Being this unproductive is hard work. The words don’t flow, and I can’t think straight.
And even though it’s past lunch, I’m not hungry. Just the thought of trying to make something decent to eat triggers a cascade of tears. I turn to chocolate, and even that doesn’t soothe.
Something isn’t right. Chocolate always soothes.
Maybe I’ve caught that bug that’s going around, or maybe I’ll be more productive in bed where at least I’m not making a mess of things.
This doesn’t feel like the grief I’ve had in the month since my father died unexpectedly. That felt sharp and acutely painful. This feels dull and heavy like a low-pressure system moving in.
As I lie in bed it hits me: “Sadness—is that you?” I ask. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you earlier.” The emotion intensifies as if to say, “Finally, you recognize your long-time acquaintance.”
Suddenly, I’m drowning in sadness. It’s everywhere—in my head, heart, stomach, and legs. I feel like I’m being held down by heavy weights. I can’t imagine moving, much less walking. It comes over me and through me, and I feel too weak to protest.
Today is a rare sunny day. Yet somehow that makes things worse. Everyone else is outside, and I’m held hostage, even though my conscious mind is aware that it is due to my own thoughts. But my thoughts feel completely real. It seems that the world outside my door is full of despair and not a safe place to go, even if the effort to stand didn’t seem so impossible.
Why are those people playing and laughing anyway? Don’t they know that my father is no longer here? The one person who thought I was wonderful and had my back, no matter what. Maybe you’ve been in this place, too, unable to face the outside world? Unable to see the joy in a sunny day?
Since the fire heating my house has died down, the cold motivates me to get up. I need wood, so I put on shoes and take a few steps outside, leaving the door ajar as if to announce that I’m not really all the way out. One foot is still uncommitted, which is a fitting metaphor for much in my last year. It’s not that I’m unprepared or that I don’t want it. But I’m not quite able to let go and take the leap.
Eventually, I decide it’s not so bad outside my door. Perhaps sadness and I can walk to the river together. I summon up enough courage to try—to close the door and move forward.
Initially, I allow myself just to feel, as I slowly move forward, carrying with me the full weight of my sadness. Surely, my fitness tracker will register this effort.
Sadness, I’ve learned, is a part of grief but not all of it.
Sadness tells us we’ve lost something we valued. It tells us that we need to step back and regroup. Its heaviness encourages us to conserve energy until we’re ready to face what has changed.
Sadness is a necessary part of emotional housekeeping. Like any housekeeping chore, you have to clean out the old before you bring in the new. It’s processing the old reality before attempting to live in the new one.
Sadness was the first emotion I learned to feel when I began healing my emotional eating, and I remember being terror-stricken. My fear was that if I allowed sadness to creep in, it wouldn’t go away, and I’d end up mired in depression. And I’ve been around enough depression to know it’s not something to trifle with.
Thus, pushing sadness away has been my lifelong strategy and eating my method of choice. “I’m not allowing you to sneak in and ruin my ambitions,” I would think, as I shoveled in food to distract and numb me from any hint of sadness.
I’ve since learned that this strategy is not only wrong but completely backward. Depression is the absence of emotion, not the presence. By pushing emotion away, I was creating a perfect place for depression to thrive. To not get stuck, I need to allow myself to feel everything, sadness included.
There are many losses in life—small ones as well as big—and each brings with it some sadness. We have endless opportunities to get it right. If you can’t bear today’s sadness, try again tomorrow.
This is true even when the change is wanted and welcomed. New houses mean leaving old neighborhoods. New relationships bring the end of old freedoms.
And that’s not surprising. The ability to feel sadness allows us to care deeply and love fully. It allows us stay in contact with reality. It keeps us from burnout and breakdown.
Like all emotions, sadness comes in waves. Some are tiny ripples that lead me to believe the worst is behind. Others are like a tsunami that appears out of nowhere, pulling me under and out to sea.
All I know to do is to keep moving forward. So, I keep walking . . . and feeling. Step by step, wave by wave, trying to remember that sadness is my friend.
