Peggy's new neighbor is pregnant. Normally, Peggy, who is an extrovert, would be thrilled to have a new neighbor, but the pregnancy threw her off. Peggy has miscarried five times and most likely won't bear children. Instead of talking to her husband or a friend about her feelings, Peggy goes to the movies, buys a large popcorn and a diet soda, and she eats her way through the movie. She doesn't remember what movie she saw. She really went for the popcorn.
Peggy is a classic emotional eater.
The problem is that Peggy really wants to be healthy. She had weight loss surgery in hopes of getting rid of type II diabetes and sleep apnea, and she has made some progress. If only she could resist the snacking.
I'm hopeless, she tells herself. I'm not like the other people who are losing all their weight, and I never will be.
Then one day Peggy had a hair appointment and she had to wait for a few minutes while her stylist finished up with a red-haired teenager who apparently hated her "frizzies."
Peggy listened as another of the stylists cut the already short, gray hair of an overweight, middle-aged woman wearing a snug business suit.
"How are you?" the stylist asked her client.
"I'm okay," the woman said unconvincingly. "My neighbor had a stroke. I hope he doesn't stay paralyzed like my mother did. That would mean he can't take care of himself and he'd have to move."
The stylist murmured a nurturing response and the woman continued, "Don has been my neighbor for years, and I will be devastated if he moves."
Peggy noticed the tone of the woman's voice was almost whiney. As if the neighbor moving was even worse than the fact of the stroke.
Then the stylist asked, "Isn't you birthday coming up?"
"Oh, I don't celebrate my birthday," her client groaned. "My father's birthday is the day after mine and I never got to really have a birthday all my own. I hate my birthday."
Suddenly it hit Peggy. The woman she was listening to seemed to enjoy wallowing in her misery. And Peggy realized she was doing the same thing lately. She was wallowing.
True, Peggy's misery was real (as was the woman's for that matter). She was grieving over her inability to have children, but instead of letting herself feel her feelings, she stuffed them down with comfort food, and was relieved in a way that she had a reason to snack. It was a very well worn pattern for Peggy.
Seeing a reflection of herself so clearly, Peggy was able to realize what she was doing. She was sabotaging her surgery by wallowing in negativity and overeating, and she was doing it because she was an emotional eater.
Later that day, Peggy spotted her new neighbor carrying groceries in. Peggy trotted over to help. (Being 80 pounds lighter following surgery, Peggy loved to trot.)
"Why don't I help you with those? You probably shouldn't be carrying anything that heavy," Peggy held her hands out to take a bag from her neighbor.
The neighbor gratefully accepted and invited Peggy in for tea.
For the next hour and a half, Peggy mostly listened as her neighbor shared her hopes and fears for her soon-to-arrive baby. Peggy could tell the woman was going to be a fine mother.
When she went home, Peggy decided she was not going to snack just because she felt sadness creeping up on her yet again. Instead she went into her bedroom, sat on her bed and hugged a pillow. Then she let the sadness come.
Peggy cried for a half hour. Big sobs. She even noticed she was moaning at one point. After awhile, though, her sobs subsided and she felt a surprising calm. And to her amazement, she had no desire to eat.
What a powerful lesson Peggy learned that day. It became her new goal to allow herself to feel her feelings as often as she could.
With some practice, Peggy learned more self-loving ways to experience her emotions. She cut way down on her emotional eating as a result. Now, she maintains a 100-pound weight loss, and can't imagine ever going back.
If you're an emotional eater, like Peggy, meditate on what your life would be like if you were to allow yourself to feel your feelings instead of stuffing them down. Journaling is a great way to explore feelings instead of eating. Talking to someone who is accepting and loving can help, too. Find what works for you and do it. You will reap many rewards for your efforts.
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Katie Jay, MSW, is Director, National Association for Weight Loss Surgery (NAWLS); a Certified WLS Life Coach; and author of Dying to Change: My Really Heavy Life Story, How Weight Loss Surgery Gave Me Hope for Living -- FREE to NAWLS members.
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