Healing Negative Emotions

First, the Bad News

We have a love/hate relationship with our emotions. We love them when we’re happy, excited, or feeling loved. We hate them when we’re mad at ourselves, or we’re feeling rejected or lonely. Those negative emotions are what bring people to my office. (I’ve never had to treat someone who was just too happy.) It’s usually after people have done their darndest to numb, out run, deny, or distract themselves from unpleasant feelings that they reach out for help.  By then, most are suffering the collateral damages of strained relationships, addictions, or feelings of self-condemnation. That’s because:

Emotions buried alive never die.

When ignored, our emotions clamor for even more attention. We’ve all had that moment when the resentment or anger we thought we’d buried suddenly overtakes us with a vengeance. We hadn’t meant to react so strongly. But some invisible button got pushed and we got hijacked. Suddenly anger or grief or shame took us over.

If we don’t take charge of our emotions, our emotions take charge of us.

There is an effective way to address painful emotions that you can do in the comfort of your own home.  You don’t need anyone else’s help for it. It’s a practice that evolved as I worked through my own feelings of hopelessness after my divorce 15 years ago. My life has been completely remade since then. I credit my part of it to this daily practice, which strengthens my determination, and opens me to new possibilities for a fulfilling life.

What could really help with our life challenges, soothe our  temperament, heal inner wounds and create goodness in the areas we lack?

By combining the therapeutic practice of Mindfulness with a prayerful Spiritual meditation you can convert negative emotions into beneficial traits that become stepping stones into a better future. This experience has five parts but there is no need to do all five every day. Do as much as your time allows or as you feel led. The practice as a whole meets the three basic needs we experience every day.

Three basic human needs: Safety, Satisfaction, and Connection.

I’ll briefly give an overview of the meditation in this blog and go more into detail later. Here’s a very condensed outline of all five stages.

1.     The practice begins with “Here I Am.” You identify the emotions you’re most aware of while being still and sitting in God’s loving presence. What we hold back, holds us back. 

2.     The second stage is “Here You Are.” You transfer your focus to God, observe and appreciate the loving characteristics of his nature and allow these to sink in (and rub off on you!).

3.     In stage three you focus on your relationship with God, characterized by the phrase “I Love You.” The unique part of Christian meditation is that it focuses on being in a relationship with God. The main point of Christianity is not self-improvement, or even changing the world, but intimate union with the One who knows you best and loves you most. As you absorb that everlasting love, you learn to live in union with it and grow into your true identity.

4.     The remaining two stages focus on developing that intimacy between you and God. Stage four’s phrase is: “I Can’t but You Can.” During this part of the meditation you focus on being perfectly accepted for who you are, acknowledge your limitations, surrender any illusions of control, and take advantage of the divine grace needed for that day.

It's in your undoing that you find your way back to whole-hearted living.

5.     Finally, during stage five you ask “What Is on Your Heart Today?” Because God really does want to speak to us and delights in the ways we reflect his life to our world. We find our deepest satisfaction by ordering our lives around his plans for us. The relationship you develop with Him becomes your inspired path to a new life.

So stay tuned as I go into depth about how this practice can help you dislodge  negative, painful, or harmful emotions and recover a sense of feeling cared about and loved. 


Questions You Can Ask to Get your Life Unstuck

As part of a client’s therapy, I always ask him/her, “What do you hope to accomplish with our time together?” Kudos to the recent client who answered, “I want to stop feeling so afraid all the time,” Wouldn’t we all? We may couch it in softer terms and say we’re worried, anxious, restless, or stressed, but at the core it says the same thing: “We’re afraid.”

When my 20-year marriage fell apart, I felt overwhelmed with anxiety. Where would I live? How would I support myself? What else could go wrong? I was sure that if I found answers to my questions I’d stop fearing that any minute the sky would fall.

·       Why did this happen to me?

·       Who is to blame?

·       What went wrong?

·       When will I feel better again?