I know this sadness has lessons I need to learn and wisdom to convey, if I can only stay present through the pain. It’s trying to help me, and I know that the more I resist, the stronger it will get. Like a colleague who keeps pounding on a point you’re resistant to, it may be for your own good, but it sure is annoying.
Tears roll, even from seeing happy dogs and beautiful vistas. The sadness colors everything, sapping even the sunlight. Yet halfway back from the river, I realize my steps are lighter, and the world around me looks brighter.
Did the clouds lift? No, nothing outside has changed. I’m awed that my mood has the power to change even the color of nature.
It’s enough for me to believe that I can face my late afternoon meeting. “I’ve got just enough time to eat” I think. “A quick bar of chocolate should suffice” is my automatic first thought. Nevertheless, something inside tells me chocolate isn’t the right choice at this moment.
“So, what will pair well with this sadness?” I ask myself. Getting in touch with the opposite emotion is a good strategy when feeling overwhelmed, so maybe looking for a food that evokes the opposite emotion will also help. It’s like selecting wine, only this time it’s an emotional pairing.
In that case, something light and fresh is in order: some fruit or greens, maybe that leftover piece of quiche. Food that will offset some of the heaviness, in the same way that the walk lifted my spirits.
Learning to Listen
Intuitive eating isn’t about eating everything your mind craves, but rather eating what your body needs. The goal is for your mind to come to want what your body needs.
Like most of the women I coach, I’ve been unsure if my body could tell me what it needed in the absence of rules, portion control, and calorie counting. Privately I’ve wondered if I wasn’t born with a body-wisdom defect.
It turns out I only needed to learn to listen.
Over time, I’ve gotten better at picking up on little nudges, such as tight waistbands and stomach pains. And I’ve heard whispers suggesting that a pint of ice cream probably wasn’t going to make things better.
My body was sending pain and tightness signals, but my mind had already overtaken and eaten way past fullness. My body was attempting to alert me as to how it felt about a large amount of ice cream, but I wasn’t letting the message come in. I see now that I was only half listening to what my body wanted and needed, and I definitely wasn’t showing any respect.
This time the message from my body was clearly coming through, and I was listening. For the first time in my adult life, my body and I were one—in full communication, practicing mutual respect and speaking the same language.
It’s only taken five years.
Compared to the many decades of not listening, though, I guess that’s not too bad.
What Is Feeling Anyway?
When I first began to heal my emotional eating, I remember asking what it meant to feel. It didn’t compute. It seemed like some New Age mumbo-jumbo that couldn’t possibly help.
After all, I’ve been trained in logic and data, and the power of the mind. “Lovers have feelings, management consultants have thoughts,” one of my first bosses told me when I started a sentence with “I feel”
Now, I know better: Emotions are completely logical. They are, if fact, pure data coming from my body. They are one of my senses, and the only one reporting what’s going on inside.
I also know that feeling means allowing my emotions to surface—all of them—the big ones as well as the subtle ones, the difficult ones as well as the enjoyable ones. It means staying present and fearless throughout my emotional experience. No more resisting. No more stuffing it down with chocolate, mental tricks, and busyness.
Now I know to welcome the emotion and talk to it. Ask what it needs and what it’s trying to tell me. I’ve learned that I can allow myself to pull back and replenish when a difficult emotion arrives. I can trust that while sadness may pay a visit, it doesn’t have to move in permanently.
I know there’s a purpose to letting myself feel everything, even when it hurts, because allowing the feeling to emerge, allows it to convey it’s message and move on, rather than remain trapped.
At first, it will feel like you’re a crazy person. But no matter how disconnected you feel, your body is speaking to you, and its mother tongue is emotion. All that is required is to listen.
What hadn’t lifted earlier in hours of ignoring and pushing away lightened quickly when I began allowing and listening.
I didn’t want to let sadness visit, but I didn’t have the energy to keep resisting, so I tried something different.
Rather than slam the door, I invited sadness in, and I learned I can handle it. I also learned that my body wisdom isn’t defective and I’ve given my body what it really needed today.
It seems it’s been a productive day after all.