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  • Sara Mann

The Wheel of Feelings!

I’m an emotions stuffer. When I have an emotion I cannot stand it and all I want to do is find the best way to get rid of it as fast as possible. I always had this idea that being emotional or having emotions was bad. I never wanted to be labeled the “emotional girl,” and no one takes being called overly emotional as a compliment now-a-days.

I think another reason I stuff emotions is because when I shared any emotion I had with someone the response I would typically receive would be, “suck it up” or just “accept it and move on.” I would hear things like, “well you can’t change it so it’s not worth being upset about,” or “that’s really not that big of a deal, you’re being overly sensitive.” My feelings were constantly invalidated so I became unsure if I should feel the way I did and even felt scared to share how I felt about a lot of things. Eventually I realized I didn’t know what to do with my emotions and feelings or even how to really identify them because I was so busy trying to act like they didn’t exist and trying to get them to go away.

My eating disorder played a HUGE role in this. If I was upset about something, instead of figuring out how I was feeling and addressing it in a healthy way, I would run and run and run until I was numb. If I was stressed or anxious or angry I would restrict food and gain control of my calories and my body since I couldn’t seem to control my emotions or what caused them.

Part of the treatment process of recovering from anorexia is very intensive therapy. I remember at the beginning of treatment, sitting in a therapists office, being asked how I felt about something and my response held the emotional vocabulary of a two year old. I would say I was sad, or mad or hurt and that was it. I had no ability to truly identify the deeper source of my emotions. I either didn’t have the words or had lost the ability to slow down and figure out exactly how I felt. I would say I was sad about something, but deep down what I was actually feeling was inferior. I would be angry at someone, but the truth was I felt disrespected. I had been disconnected from my emotions and feelings for so long that I had basically forgotten how to identify them and connect with them.

It became truly crucial to my recovery for me to be able to reconnect with my emotions and be able to identify my feelings. This way I could/can address them and resolve them in healthy ways instead of restricting, counting, over exercising or sharing myself. It also helped me be able to practice self validation as well as make use of other really effective coping skills. When I know how I’m feeling I am able to separate emotions from facts, or as my therapist would say, separate the forest from the trees. I also learn to realize that maybe my emotions are causing me to have some serious thinking errors because I am not able to think clearly while still full of emotion. If I am able to identify my emotion and work through it and allow it instead of stuff it down, I can then think about a situation more clearly and address it or celebrate it more effectively.

In order for me to be able to reconnect with my emotions I had to learn how to first identify what my feelings/emotions even were. A person on my treatment team introduced me to The Feeling Wheel! This wheel was reported to be originally developed by Dr. Gloria Wilcox, but there are many out there of different variations. Below are two versions of the wheel that I use!

As you can see by looking at the two wheels, towards the middle there are some broad categories of feelings, and then those categories get broken down even more, and then even more still as you move out from the center. This helps you understand what feeling might be at the core of what you are feeling or what emotions might be underlying. When you can figure out what you are ACTUALLY feeling, you are able to either address it, accept it, share it, make peace with it etc.

I’ll give you an example of how this wheel has helped me even this past week! The other day I found out that I need to go to a new doctor and I’m going to be getting more testing, as well as working with a new medical team to get to the bottom of why I am swelling. All I know is I couldn’t stop crying. I was really emotional. My husband and dietician kept asking me how I was feeling and all I knew was that I was upset and I didn’t know why. When I was able to calm down a little I looked at my feelings wheel and I realized I was wasn't sad, I was actually feeling a bit fearful. If I broke it down even more I was feeling anxious and scared and when I broke it down even more I knew that I was feeling helpless, frightened, worried and overwhelmed. Instead of just crying and feeling bad, I was able to identify that I was actually worried about meeting with new doctors. I was overwhelmed by the questions they had and frightened by some of the words I was hearing. I also felt completely helpless. I had done damage to my body that I had no understanding of or ability to change on my own and I am now dependent on these strangers to figure it out and pray to God that it doesn’t mean my life is at risk or I'm stuck this way.

Once I understood how I was feeling I was able to communicate it appropriately to the people who were trying to support me, I was able to offer myself compassion because it IS really scary and overwhelming and I was able to allow myself to feel those feelings instead of staying on the hamster wheel of feeling bad and trying to deal with it in unproductive ways. I was able to challenge my thoughts around my feelings (not my feelings, the thoughts around my feelings) and slow myself down enough to deal with the anxiety that was coming up.

The Feeling Wheel is SO useful. Not only with feelings of anger and sadness but also of joy and happiness. While suffering from an eating disorder there are very rare moments where I ever felt true joy. I remember at one of my first support group nights I was asked what I would love to feel again and my answer was joy. Eating disorders rob us of confidence, self respect, value and intimacy. We lose the ability to feel these things or celebrate them. As I recover it has been important to identify when I am feeling these things again! This way, I can continue to do these things in order to fight against my ED thoughts.

For example, when I go hiking and I finally get to the top of the mountain, I know that I feel happy, but if I look at the wheel I realize that I actually feel free and courageous! When I hang out with my nieces and nephews and I can’t stop smiling and laughing, its not just peace I feel, it’s thankfulness. When I write my blog and press the publish button, sure I feel happy, but deep down I actually feel inspired, confident, successful and hopeful.

There are SO many feelings out there and I truly believe they are a gift from God. Feelings are never right or wrong. They just are. They can feel good and sometimes they can feel really terrible. We do ourselves a disservice when we start to judge our feelings and others feelings by placing labels of right or wrong on them. Feelings prompt action or tell us that something needs our attention. They let us know when something is right or when something is very wrong. Feelings also can teach us a lot about ourselves. If I'm watching a movie and all of a sudden I start getting emotional, I am clearly connecting with something that is going on! What is it? What am I learning? They also help us to communicate more effectively in relationships. If someone hurt my feelings it is far more effective to let them know exactly how I'm feeling in order to mend the relationship. Instead of saying, "You made me feel bad," we can say things like, "When you said that in front of those people I felt embarrassed." Now the other person can address exactly how you felt instead of feeling lost because they don't understand.

I think understanding and identifying my emotions has helped me navigate life and relationships SO much better. I know for certain it has helped me take a few giant steps forward in my recovery! I keep a photo of The Feelings Wheel on my phone and refer to it whenever I can't figure out how I'm truly feeling about something. I encourage you to do it too! Let's stop stuffing our feelings down and trying to avoid them and instead identify them, acknowledge them and accept them! I hope the Feelings Wheel helps you as much as it has me!


- Sara -

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