Last week kicked off the holiday season with our celebration of Thanks. I love the simplicity of Thanksgiving – gather with family, friends, or neighbors to celebrate what we are grateful for and share good food. However, the irony of this day of thanks followed by the biggest shopping day on the American calendar is not lost on me, nor is the fact that we spend the rest of the holiday season focused on what we don’t have or what others don’t have (the latter to guide our giving). It seems that despite our gratitude for what we have, somehow there is never enough of something.
I am reminded of Brene Brown’s gem of a book The Gifts of Imperfection in which she writes about cultivating a gratitude practice to counter our feelings of scarcity. She points out ways that we buy into the myth of scarcity, often subconsciously. In our society, despite abundant resources relative to other parts of the world or other times in human history, many of us focus on the ways we don’t have enough, can’t get enough, or just are not enough.
We don’t get enough sleep, exercise, recognition for our hard work, or vegetables (couldn’t resist). We don’t have enough time, power, love, or money. We aren’t attractive, thin, fit, smart, or rich enough. These everyday thoughts and feelings of lacking something (or lots of things) keep us searching, both consciously and unconsciously to fill a void, real and imagined.
The reality is, many of these things may be true, at least on the surface. We may not have enough money to pay all of our bills on time or to buy the perfect gift for a loved one, and it’s no secret that lots of Americans are sleep-deprived. But the continued focus on what we lack in every aspect of our lives is not helpful, even if it is true.
Balancing thoughts of what we lack with thoughts of what we have, and more importantly what we are grateful for in ourselves and in others, may help us fill this void. No, positive thoughts don’t directly pay our bills and this isn’t some hippie notion like “love will conquer all” (though love is a great start). In fact ignoring discomfort leads to a host of issues beyond the scope of this blog post. But unless we take a closer look at what we actually have, it is difficult to accurately assess what we really need.
So how does all of this relate to nutrition? Well, it turns out that one of the ways many of us try to “fill” this inner void is by eating (or not eating – food restriction is another way to numb, distract or ignore emotional pain and discomfort).
Now Brene Brown and others who write about perceived scarcity and the benefits of cultivating a gratitude practice don’t frame this practice specifically as a way to address emotional eating (compulsive overeating, binge eating, or eating when feeling any number of emotions and not physically hungry). But I wonder what could happen if we try to focus daily on what we are grateful for, even in some small way. I understand the challenge of starting something new during the insanely busy holiday season but I don’t think this needs to be super time-consuming or complicated (see below for ideas).
I also realize this is an emotionally difficult time of year for many of us who have experienced losses. Though it has been nearly 20 years since my Dad died, his love of all things Christmas still makes me sad at random times throughout this season. It is clear to me though, focusing on the loss and sadness isn’t helpful anymore. However, focusing on how grateful I am for my memories of Dad, even if they make me feel sad, is intriguing to me. Will this somehow help mindless munching I do while not conscious that I am feel an emptiness? I don’t know but I think it’s worth a try.
It does occur to me however, that it may be better to not immediately try to counter feelings of sadness, emptiness, or other emotional discomfort with thoughts about gratitude since the idea is not to invalidate our feelings. I think it may be better to set aside a time to practice gratitude, and to allow thoughts of gratitude to naturally surface at other times but perhaps pay slightly more attention to these thoughts. Say them out loud or share them with someone close to you.
Perhaps if we all try to notice when we are falling into thoughts and feelings of scarcity, and acknowledge what we are grateful for more consistently and consciously, we may not feel a need to fill ourselves with food when what we need or want has nothing to do with food.
So let’s try an informal cultural experiment. If you struggle with any variety of emotional eating, try to somehow incorporate a gratitude practice for even a few minutes each day and see what happens. If you want to, you can come back to this post and let us know how the experiment went for you or you can email me privately (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Here are some ideas from people who practice gratitude:
- Start a gratitude journal – each morning or evening write down at least one thing you are grateful for. Doesn’t need to be fancy, a small memo pad works just fine.
- Create a gratitude jar in which you write thoughts related to gratitude that come up throughout your day on little pieces of paper and put the pieces of paper in the jar.
- Begin shared meals with each person at the table sharing something they are grateful for.
- Use prayer or meditation to reflect on what makes you feel gratitude.
Meanwhile, I am grateful for all of you who read my ramblings. I hope the holiday season is off to a good start for all of you and that you know – you are enough in all of the ways that matter.
Here is a lovely 6 minute video with a Gratitude theme by cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nj2ofrX7jAk