I think one reason we have an unhealthy relationship with food and ourselves — eating ’til we’re uncomfortably stuffed, restricting ourselves, hurling insults, not practicing compassionate self-care — is because of judgment.
Specifically, we judge ourselves for all sorts of things. We judge our appearance. We judge our mistakes. We cling to shoulds that fuel self-judgment and keep us stuck.
I should weigh less. I should wear a size 4. I should eat less. I should never eat dessert or pizza or pasta. I should be able to do this with zero help.
We also judge our emotions. Today, it’s this judgment — berating ourselves for certain emotions — that I’d like to focus on.
Recently, while writing this piece on emotional resilience, I interviewed psychotherapist and author Sheri Van Dijk. She shared several insights and an exercise on feeling our feelings that’s seriously been life-changing for me.
For many of us, instead of feeling our emotions, we criticize ourselves for having them. We call ourselves weak, dramatic, stupid, too sensitive. (We also dismiss our emotions altogether, pretending they don’t exist.)
According to Van Dijk, we have primary and secondary emotions. A primary emotion is our initial reaction (e.g., “I’m anxious.”). The secondary emotion arises from our self-judgment (e.g., “I’m so mad that I’m anxious! Yet again. This is ridiculous. I’m such an idiot!”).
In other words, we get angry with ourselves for feeling scared or upset. We become disgusted when we’re jealous of others. We get frustrated when we’re still grieving a breakup or a fight.
The key is to accept our emotions. Not to question them. Not to criticize ourselves. Not to ignore them or wish them away. Not to battle ourselves.
In the same piece, Van Dijk shared this powerful exercise for validating our emotions:
- Name the emotion – without judging yourself. “In other words, instead of ‘Why am I still feeling anxious? This is stupid,’ you change the thought to ‘I’m feeling anxious.’”
- Give yourself permission to feel the feeling. For instance, you might say, “Anxiety is a natural human emotion. I’m allowed to feel this way. It’s OK that I feel anxious right now, even though I don’t like it.”
- Understand why you’re having this emotion. In this part you provide context for your emotional experience, she said. (This isn’t always possible.) For instance, “I’m feeling anxious about being in this social situation because people used to bully me.”
Validating our emotions takes practice because our judgments and beliefs about emotions — “Feeling sad or anxious is being weak!” — are deeply ingrained. You can start with less overwhelming emotions, or you can start by simply naming emotions throughout the day.
When judgments slip in, practice saying, “It’s OK. I’m just experimenting with a new approach.”
Remember that your feelings aren’t wrong or ridiculous. You aren’t wrong or ridiculous for feeling a certain way. Experiment with giving yourself permission to let all emotions in.
Because when all emotions are welcome, all of you is welcome. And that’s a powerful thing.