What happens when you open the door to the emotions underneath a sugar craving?
For most of my life, I’ve been an emotional eater, soothing myself with sugar and food. I’m highly sensitive, which means I feel everything – both the good and the bad – intensely. Living at 120 watts can feel vibrant and alive.
It can also feel scary. Strong emotions are often uncomfortable, so I try to protect myself by pushing away my emotional experience rather than feeling it. Food comes in very handy here.
I talk with many other highly sensitive men and women who also use food as a buffer. In this case, overeating is an example of fight or flight. When life gets too vulnerable to bear – when it gets painful and stressful and hard – we flee into food. This attempt to care for ourselves is not something to use as ammunition against our hearts.
Emotional eating is based in kindness – it’s understandable to want pleasure, to try and soothe a hurt, and to want to feel good – especially if you’re feeling so much all of the time. We eat not because we hate ourselves, but because we’re hurting, and we want to make it go away. Food is a fabulous buffer – we can make the most excruciating pain subside for about 10 minutes.
And yet…we know it doesn’t last, and it won’t work. The pain returns, so we keep eating in an attempt to feel better. The suffering proliferates. Now we have the original pain plus the pain of overeating: the guilt, shame, and feeling of deficiency – what’s wrong with me? Ouch. Ouch.
We eat because the converse – caring for our hurts without food – sounds really, really scary.
There is something so tender, so beautiful, so courageous about caring for our emotions; gentling ourselves so that we can meet life’s pain head on. I know this asks much of us. Instead of running into food we run right to the hurt – the tender, aching place – and we bandage it with compassion.
To those of you who think “I couldn’t do that,” this is what I would say: you are stronger than you know. We think the hurt will overwhelm us. We’re afraid the pain will overcome us.
But our hearts are so much bigger.
The only way that I’ve found peace with food is to stop running from my pain and to sit with it. I sit with it by feeling the ouch, caring for it, and offering myself compassion. Amazingly, this changes everything. The hurts soften in my care. They move. They flow. The cravings flow, too. The pain doesn’t last. It never does.
This astonishes me over and over again.
But more than that, I am changed. Whenever I offer myself kindness, I come back home. I build a sanctuary that I can return to, again and again and again. My safety doesn’t rest in the shifting winds of my emotions – or my life experience – but in the surety of my own heart. I trust. I find peace.
This astonishes me too.
Earlier this week, I was standing in my kitchen, perusing my pantry for a treat – okay I was dying for a treat – and drooling over my homemade granola bars. Here’s what I was thinking:
They’re honey sweetened. There’s not that much sugar in them. This would taste sooooo good. You’ve had an exhausting few weeks; you deserve this. Your self worth is not dependent on what you eat; go easy on yourself. And my favorite – There’s probably less sugar in these than in a banana!
I was trying really, really hard to justify why I should eat the granola bars, when I know full well that too much sugar makes me feel sick. I really wanted to eat the damn things!
But…. I paused.
I stopped rooting through the pantry, closed the door, and looked inside. I asked myself, “Oh, sweetheart. What’s really going on?”
I realized that what I really needed wasn’t food, but a good cry, and a nap. My husband and I had just moved our family 1700 miles across the country – U-Haul, pets in the crates, huge garage sale, driving for four days, the minivan and all – from Montana to Austin. We arrived in what felt like a completely different world, in record 110 degree heat, in a huge, huge transition.
In short, I was feeling completely discombobulated, exhausted, and extremely uncomfortable. I had gotten lost every single one of the 6 days we’d been in Austin so far; I was rushed to get my kids registered for school; my house was in turmoil, and my daily routines – everything that felt normal and comfortable – were gone.
I was scared and lonely and sad.
Here’s where it gets really interesting. When I looked inside and felt all this discomfort – the ouch of moving and starting over – I noticed how much I was judging myself for it. The pain itself wasn’t so bad, but my judgment of it – you shouldn’t be so upset, this shouldn’t bother you; you should go with the flow; this isn’t that big of a deal; you should be handling this better (do you hear all the shoulds?) were what made me feel so inside out.
So I’d wanted to eat my way out of this pain. Hence my granola bar wrestling match.