 We try to fix our pain with certainty, as if relief is just one right answer away.  We think, if we only knew the answers, then we could get our life together and move on. Like a song stuck on auto-repeat our minds go over and over the never never-ending loop.

·       People who binge eat want to know: “Why is it I can succeed in every area of my life but still not be able to control my weight?”

·       Clients getting divorced ask: “Why do I have to go through this when it seems so unfair?”

·       New retirees, wonder in disgust: “Why haven’t I figured this out by now?”

What we really want is to stop feeling afraid of life’s difficulties. We want to feel comforted when we’re sad and hopeful about good things to come.  We want to enjoy the company of those who embrace us and to live the purpose God designed us for.  We want to love and be loved. And we want to get unstuck so we can experience this!

Underneath our demand to know why our life is the way it is, lurks the faulty belief: We should be better than this. Life should be better than this. The problem is: It's not. We're not. So we stay stuck. Until we start there, we might as well chase the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Once we accept: It is what it is; I am who I am, we begin to ask the questions that can lead us forward.  

In John chapter 14, after telling his disciples about his upcoming death, Jesus anticipates their fears and says: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Control is not the answer. What we need is Peace. Shalom: The absence of fear and anxiety. Peace changes everything. By trusting that God is good and still in control, no matter what life brings, we can ask completely different questions. 

·       What if I didn’t have to figure this out but only had to trust and obey?

  • What if I only had to do the next right thing?

·       What if everything really IS working together for my good?

  • How does that change my interpretation?

·       What if God wants to use me for a new purpose?

  • How can I step out in faith to find out?

Do you feel the difference? Seeking answers to these questions starts us on a new adventure to a bigger, more spacious life than the one we’d been living. The questions that get us unstuck are the ones that lead us to letting go of our fearful grasping for control and direct us to discover what God may be inviting us to.  

I don’t know any other way to get there apart from trusting God.  I know that doesn’t sound very “counselorish”, but it’s the only therapy that works. When we trust, allow, even delight in, the loving presence of God in our lives, anxieties cease. The inner storm is calmed. We can finally relax enough to move forward.

It begins by trusting that God’s plan is better than our own. Our lives are in his hands. He cannot fail us. We progress by LIVING THE NEW QUESTIONS in anticipation of what God can do with a life surrendered to him.  We step out in faith not because we know the answers, but because we hear God's prompt:  "Go ahead. I've got this covered."

Stop Believing Everything You Tell Yourself

The older I get, the more finely tuned my BS meter becomes. That’s a good thing for a counselor. I’ve learned to question it when someone tells me they aren’t drinking any more or that the bruises they’ve received were from an accident.  I trust my gut to look for supporting evidence.


But the biggest lies I can still believe are actually the ones I tell myself.  They’re the source of much self-constructed suffering. A few weeks ago I hurt my knee one Saturday morning while enjoying a brisk walk with my husband. I spent the majority of that weekend on the couch with my leg up icing it and resting. My husband left one afternoon to catch up on some work. After a couple hours, I was feeling pretty bored and lonely. So I decided to browse Facebook to see what my friends were up to. BIG MISTAKE. They were enjoying a European vacation, celebrating their child’s wedding, attending a beachside family reunion, eating like there was no tomorrow.


Suddenly what had been a knee problem became a heart issue. I concluded I had the most boring, unproductive, unsuccessful, most troubling life of everyone I knew. Now as a counselor, I know the phrase, “Compare and Despair.” I’ve USED it with plenty of clients, warning them of the dangers of comparing your own life to what you perceive as someone else’s reality.


The problem wasn’t what my friends were doing. They caused me no harm. Believing my own thoughts had led me down the slippery slope of self-pity.  I don’t need anyone else to make me unhappy. I can do that all by myself. My suffering was self-constructed. 


Most of the time we don’t question our thoughts. We act as if they’re telling us the truth. I’ve told myself the very words, I hear my clients say:


·      This shouldn’t be so hard.

·      I should have figured this out by now.

·      I should be doing better than this.

·      This is just who I am.


