In my experience, the repression of feelings is closely tied with the manifestation of eating disorders. This is one of many articles that will explore the underpinnings of emotional numbing, and will hopefully shed some light on how we can lessen the effects of this phenomenon. First, it is helpful to clarify how eating disorders are worsened by the muting of emotions, as this connection might not be very obvious at first light. Emotions are the horsepower with which we pursue our needs–they make us pay attention and propel us to take action. They also make others pay attention and take action toward us. As internal needs arise, an emotion generally follows it, which drives the individual to seek out fulfillment of that need. Further, when we have strong feelings, we generally express those feelings through nonverbal or vegetative means, we verbalize those feelings, we cry, we laugh, emotions change how we interact with our environment. Anger might drastically alter the way that you interact with inanimate objects (ever slam a door, throw something, punch a wall?) As we are able to bring attention and advertise our feelings and therefore our needs, we are able to get those needs met much more quickly and efficiently than if emotion was not expressed or experienced. Further, we are designed to not only be affected by our own feelings, but also be affected by the feelings of those around us. Fortunately, this generates a reciprocal flow of effort and concern between self and others, which better positions us to meet needs.
Eating disorders, along with most other mental and mood illnesses, are caused by unmet psychological needs. If emotions are flattened, the individual becomes impaired in his ability to meet those needs and this flattening also limits the ability of those around him to understand and respond to his needs. This cycle generates pathology in the form of eating problems and body image disturbance. There are various reasons why people develop habits of self-suppression. Sometimes I see clients who are very good at describing how everyone else in the room feels, but completely unable to pin down any personal feelings. The client will sit in my office describing mom’s emotions to a T, but she will look to mom for answers any time I ask the client about her own feelings. Sometimes clients are told that they don’t feel what they feel because the family sees the sentiment as disrespectful, inaccurate, illogical, ungrateful or inconvenient. Well-meaning families can have habits of repressing a child’s emotional world without even really being aware of it. I often tell my clients that they are allowed to feel any way they want, no matter what–that it is not wrong to feel something that is different from how others want them to feel. It amazes me how what seems like such a “no brainer” thing to say is actually quite a profound concept that they seem to have never considered before. I sense the uplifting and unburdening effect of this permission, and when the client truly internalizes this truth, the eating problems and body image distortion usually improve drastically. My business partner, Sifu Joseph Simonet is fond of saying “what I think is what I know, but what I feel is who I am”. If feelings are lost, the self is lost and eating disorders are the outcome of a disappearing self.