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Don’t swallow it!

Don’t swallow it!

I think we have determined by now that the deeper issue for many of us is not what and when we eat, but rather why we eat. I have learned from experience that when we suppress the words we long to utter and deny the emotions we do not wish to face, we quite literally swallow ourselves. Instead of experiencing fullness after swallowing our words and emotions, we are left with a hollow feeling in our belly, prompting us to reach for food in an attempt to quell the emptiness churning within. Unfortunately for many of us, the pit inside is so deep, so hollow, and so painful that it takes enormous quantities of food to plumb its depths. This creates two problems. First, whatever we eat is not satisfying because the pit is too deep, leaving us with an insatiable hunger. Then, we become frustrated and frightened because we feel even hungrier trying to satisfy the churning hole in our gut. But are we trying to satisfy the thing that will bring us peace and comfort? To what exact pain are we applying our remedy?

Let me walk you through a simple scenario that all of us can easily relate to. Let’s all take a moment and think of a person in our lives who creates a little bit of angst for us. This is usually someone with whom we must interact in some way; we might even love the person very much. He or she might be a family member, friend, client, coworker, boss, husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. To outsiders, your relationship might very well look happy and healthy, but in your heart, you know the truth. You know that when you are with this person you can’t breathe normally. Nothing overt ever really happens, but there is something about this person that merely seeing her name pop up on the caller ID causes your insides to cramp up, or your breath to catch in your throat. You don’t want to pick up, not because you don’t like or want to speak with her; it’s something entirely different. Most of the time you can’t put your finger on why you feel this way. You think you’re being silly, but you still don’t really want to pick up that phone. Why?

I might make it clearer if I give you an example: I have had many clients who have been in uncomfortable relationships with relatives, and yes, Virginia, there is the stereotypical mother-in-law standoff! Suffice it to say that there are many relationships that are sometimes challenging. Since we don’t want to be rude when something comes up that could make waves, we just kind of bite our tongue and say nothing. For instance, when we opt for a cute and slightly different hairstyle, our “someone” will react with, “Wow! That’s different! What in the world were you thinking?” Or, perhaps your new babysitter spends an hour with your kids and helpfully suggests you put your pre-schooler on Ritalin. Or perhaps your closest friend makes an anti-Semitic comment in your Jewish presence!

Ah, the list goes on and on. Perhaps your neighbor throws you a left-handed compliment one Saturday morning. “Boy, I wish I were more like you. You don’t care how you look.” Or perhaps your best friend’s father gets the entire family’s attention and tells an off-color ethnic joke depicting your countrymen as hopeless simpletons. In any event, when things like this occur, you don’t say a word because that’s the polite thing to do, isn’t it? These remarks are made in an offhand manner and are usually couched as humorous observations, so it doesn’t seem right to be negative and say anything about them, does it? When I asked the client whose best friend made the anti-Semitic comment why she didn’t tell the friend that she was Jewish, my client simply replied, “I didn’t want to embarrass her.” Embarrass her? Are you serious? But, who am I to talk? I have swallowed my words a thousand times after one of these so-called benign or funny comments. I, too, have sat politely and said nothing while my stomach churned. Why do our bodies react like this? Simply because we don’t stand up: for ourselves, our children, our ethnicity. We sit there almost dumbfounded, not saying anything as we silently scream, “Did she really just say that?” We might even think of the perfect retort to utter just as casually as they uttered their insult, but it’s not in our nature; we don’t make off-color remarks that could hurt someone’s feelings.

So we say nothing. Sure, the first time it happens ignoring it is not a big deal, but when it becomes a habit, we begin to lose it a little. After years of holding back, something snaps, and all of the unkind remarks from the past bubble to the surface and we become angry. At first, it feels as if we are angry with them, but to be honest, aren’t we angry with ourselves? Don’t we wish we were able to stand up for ourselves and say, “Excuse me? Didn’t you know that I, your best friend, am Jewish?” Or, “Are you serious? You feel threatened by the energy of a three-year-old? Perhaps you should look elsewhere for work.” Or, “You don’t like my hair like this? Well, I love it, and that’s all that counts!

Don’t you wish you could sit down with someone you care about and tell him that the way he speaks to you seems insensitive? Don’t you wish you could suggest that perhaps he might try to take your feelings into consideration? I want you to think about these questions because until you finally stand up and stop the unkind words, you will never end the cycle of self-recrimination that occurs after you let the offensive behavior go unchecked. Unfortunately, once the self-loathing starts, the anger begins and “our” way of comforting ourselves is to eat, and eat until the anger, the pain, the knot in our belly subsides.

Do you think you can ever bring yourself to utter your words of truth? Let me tell you a secret: it’s not as hard as you think. The first time you confront someone you will feel as if you’re being petty and silly. The person might even diminish your words by saying, “Don’t be silly; you know I was only kidding.” But that’s just the point: it wasn’t funny to you, and she needs to understand that. If she cares about you, she will stop. See how simple it is? You don’t have to yell, or exchange insults. It doesn’t have to be a confrontational exchange; it’s just a conversation. If you don’t think you can face a conversation at first, write a letter. However you do it, the point is that you must start to speak your mind and not let anyone intimidate you to the point where you swallow your words. You have the right to be spoken to with respect and it’s okay to ensure that you enjoy that right. Just Lose It!

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