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Free From versus Free To: A Perspective Shift on Freedom

By Rebecca Johnson

happy attractive young girl with her hands upIn a previous post, I talked about freedom from diets. Mindfulness also offers another kind of freedom: liberation from feeling trapped by your emotions.

Sometimes a single word can make all the difference. When addressing emotional triggers that can drive us to eat when we’re not hungry–or overeat once we start eating–changing the word “from” to “to” opens the door to new possibilities. If you choose to meet your true needs rather than eat, you essentially have two options: you can try to be free from your emotions temporarily or you can allow yourself to be free to experience them. While it may seem subtle, it can make all the difference.

When you recognize that an emotional trigger such as anger, anxiety, sadness, or overwhelm is driving an urge to eat, the work of trying to free yourself from the trigger may start with the perspective that your emotional state is bad, threatening, or otherwise negative. This perspective is closely linked to the idea that your emotional state needs to be “fixed” or changed to avoid responding by eating or overeating. This leads to problem-solving mode: what actions or strategies will decrease the intensity of the emotion (talking with a close friend, journaling, taking a walk, etc.).

While problem-solving and “doing” strategies have their place in developing more effective coping mechanisms and habits, there are unintended consequences from this approach.

First, our perception of certain emotions as bad or threatening and the belief that we need to get rid of them actually keeps them in a place of power. (This is similar to the way you might allow certain foods to have power over you by attaching labels and beliefs to them such as “bad”, “tempting” or “I can’t control myself around this food”.) As long as we allow our emotions to be in a place of power, we’ll have to continue to “battle” with the triggers every time they arise. In other words, you may get yourself free from an emotional trigger for now… but what about the next time it returns?

In addition, trying to be free from emotions that might trigger unwanted behaviors rather than mindfully experiencing them may actually strip of us the potential to discover valuable information our emotions can give us about ourselves and our lives. We may be passing up an opportunity to discover needs, strength, skills, or courage we didn’t know we had.

If you allow yourself to be free to experience emotions without resistance, you essentially strip them of the power they might otherwise have to drive your behavior without your permission. You can observe your emotions non-judgmentally and accept them in a gentle, loving way. You avoid labeling even very uncomfortable emotions as “bad” or “threatening,” and stop trying to “fix” them. Instead of doing something to respond to your emotions, you allow yourself to simply be and co-exist with your emotional state, recognizing that it is only temporary and it will not harm you.

Here are a few steps to help you observe and accept your emotions:

  • Everything is temporary, including emotions.
  • Even uncomfortable or painful emotions have no power to harm you; only your responses can do that when you choose to respond in a self-defeating way.
  • Your thoughts and feelings are not YOU; they are simply an experience you are having. You do not have to identify with them.
  • Running, resisting, or stuffing uncomfortable feelings may provide temporary relief, but they’ll continue to return until you’ve allowed them to freely pass.
  • Since it isn’t possible to stop thoughts and feelings for very long, picture them as clouds rolling by, allowing them to pass over you without getting “stuck” in them.

Often times, accepting uncomfortable emotions and experiencing them mindfully relieves the urge to eat or overeat without further action. It may also lead to greater insight and strength that can be valuable in other areas of your life.

Being free to experience is one of the many valuable lessons we learn through the practice of mindfulness and through the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program. Perhaps Jon Kabat-Zin said it best in Wherever You Go, There You Are:

“[Mindfulness] literally allows us to see more clearly, and therefore come to understand more deeply, areas of our lives that we were out of touch with or unwilling to look at. This may include encountering deep emotions – such as grief, sadness, woundedness, anger, and fear – that we might not ordinarily allow ourselves to hold in awareness or express consciously. It is liberating in that it leads to new ways of being in our own skin and in the world, which can free of us from the ruts we so often fall into. It is empowering as well, because paying attention in this way opens channels to deep reservoirs of creativity, intelligence, imagination, clarity, determination, choice and wisdom within us.”

 

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of experience in diverse roles. She is a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Facilitator and Coach and advocates for the use of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the workplace. Rebecca also serves as a consultant for organizations ready to leverage the power of organizational development and employee wellbeing to create truly thriving cultures.

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