I once heard a famous psychiatrist say that his one most essential piece of advice for a happy life was “Don’t believe every stupid thought that enters your mind.” I get it. If we could only surrender what we think our life should be like and accept it for what it is, so much of our suffering would end.


By always trying to get somewhere else, or be like someone else, we miss enjoying where we’re at. And if we miss that, we miss enjoying our life.


In the midst of my self-pity I had to ask myself, “What am I believing that has made me feel this way?” See, I forget what I know is true. I think a lot of us do. So I have to remind myself of what I know:


·      I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. Why? Because it’s exactly

where I am, and that is always where God meets me.

·      This is a sacred moment in my Father-filtered life that God wants

 to use for good.

·      The worst things in my life God has turned into the best things, so I

no longer have to fear “the worst.”

·      This is exactly what I need to experience to surrender to God’s love

and care for me.


It’s so easy to forget that God is the source of our joy, not our circumstances. I have to bring that thought into my conscious awareness in order to counter the lies in my head. By allowing truth to sink in, even though life is hard, I end the self-imposed suffering.


Today my knee is on the mend, and so is my heart (until the next time, when I’ll have to repeat it all again.) I’m thankful for where I’m at.  Because the truth of this situation, and every situation in life, is that God is in it, whispering, “NOW will you let me love you?”


(Hi Friends: Thanks for visiting my site. I'm trying to figure out how to add reader's comments to these posts, but I'm almost as bad at technology as I am with driving directions, so I appreciate your patience. If you want to comment, you can always write me at: info@debbiecarsten.com. I'd love to read your feedback!)

10 Tips for Keeping Your Weight Off

So I was going to tell you about why "Sally's" habit of emotional eating was created, but then I decided, that it's more important to know your own story. (I'm just getting the hang of this blog thing.) So Let's skip to the end and look at how to keep weight off.

These are changes to aim for on the inside because if you want to permanently change what you DO, you have to change your WHO. By working on who you are, you naturally begin to do things differently. I hope there's something on this list that helps you.

1.     Want a better life for yourself enough to commit to not using food for emotional reasons. This will bring a lot of things to the surface, but getting support, staying committed to a plan, and seeing good results will encourage you to stay the course.

2.     When you find yourself acting solely to please someone else, catch yourself and realize you don’t have to be that person anymore. You can choose to comply or not. Think about your options and negotiate a decision that you feel satisfied with.

3.     To those people who treat you badly because of your size, find your voice. “Stop with your judgments.” “Stop with your pressuring me.”  “Don’t treat me like that.” (I’m sure you’ll think of something better.) It may not feel like you’re being nice, but you will be protecting what’s good.

4.     When you are tempted to emotionally eat, deal with the uncomfortable emotions.  First, just notice and identify them by name. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings. It’s normal to feel frustrated, or angry, or jealous so don’t think of negative emotions as something bad in you.  They’re just a warning light that indicates when it’s time to check under the hood. If something isn’t right, reach out for help to get it fixed.

5.     Lead with curiosity not condemnation. Get to know yourself. When emotions come up, just be curious, “I wonder why I feel this way?” “Is how I’m seeing it the way it really is, or have my feelings distorted the truth?” “Is there something I can change so I don’t have to feel this way any more?” “Is there another explanation that’s possible?”

6.     Become more active in physical activities and let your body’s natural endorphins give you those good feelings.

7.     When you notice yourself feeling fearful of regaining the weight you’ve lost, change your self-talk.  Practice doing it until you’re good at saying and believing, “I’m here to live my life. I’m here to stand by myself no matter what I look like or what I weigh.” Don’t abandon yourself when you aren’t perfect.

8.     Work on resolving the issues that kept you stuck and do it in a way that is  authentic to your true self. Get to know that true self. Try new things. Look for a purpose you could serve that you feel passionate about. Don’t think you can’t pursue a good life just because of your size.

9.     Make friends with people who love you for who you are, and who also enjoy living a healthy lifestyle.

10. Take time to reflect and feel good about yourself and the life you’ve created.  When you’ve worked hard to change, enjoy reaping the rewards. One of those is that going back to your old way of life just doesn’t appeal any more.  


