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Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD
Embrace Your Negativity in Time for the Holidays! is PTCNY member Mary Anne Cohen's latest article published by

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Embrace your Negativity in Time for the Holiday Season!

As we head into the holiday season, we are constantly reminded:
· Count your blessings
· Be grateful
· Meditate on the abundance you do have
· See the glass half full not half empty
· Focus on positive thinking!

There is so much pressure to be happy, feel happy, and get into "the holiday spirit."

But in this time of Holidays plus Pandemic, lots of feelings of deprivation are bound to arise. Many people have lost loved ones this year or have loved ones sick with COVID, have struggled with financial issues and job insecurity, feelings of isolation during lockdown, the stress of children's not being able to attend school, and the anxiety of not really knowing when this pandemic is going to end.

Rather than avoiding feelings of "negativity" such as sadness, anger, loneliness, jealousy, resentment, boredom, or grief, why not embrace those genuine inner feelings? Why pretend they don't exist or act as if everything is perfectly fine?

When a gap exists between what we really feel and what we think we should feel, eating disorders and other addictive behaviors will often rush in to fill that gap.

Sometimes it is hunger from the heart and not the stomach that is speaking to us. Only when we fully own ALL our feelings — negative along with positive — can we hopefully find self-acceptance and peace from emotional eating.

What to do about your feelings of negativity?:
· Name them
· Claim them
· Don't blame them
· Re-frame them to find solutions to make yourself feel better

A client of mine — we'll call her Laura — told me a story from her childhood that illustrates the value of embracing your negative feelings. Laura has had a significant eating disorder of bulimia — eating and then throwing up or what I call eating and then rejecting her food. She never let herself digest her food just as she never learned to digest her emotions.

Here is Laura's backstory: "When I was a kid and would come home from school in a bad mood, my mother would say, 'Go back outside, and only come back into the house when you're done with your bad mood.' " So Laura would turn around and go back out to obey her mother's bidding.

I asked her, "So what does a kid learn when her mother says that?"

Laura said, "I learned I shouldn't be in a bad mood. I felt ashamed of my negative feelings — that I should just get over them." She didn't know it was normal to have "negative" emotions, and so she never learned to feel, process, and digest them. Learning to swallow her negative feelings became a way of life for Laura.

So why wouldn't a mother just embrace her child when that child comes home from school in a bad mood? Why wouldn't a mother say, "You look like you're in a bad mood. Did something happen? Tell me about it."

The answer became complicated and somewhat heart breaking when Laura explained her mother's own history. Laura's mother, Sherry, grew up on an army base and as a child moved around to many different military bases nationally and overseas. Sherry was constantly uprooted — the rug was always being pulled out from under her as she was forced to leave her friends behind, her neighborhood, her school. When Sherry complained and cried to her family, they refused to hear her distress and reminded her that Dad was making these sacrifices for the family and also for our country. Sherry was left feeling like a selfish little girl. Sherry's family stifled her negative feelings, and she passed on the same shutting down of "bad" feelings to her daughter Laura. If the family could have acknowledged and empathically responded, "It really is tough to have to move again. We know how much you like it here. It's hard on us too, but let's just talk about it as a family," then Sherry would not have felt shame about her angry emotions. Shame about feelings can get passed down from one generation to the next. And now Sherry's daughter, Laura, was learning to shut down her feelings as well.

When we cannot express the full range of what we feel — the good, the bad, the ugly, the indifferent — we have to find another means of expression and discharge. Emotional eating and other addictive behaviors can be one such avenue where binging, purging, or starving becomes the way to numb, avoid, swallow down "dangerous" negative feelings. Emotional eating helps to divert, detour, and distract us from what we're really feeling.

Princess Diana described her bulimia as a "symptom of what was going on in my marriage." What if Diana had been able to face her anger more directly? What if she had enough support to use the power of her words to confront Charles about his infidelity and about the hurtful treatment by the Royal Family. We need to think about all eating disorders as a silent language — and often a language of protest. We recruit our bodies to purge, gorge, or starve our inner anguished emotions. Perhaps every time we deny our hurt and assume a stiff upper lip, like Princess Diana, it's an attempt to counteract the secret trembling lower lip.

Another example from my practice: Michelle is a binge eater. Michelle's mother Emma is the child of Holocaust survivors and learned early on that there is no justification for complaints or protests of any kind because nothing could compare to the atrocity of the Holocaust. Emma's role was to be good, to make up for her parents' sacrifices during the War. Any negativity that Emma expressed was viewed as being ungrateful. Of course, Emma would then learn to handle her own child's feelings in a similar manner. And her daughter Michelle learned that pleasing her parents was paramount. Her frustration and simmering rage at being stifled erupted in her large bingeing episodes.

Of course not being allowed to express negative feelings is not the only cause of eating disorders. So many other factors are in play:
· heredity
· the vicious cycle of dieting and food restriction
· the cultural messages that idealize thinness and appearance
· depression, anxiety, OCD, trauma, PTSD
· grief
· our culture's weight stigma and body shaming

But burying one's negativity is an often overlooked factor that leads people to turn to food or even away from food as a creative solution for venting unexpressed feelings.

Here are some songs and sayings we all grew up with that speak to our culture's discomfort with negative feelings:
· Smile though your heart is breaking
· Whenever you feel afraid just whistle a happy tune
· Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don't mess with Mr. In Between
· When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark
· Big Girls Don't Cry
· Don't Worry, Be Happy
· Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone

Maybe at this current time of Holidays plus Pandemic, the best song is the Beatles' "Let it Be" because it doesn't tell us how we should feel — it just reminds us that "it is what it is!"

My husband and I learned to embrace our negative feelings one snowy day at JFK Airport. On our way to the airport for a trip to the Caribbean, everything was going wrong — dangerous icy weather, delayed traffic and, when we finally got to the airport, it was chaotic and crowded with couples and families fighting with one another. I was getting more agitated by the minute. My husband turns to me and says, "Absolutely nothing has gone right this morning. Let's count everything that has gone WRONG today so far!" And he turned it into a game! While other couples were bickering and airport staff was yelling at customers, Michael and I were laughing as we enumerated everything that had gone wrong. Rather than just sucking it up and inwardly hating our life and each other, we joined together in our shared misery. This reminds me of Charlie Chaplin's line, "To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it."

Lily Tomlin, the comedian, declared that God gave humans the gift of language so we could complain!

Holidays often bring up feelings of deprivation — we don't have the ideal family, we don't weigh what we want or look "perfect." Add a Pandemic and we have a lot to cry about.

Let's acknowledge our grief and losses and cry and complain if we need to. Bad, angry, difficult feelings WILL PASS whether or not we binge, purge, or starve.

Pumpkin pie will then just simply be pumpkin pie rather than a mood altering drug with the power to help you stuff down your negative feelings!

Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, is Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders. Her third book, Treating the Eating Disorder Self: A Comprehensive Model for the Social Work Therapist, was recently published by The National Association of Social Work Press. You can visit Mary Anne at EmotionalEating.Org

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