The Fall season for me is a time when I try to forge ahead in all aspects of my life—family, work, friends and community. I’m pretty likely to take on things that have been brewing but put-off during the summer when even the warm weather seems like permission to unravel. When the cooler weather comes in, I’m “goal-oriented.” This Fall, I began to wonder whether my active focus on goals, while carrying a tilt in the direction of ‘doing’ over ‘being,’ is a mode that could also be applied to getting more clarity on some of the powerful feelings embroiled by an eating disorder.
It’s well-known that identifying and understanding underlying feelings is part of the recovery from an eating disorder. We say, an eating disorder is ‘not about the food, it’s about the feelings.’ But this “about the feelings” is a tricky part. Feelings can be big. Our soul can be a murky place. Our heart can feel turned upside down. This leads us to roll on by, to ‘have a feeling,’ but to not stop, look around, listen in. Because of this, especially with big feelings, what often happens is that we don’t have the feeling, the feeling has us. It may be that with powerful feelings, a deliberate, focused and yes, goal-oriented approach is needed as a tool to begin to get some traction and get back to ourselves. The truth that this may be required is not given voice to in the culture.
So how would I get “goal-oriented” with feelings? First, why not be irreverent and mentally reify the feeling? What about in addition to the naturally human skills of radically accepting the feeling, breathing through the feeling, relaxing into the feeling, distracting from the feeling, what about also using an approach of addressing the feeling, which at first may have to feel something like tackling the feeling. Give it a name, call anger “Maddie,” anxiety “Tornado” or sadness “Poison Ivy”. Give it a place – “down the rabbit hole,” “out to lunch.” Treat the feeling as an object of observation, like a Baroque-period chair.
When a concerted focus on an emotional state is possible more poignant questions can be asked. When did you first have this feeling? Who knows you feel this way? Who doesn’t know? When do you feel this the most? The least? Who has helped you with this feeling? What do they do to help? Do you have that feeling now? These questions of course can change the terms of the problem. Useful distinctions can sometimes be made—self-reproach goes hand in hand with fear of criticism by others, care feels like an attempt to control, insecurity is related to loosing touch with personal an moral convictions, and so on.
“Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught?” a recent article in The New York Times asked about the grade school curriculum (September 11, 2013). The award-winning poet Czeslow Milosz tell us “Love means to learn to look at yourself, The way one looks at distant things” (Love, 1943). Maybe there should be a more deliberate acknowledgment and focus on how to re-introduce ourselves to our feelings, especially powerful ones.
An acquaintance recently spoke about a problem with her healthcare coverage. She listed with dismay how much extra time this problem took: “30 minutes on the phone, 10 minutes finding forms, 20 minutes filling out forms, 10 minutes copying, and 30 minutes to calm down afterward.” 30 minutes to calm down—like 30 minutes at a time addressing ourselves to feelings, may be what it takes.