“I can’t believe I ate the entire box of cookies again,” laments my wellness-coaching client Dianna. “Why do I keep sabotaging myself?” she asks with growing hopelessness and bewilderment.
If you can relate to Dianna’s situation, you are not alone. In fact, you are entirely too normal—one of millions of Americans struggling to move toward well-being in a society ripe with the conditions for ill-being. We know the cycle well: In the face of our most sincere intentions to take care of ourselves, we succumb to destructive habits, followed by a downward spiral of desperation and self-sabotaging thoughts.
What is at the root of this debilitating cycle?
While our industrialized food supply, our sedentary lifestyles, and the daily stresses of modernity present obvious challenges to well-being, a much deeper and more insidious challenge lies in the American cultural script that we “should” be happy. If we are not happy, then something must be “wrong” with us. Yet, echoed throughout the ages in Western and Eastern philosophy is a deep appreciation for the full spectrum of human emotion. Consider the concept of Greek tragedy, a form of entertainment specifically designed to bring individuals together around human suffering to invoke group catharsis. Or consider compassion meditation in the Buddhist tradition, a practice designed to open one’s heart to the unavoidable suffering and impermanence of life.
Today, in a society that fears painful emotions like a sickness, instead of reaching out for shared understanding and sacred ritual when we feel sad, alone, or insecure, we isolate in shame (“I shouldn’t feel this”) and numb ourselves with food, alcohol, and online shopping—anything to dull the pain of feeling what we feel. Dr. Brené Brown, a leading researcher on shame, highlights that Americans are the most obese, depressed, medicated, in-debt cohort ever to go through history, because we do not know how to honor the ups and downs of our emotional life and reach out to tell our stories.
After a number of coaching sessions, Dianna came to realize that at the heart of her midnight-cookie snacking was not personal weakness but a deep sorrow that needed soothing. “When I get home at the end of a long day to find my empty apartment, I feel so alone. The cookies take the edge off.”
The most rewarding aspect of my role as a wellness coach is seeing the relief of clients, like Dianna, when they come to realize that their feelings of loneliness and angst are perfectly normal, a natural part of the shared human experience, and the birthplace of what we really do want for ourselves. For only in learning to turn toward our painful emotions can we respond to them with kindness and love.
As the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers so eloquently states, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Follow the cues of Rogers, and gather the courage to explore your bad habits and honor the ups and downs of your emotional experience
- Stop to observe. Recognize and allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling. What emotions are moving through you? Where are the emotions in your body? Hold whatever is unfolding with compassionate awareness.
- Investigate with kindness. What story are you telling yourself? Comfort any feelings of sadness, disconnection, or pain with tender words. Turn toward yourself the way you would turn toward a good friend.
- Narrate your story. Are you talking about how you feel and asking for support? Reach out to a friend, family member, coach, or support person who can hold your story. Know that you are not alone. Connection is born when we let ourselves be seen.