or lack thereof, is truly an issue…..HELP SOMEONE…….

    I wish I had an answer for you, Betty. I don’t think the self-discipline approach is going to be helpful, because then it’s so easy to come down hard on yourself when you slip up. While it may be self-destructive, the motivation for your binge eating probably isn’t to hurt yourself. It sounds to me as if food is helping you keep other feelings at bay. What they are … well, next time you feel the urge to binge, hold off as long as you can and try to notice what comes up.

    This is so good. I believe my daughter has a problem with overwhelming emotions, even though I tried very hard to help her identify what she was feeling when she was growing up. (She had severe abandonment issues with her dad). Although she does not have an eating disorder, she does have a self-image problem and now either levels (sort of insults people to feel better about herself) or just disrespects them, including me. It’s been very difficult. I love your blog.

    Thanks, Pat. It’s hard to see your children in pain, know they’re hurting but then have them hurt you because they don’t like themselves. Also hard when there’s so little you can do to help them.

    Great piece. The emotional relationship to eating is so profound it sometimes feels like an area that is just too dense to unpack when I do my personal work. I can work with clients all day around their emotional baggage but when I come home at the end of a long day, I feel like I deserve to overeat as it somehow rewards me for working hard. I notice other moments when food feels like a reward in my life. Frustrating process for me. I have great compassion for people who struggle with eating process issues because of my own.

    I’m with you on that one. The work we do involves so much emotional giving that it does feel as if we deserve some kind of culinary reward at the end of the day!

    I never realised until reading this, that my struggle with new feelings might be due to my abuse. I really find new emotions difficult. I spent many years with a therapist, simply learning to label feelings.

    When you think about it, what could be more overwhelming, threatening and unmanageable than childhood abuse? It’s no wonder children can’t process the experience and have to find some other, more radical ways to deal with/get rid of the experience.

    I think it is extremely important that people are able to identify and put a lable on the problem of this kind that have been discussed. When the problem has a name it has been identified and therefore recognized. Next step would be accepting it as a part of ourselves and perhaps then would come the substitution of the illbehaviour with more appropriate and mature one. A crusial thing is to discriminate between the symptom and the root of causalic action.

    i wanted to make a suggestion but not sure where to put it! i saw the lady comment about last names, which got me thinking. it would b nice as i loved the addition where the ppl can post stuff and anyone can answer. i feel it gives u support and ur not alone. it would b nice if ppl could post what issues they r having, general and no last name as i no u can not answer all the questions but mayb there is someone else out there at that time that could suggest how to cope. sorta a support group on line. then u could review and see what the ppls general problems and it may give u something u may want to cover in ur additional writings. just a thought as i look at this site alot but do not have the time i need to take to really read everything and it may bring ur followers conections to ppl…….just a thought in the middle of a sleepless nite, one of many……..keep up the good work. nice to see there r drs out there that go beyond their call of duty and go overtime like this site to help others….ty

    Tracy, the Discussions tab on the Facebook Forum page is designed for just the purpose you describe. Feel free to start a discussion and ask questions whenever you like. I envision that as a place where readers can interact without my moderating or acting as any kind of an authority.

    forgot my real comment and i no i may b one of the few that has this issue. but when things r not going well for me i stop eating. i even ask myself (try every day) just to remember did i eat today and what. sometimes in my moments i will go 3 days without eating hence i have had huge struggles maintaining a safe weight. lbs are safer now but lets say u could count my every bone, not healthy at times scary. i still struggle and work to eat and keep wieght up but always wondered is this a combo of eatting disorder w/anxiety/depression.

    It certainly sounds like a combination of eating disorder with anxiety/depression, although I’m not sure how much value there is in assigning a label to it. This is very serious, Tracy. I’d like to think you have some professional help on this issue. I realize it’s hard (and often expensive) to find good therapy but when you’re struggling to keep a safe weight, your life is at risk.

    Just signed on to follow you back in Twitter. So glad you found me there. This blog is very informative. I had recognized some of the behaviours mentioned, like perfectionism and avoidance of painful emotions have been experiences of which I have sought to overcome. It was a long, arduous undertaking, albiet, commited to a happier lifestyle. Today, life is generally much more emotionally ballanced especially on a day to day living. What has become more apparent is the these lingering affects rear their heads from time to time and once again must be dealt with…but the good news is that when noticed, it are far less impactful and much less lengthy in duration.

    Thank you for sharing your insight. Rita

    I don’t binge, in fact I hate the feeling of vomiting, but I do use food as comfort. Especially, when I’m bored or stressed. So I do the opposite of wanting to feel empty–I use food to want to feel.