The following article is an excerpt from Anna Palmer’s book, Coming Home: Healing From an Eating Disorder by Finding Beauty in Imperfection. May the words here grant you deeper permission to come home to the fullness of yourself, humanness, divinity, and all. Welcome home.
Chapter 11. The Seat of Addiction: Trauma, Emotions, and the “I AM Not Enough” Club
Emotions are an integral part of being human. When we are children, emotions are natural expressions of our needs. They are an instinctual way of communicating our needs to ourselves and to others.
Emotions, in their essence, are feedback to you (the receiver) of the thoughts you might be circulating in your brain, of where your attention is, or of how your environment or others are impacting you. Emotions are a means to communicate to the self through a feedback loop.
We have mistakenly been told to believe that emotions are weak. We come to believe that if we show how we are really feeling, others may view us as weak, too sensitive, or fragile.
As children, emotions are our first language. Somewhere along the way, through the societal conditioning process, we are taught that certain feelings are safe and acceptable, while others are not. We learn that negative emotions are something to be avoided. We learn to hide our true feelings when perhaps they do not match the ones accepted by our families or by society.
Trauma is a key factor in how we learn how to feel or not feel. Through trauma and our conditioned shame, emotions begin to feel less and less safe to feel. We find strength in not feeling the pain underneath the trauma. We are encouraged by society, in fact, not to cry, to be strong. We are urged to be “tough,” whatever that means, and just deal with it.
To compensate for this self-denial, we stuff, deny, hide, or suppress our emotional nature. We suppress our natural, fluid way of being. This isn’t to say we should display all feelings at all times and to others, but this does mean we can learn a more natural way again of expressing and allowing these feelings to be seen, heard, and allowed by ourselves first and foremost.
To be human is to experience emotion, no matter how painful the emotions may be. As souls, we came here to experience the whole spectrum of emotion: pain, sadness, loss, grief, anger, as well as joy, love, gratitude, peace, excitement, wonder, compassion, empathy, and connection.
Trauma convinces us we are not safe to feel anymore. Our reactions to trauma are so damn valid and wise. It is scary to feel the pain, anger, grief, and utter anguish that accompany painful life experiences. We are only trying to protect ourselves, but in the end, not feeling perpetuates an addictive cycle. So, we need to start small (and, of course, work with a trusted therapist as needed) to begin to feel the feelings hidden underneath the addictive cycle.
On top of the trauma lens, happiness is sold to us by society. We spend so much of our lives trying so damn hard to feel some elusive state of “happiness” that we miss all the other emotions in the process, or we try to ignore, stuff, or deny the seemingly less than or negative ones. If we feeling anything but happy, we believe something is wrong with us. We shame and judge ourselves for having less than positive or always-perky emotions.
Commercial advertising perpetuates this lie even further. We are told that happiness is a state we need to reach to live a meaningful life. And, it can only ever be reached when we have all the “things” one is supposed to have to be happy, such as money, status, success, the perfect body type, a partner, a family, etc.
There is not much room in this boxed-in belief system for being happy for no reason. We miss out on spontaneous feelings of joy for the mere fact that we are alive and breathing. Some of us (with our trauma brains) even run away from the more foreign feeling of joy, thinking we are undeserving of it, or that if we allow ourselves to feel it, we will get hurt again.
These are the trauma tapes playing in our nervous systems, not just around experiencing pain, but also joy. Emotions become a scary thing to feel in general. We become so used to not feeling, that feeling anything we haven’t concocted from an artificial thing or substance (i.e. addiction) feels odd and foreign at first.
We are sold the idea that happiness comes from something outside of us. A need to be different or for things to be different perpetuates this poison in our mind. From fear, lack of feeling safe, and from stored trauma on replay, we believe these things to be true:
“I am not enough.”
“Who and what am I right now is somehow flawed and lacking.”
We believe something is missing. We feel we are lacking something, if we could just find it, whatever it is. We search endlessly in people, things, and substances for the missing “it.”
So, we try to find the filler. We seek out weight loss, a toned butt and abs, a new house or car, a higher paying job at the expense of our mental health, a romantic partner, anything to fill this hole we feel inside. We live out our lives like a hole to be filled, instead of a whole person.
But the lacking and craving mind always finds something wrong or missing no matter how full our lives become. We become addicted to the craving and satiating of that craving. When the addiction isn’t satisfied or in the time frame desired, we become increasingly frustrated, agitated, and irritable.
Consumerism culture perpetuates this addictive seeking mentality. We are sold the idea that we aren’t enough, just as we are. Consumer products and advertising convince us that “they” have what it is we need to feel okay, even if only momentarily. Advertising perpetuates the idea that happiness and love exist somewhere far into the future, and it is only found in a consumer product. And, this happiness is bent on a place of lack. Plus, you can only know happiness or love if you give up your present sanity to get to some non-existent place in the future.
We all know this familiar script. We all have been told this. We have all been told something is wrong with us.
I know I received all of the following messages:
Emotions are wrong.
Only some feelings are acceptable.
Deal with your feelings yourself.
Feeling is weak.
You need to be different.
You will never be enough.
You might be enough if you try a little harder.
Happiness and love are found in a thinner body.
The body you have right now is why you are unhappy.
The only loveable version of you is the starving, self-depriving one.
You are only worthy of love if you….fill in the blank.
Enter the world of addictions (Eating Disorders being a various shade of that). Addictions are an attempt to fill that empty hole, craving, or feeling with a behavior or substance, such as sex, alcohol, drugs, social media, food, diets or rules, exercise, and shopping, among many more.
“Addiction is only a symptom, it’s not the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is trauma,” says Gabor Maté, MD, author of the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.
Trauma, more often than not, is the driving force behind many addictions. Trauma results in painful feelings of abandonment, neglect, abuse, mistreatment, and harm. We have all been traumatized to varying levels. Through traumatic or painful experiences, we learn how safe it is for us to feel or not feel. We learn how safe we are to exist in the world as we are.
Addictions enter the picture to soothe the pain, fill in the hole of loss, or numb over the intense feelings ensued by traumatic experiences. We are mostly addicted to not feeling, more so than we are addicted to the substance or behavior itself. The debris of trauma is overwhelming to navigate. Addictions become the survival mechanisms we use to feel safe in an otherwise unsafe situation.
Addictions are a maladaptive (but survival) response to life’s traumas and pains. They aren’t wrong, and neither are we for using these behaviors or substances. We can, of course, begin to see that there are underlying feelings we are avoiding facing by staying focused on the symptom-management and also by staying stuck in the addictive cycle. We need to offer ourselves huge amounts of compassion and grace when we stay stuck in addictive cycles, and we can also advocate for the Self to begin to heal.
Read part one of this series: Coming Home: On Healing from an Eating Disorder.
Read part two of this series: How Eating Disorders are a way of Coping with Emotions & the Effects of Traumatic Events.
Read part three of this series: Hello Bulimia, My Secret Friend: When Food Becomes Survival & the Body the Enemy.
Read part four of this series: The Real Toxin: The Harm of our Fat-Phobic Culture.
Read part five of this series: How Eating Disorders Feed on the Insecure Self.
Read part six of this series: What Sparked my Healing Journey from an Eating Disorder.
Read part seven of this series: The Dark Side of Religion: On Religious Trauma & Body Shame.
Read part eight of this series: When Lines Blur: Journey into the Heart of an Empath.
Read part nine of this series: Spiritual Bypassing Won’t Heal You—but This Will.
Read part ten of this series: Shadow Work, the Unintegrated Ego & How to Reclaim our Wholeness.