Instead, I fetched a box of tissues, shut the bedroom door and let myself grieve for all I’d lost in the move – oh, how I missed my walks in the Montana quiet!, my friends, my loved ones; my old beloved house; even the couch I sold in the garage sale on which I’d nursed four babies – and all that felt familiar. I let myself feel all my feelings instead of running from them, judging them or telling myself I shouldn’t feel that way. I rubbed my arms and even gave myself a hug and told myself over and over, “I know, I know sweetheart. It’s so uncomfortable right now!”
I cried and napped and woke up feeling better. The relief came from dropping my self judgment about feeling scared, lost, sad, anxious and uncomfortable. I just let them be.
I didn’t need to eat to care for my feelings anymore. I dropped the fork, too. (Or in my case, the granola bar.)
Then I wept because I felt so connected and alive.
So, this is what I’m inviting you to try – to feel life’s ouches without the sugar buffer. It takes a brave heart – which we all have – and a willingness to sit in the hot seat – which we all can do. I think you’ll be surprised at what you find.
The bogeyman at the door – our emotions – is a “princess in disguise,” as Rilke wrote. It’s something “precious that wants our love.” Oh beloved, love it. Love your tender humanity. Care for your hurts. Feel your feelings and let them flow. They aren’t the monster we fear they’re going to be.
Trust that your heart is big enough; trust that it can care for whatever strong emotion ails you. Trust that you are enough. And let me know what you find, when you open your heart and stand with the door wide open.
Karly, thanx for a great post. It's so true. I'm on my own journey of self discovery and part of that is being able to sit and actually experience emotions. It's so hard. Thanx for giving me an inspiration hit for the afternoon.
Wow, how timely of you. I have embarked on a clean-eating 21-day menu and have from day one been struggling with the emotional aspects that were coming out of me. Tears and anger, tears and anger. For “no reason” I have wanted to cry or yell or punch or whatever. Each time my mind has turned to food and knowing I couldn’t have what I “wanted” (I really made a commitment to stick to this eating plan for three weeks), it made the emotions worse. It was like constant PMS! I know I use food to self-soothe, but I guess I was unaware of how much I used it and for what reasons… to stuff the emotion back so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I haven’t allowed myself, still, the release you gave yourself, but I see the benefits and will work on some alone time to perhaps work through it some more. Without the food buffer. I’m on day 13 of this 21 day plan. Maybe by the end of it I’ll be able to break the self-medicating with food “habit”…
Beautifully put Karly! I'm full of admiration. Staying with the 'ouches' and honouring our feelings can really help us tune into what we really need – self-compassion, rather than another sugar/food fix. Very inspiring…!
totally and completely true!!! huge thank yous!!!
Oh Karly, I love you so much. What a beautiful post. I'm sending you incredible waves of blessings and ease now that you are getting settled in Austin. Once again, I'm so happy for you, your family, and your choice to change locations. I really think it will be so amazing for you overall!!! However, I know that the time to get comfortable in a new big city can be long (or longer than we want). So whenever you need a hand we are all here. After all, look at how much this one post has inspired the rest of us! It's morning now, but I'm already feeling that today and the next couple days could be really difficult for me in my own detox process. Hearing your experience was a wonderful reminder and model for me to follow. I may need to shut the door a few times, but to be able to do that is a brave and incredible thing in itself. Much love.
Oh Karly, I just want to give you a great big hug right now! You are so brave to do what you have done – the move AND the crying/napping. And thank you for sharing this – it helps to see it in action. I feel like if you can do it, then it gives me the strength to try too! xoxoxo
I'm so glad this was helpful. That was my hope – that by sharing what self compassion looks like "in the trenches" for me that others could find support, encouragement and a map for how to do it themselves.
I'm finding that we all have the strength to do this – it's nothing special about me personally. I get caught and afraid, and think I have no courage and that I can't do it and that it's too hard … and then I look inside and I can. It is not me doing it, it is grace – the loving presence that flows through us all.
It blows me away. Just boggles me really! A gift for us all. I just have to remember to open it, lol.
I'm weeping. (Jill, you made me weep, too.) As someone who boldly leaps into the unknown – that's you, Kelley! – you gave me the courage to do it in my own life. Thank you for being my teacher and for inspiring me. I've thought of you often through this chaotic time!
I'm thinking of you and hoping that your own transitions may be easy to bear. I hope that your courage and heart and love and kindness continues to grow, to expand, to bloom into love. May you feel held in your tears.
