For many intuitive, sensitive, or empathic people, there’s a link between emotional shame, spiritual shame and overeating. Emotional and spiritual shame dams up emotion or tries to control it. The result is both a painful overindentification with emotion, where we believe we are our emotions, and an emotional compression, where emotions get ‘stuck’ in the body and psyche.
The tension from trying to control emotions, the pain of the shame itself, and the pressure of this ‘stuck emotion’ then seeks an outlet or relief in food.
By contrast, when emotions are embraced and invited, they flow like water, like a river. The shame moves; the emotional energy itself moves.
This is important – for as my mentor in developmental psychology says, “emotions have a job to do…they are the engine of maturation.” When we suppress or control emotions, emotions aren’t able to do their job – to move us towards this yearning, growth and unfolding.
But when we open to our emotional experience and soften our attempts to exert control, we become a ballast for this growing up process, the riverbank for the river. Through these riverbanks, our emotional life moves, and flows. The boat on this river is our deep heart, what guides us through the many waters, into the richness and fullness of our humanity.
Through these currents and ebbs and tides, the heart grows wide, deep, humble, and strong.
Read on to learn more.
Of all the things that we’re asked to befriend as tender human beings, I think befriending feelings is the most challenging. It makes sense: who wants to feel things like loss, pain, grief, jealousy, devastation? Who wants to feel unloveable, like a failure, ugly, too much, not enough? Ouch.
And yet these feelings arise, in all beings.
How we avoid our feelings
Most of us aren’t taught how to care for painful feelings. We see “negative feelings” as something bad, as something to defend ourselves against. Consequently, we do all kinds of things to avoid feeling them.
In my own life, my 20 years of eating disorders, chronic spiritual seeking, and quest for self perfection all arose from the same root fear: a fear of my feelings. They were all my strategies to keep myself from feeling painful feelings – feelings of unworthiness, “badness,” shame, or ugliness.
My suffering proliferated from there. Because the more I tamped down my feelings, the more depressed and anxious I felt. Depressed because I was minimizing, editing, and repressing the life that was flowing through me. Depressed, because I made myself “wrong” for feeling whatever I was feeling: I felt so ashamed, bad and unspiritual because of all my passionate, intense, negative emotions.
Anxious because I was so afraid of what my negative emotions said about me: I thought my negative emotions meant I was ugly, shameful, unworthy – not simply temporary feelings that were flowing through me.
Trying to stop the ocean
Most painfully, no matter how hard I pushed myself to be perfect, or how much spiritual seeking I did, or how much I binged (or how clean I ate or how much weight I lost) I couldn’t make the feelings go away.
They would arise, all on their own. It was like trying to stop the waves of the ocean. It was like trying to stop a river from flowing.
Life flows, and flows as energy. And this energy often comes in the form of emotions: messy emotions, painful emotions, powerful emotions, intense emotions, tender emotions.
Embracing all kinds of weather
Think of all the variety of weather: rain, storms, clouds, sunshine, heat, cold, snow, ice, wind, humidity, aridity. Think of all the variety of just one form of weather: pounding rain, a gentle rain, mist, flooding, a steady drizzle, rain while the sun is shining through the clouds.
In the same way there’s a variety of weather in our outer lives, there’s a variety of weather in our inner lives: anger, sadness, grief, joy, enthusiasm, boredom….
We don’t call rain “wrong” and sunshine “right.” But why do we label emotions in this way?
Why do we fear the dark?
In many spiritual circles and Law of Attraction teachings, “negative emotions” are something to transcend. Some people even state that “negative” emotions have the power to create “bad” things in our lives. So we’re told to elevate above these emotions, to think the higher thought, and to be more positive.
Positivity has its place – absolutely. So does forgiveness – holding onto painful emotions like anger or resentment can also cause suffering.
But why are we so afraid of darkness?
Law of Attraction teachings never sat right with my heart, because I feel they cause spiritual shame and insecurity about our very humanity. I find this to be especially true for empathic, intuitive, or highly sensitive people who feel deeply, passionately, and subtly. Because we have a sensitive nature, this means we feel the “negative” emotions as intensely as we feel the “positive” ones.
So if we believe we have to think/feel positively – and yet are feeling lots of intense negative emotions – it can lead to suffering and self blame. We make ourselves wrong for feeling what we’re feeling. This becomes the spiritual shame of, “there’s something wrong with me because I’m feeling so negatively!”
In judging our emotions, we separate from our wholeness and become a smaller self. There’s so much life we have to then make “wrong” because it’s not “positive.” And we shut down, and we close off, and we armor ourselves against life so that it’s only “right.”
We exhaust ourselves, spending so much energy trying to defend ourselves against life – to defend against the feelings that flow through us – because we see these feelings as somehow, bad, wrong. An indictment.
And in doing so, we cut ourselves off from the very aliveness that is our nature.
There’s a fundamental rule in improv comedy: you work with whatever is given. No matter what your fellow actors say or do – no matter how far fetched or ridiculous – you run with it, you work with it. You include it.
I invite you to approach feelings in the same way. Dear one, no matter what you’re given, no matter what you’re feeling, include it.
Rilke said it this way: “Let everything happen to you.”
Who would you be if you allowed all your feelings?
So this begs a powerful question: What if you no longer feared your feelings? What if all feelings were allowed in your experience? What if you let everything happen to you?
I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but how much more peaceful, relaxed, less anxious might you feel?
To allow life – to allow all of life – to flow through us is to rest in peace. It’s how we find the deepest rest because we know that whatever we’re feeling, we can include it. We can handle it. We can love this, too.
We can drop all the energy we expend trying to control life, our eating, or ourselves so we don’t feel what we don’t want to feel. Instead, we can be present in our actual lives.
This is the ground of love.
Let everything happen to you
We can drop our armor and let it all in. We can allow ourselves to feel whatever we’re feeling in the moment. We can simply let it be – knowing that feelings are not what we are. Feelings become something that come and go, and not something that define us.
(Oh, we are so much deeper, so much bigger.)
Let go of the story that you’re a small, separate self that has to make life go a certain way so that you feel a certain way. Let go, and allow yourself to be carried in the river of life. Rest in this mercy.