I love you, too! Karly
I admire the courage in your approach, Karly. I read a list I made while reading The Beck Diet. "Advantages to Not Giving In To Cravings". A few of the reasons: "The struggle will be over. I will no longer feel stuck. This will extend to other areas of my life."
Well said, Sue! Letting go of struggle is huge. It always boggles me how I like to hold onto my struggles…it can be such a process to actually let them go.
Wishing you much peace on your journey.
Yes, it is hard to sit with emotions – you are so brave to do this! One of the reasons I wrote this post was to say, "This is hard for me," so that we all realize we're in it together. I wanted to dispel the myth that many of us think (At least I've thought it to be true!) that "I'm the only one who finds this uncomfortable and difficult." Nope. I think it's part of being human.
It's not easy for any of us…And…we can do it.
I am so proud of you and am cheering you on! I love that you're joining us here.
So glad we have each other, Jen! XOXO
'm so glad this resonated with you, Niki. It's a practice for me, for sure…one I am actually learning to embrace. Everytime I practice self compassion, something unshakable, wise and very, very kind grows inside me…something that feels like home. I want this for every being.
Thankyou for what you said about emotional eating being based in kindness – I have always thought that deep down I must really hate myself, to binge the way that I do all the time!! Your whole story is so achingly familiar to me – I'm just starting out on my quest to try to get more comfortable with my emotions, and your articulate and insightful words are an inspiration, and a comfort. Thank you so much. Renae
What a beautifully written encouragement. I've struggled with sugar addiction and binge eating for years. I've try so many things and read so many books. I've even heard these words before but not as compassionately. Thank you. I've stumbled across this website and I'm so grateful – it was no mistake, thank you Lord. Also, I can feel good about myself when I'm called overly sensitive. Yes, I am, and I'm glad I feel so intensely both the good and bad in my life. Thank you again for your insightful article. I can handle the difficult times in my life without turning to food.
I feel so happy that you found us and that this article ministered to you in body, mind and spirit. I love that your prayer brought you here. I've had many of those, "Help me!" prayers too.
You may like this post where I explain this process of using kindness to soften sugar cravings –
In love and support, Karly
Thank you so much. You've given me a lot of courage. Thank you so much.
I love this. I threw myself a cookie party today because I've been struggling with winter blues for months and today I woke up to a blizzard when yesterday was so sunny and warm I actually took a walk in a tee shirt and jeans. I couldn't handle sitting on the couch looking out the window at the bare tree branches in the snow. I made cookies instead. I'm so glad I found this blog. I know that I have problems with sugar, but every time I try to back off, I slip up and get out the Kitchen Aid.
I'm going to try again and use some of the tools you describe. Thank you!
My brother recommended I might like this website. He was entirely right.
This post truly made my day. You can not imagine just how much time I had spent for this info!
Totally awesome article. …I am amazed by the wisdom and simplicity
Ill recomend everyone
This is so nurturing and loving-caring attitude towards life I just love it
I’m so glad that this was nourishing and helpful for you! It’s a counterintuitive but very helpful approach, to welcome the feelings and cravings and to care for them, rather than trying to overpower or suppress.
In warmth and care, Karly
amazing.. just simply amazing..
I have been googling my way to find why I eat chocolates so much.. why?! why?! why?! and that led me here and this is the best read I have had so far..
it comforted me somehow… and the running away from emotions hit the nail smack on its head..I do tend to disregard a lot of my emotions.. a defense mechanism perhaps.. which in turn drives me to some other comfort.. known as the most famous “soul” food i know.. chocolates.. and tons of it..
thank you Karly
I’m so glad that this resonated with you. While chocolate or sugar cravings can arise from a whole host of physiological factors, it’s often driven by emotion. Building emotional tolerance – the ability to be with, feel, and soothe a wide variety and intensity of emotion – is a key factor to healing this drive to compulsively eat sugar. I’m glad this article helped you understand what both drives sugar cravings and how they can be soothed.
Dearest Karly, thank you so much for extending your kindness out to the world. Your website is helping me great deal. It’s absolutely inspiring and encouraging.
Blessings for you, lovely soul.
You’re so welcome! I’m glad that you’re finding growinghumankindness.com to be a help on your journey, and a place of rest, solace and encouragement. I’m cheering you on your journey… Many hugs, Karly