How can I lose weight and keep it off?

Cracking the Code of Emotional Eating

For the past three years I’ve been privileged to work with hundreds of clients with binge eating disorder. (B.E.D.) To best serve them, I’ve read dozens of books about weight loss and eating disorders, and gone to professional seminars by trained clinicians. The insights offered here aren’t based on that kind of research, but on my personal observations made through one-on-one encounters with clients who overeat.

My typical client is middle-aged, with a BMI over 40 (obese). They have, or had, a stable career and family. Many have struggled with being overweight since childhood, going on and off every new diet and weight loss program available.  By the time they get to me, their weight has yo-yo’d up and down, sometimes by as much as 100 pounds. This, despite the fact that some have had bariatric surgery which, at one point, helped them lose the extra pounds.

My clients are intelligent—diet savvy, if you will. Most of them could give solid advice to someone else on how to lose weight. They understand calories and carbs and metabolism. I’ve learned a lot from them. They all have two things in common:

·      All of them carry weight-shame.

·      All of them want to LOSE WEIGHT AND KEEP IT OFF.

As I’ve listened to people’s stories, become familiar with their histories and helped them work to resolve their current struggles with food, I’ve looked for patterns, some kind of common thread that has gotten them to this point. In short, I’ve tried to crack the code on emotional eating. I wanted to find out:

·      How does emotional eating get started?

·      What keeps it going despite painful social and physical consequences?

·      Why can it be controlled temporarily but not permanently?

·      And why are so many of my obese clients such nice people?

It’s been my mission to answer these questions. I know as Americans we live in a culture that promotes overeating and I could say a lot about the external causes that set people up for weight re-gain. (Like all the commercials for food that have thin people ordering super-sized meals. Yeah, right.) But this is about the psychological reasons that drive it.

I’ll going to tell you what I’ve found to be a common pattern among those who regain their weight. To explain the etiology, I’ve made up a story. I’ll call it the story of little Sally. (There is no such person and yet, I’ve met hundreds of little Sallys.) Maybe if you’re overweight, parts of this story will resonate with you.


To read How Little Sally Became Big Sally, tune in to my next blog, Or better, yet, just subscribe, and you won’t miss a thing!



How can I move on when I don’t have any answers as to what went wrong and why?

That's one of the questions I hear a lot from clients. They hate their lives, but feel powerless to move on. When life comes crashing down, one of the first things we want to do is figure out who is responsible. We feel like we have no answers, only questions. What caused this? How did this happen to me?  What went wrong?  Could anything have been done differently? 

Our minds trick us into thinking that if we only had the answers, THEN we could get unstuck. But sometimes the truth we need isn’t at all what we’re aiming for. I was certain that I would never get beyond my divorce until after I had figured everything out. I obsessed on things like: 

    Uncovering what exactly went wrong

    Determining who was to blame

    Wondering what could have been done differently to change the outcome

    Looking for some “fatal flaw” in my character that may have been the cause

Do any of those sound familiar?  When my 20 year marriage unraveled I was desperate to know: Did I choose badly when I got married? Was I so needy or unloving that I drove my husband away? Was I a fool for believing in the permanency of marriage?

The truth is that the more we try to pursue answers to such questions, the more we exhaust ourselves and stay stuck. Like investigative reporters, our minds go over and over the who, what, why, and how of our failures, confident that if we can just make sense of why it happened and who is to blame, we’ll be able to move on. Let me save you months of searching fruitlessly: We can only move on by letting go of the desire to figure everything out.

That desire to figure it all out didn’t originate with you. Way back in the garden of Eden, when Eve was tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3:5, the Bible tells us, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Imagine knowing whom to blame, exactly what the problem was, and what should have been done differently. What woman wouldn’t want that?  With all that knowledge, Eve would be able to play God. (A tempting promotion, indeed!)

Of course, Satan had only told Eve half the truth. He didn’t mention that she’d also suffer alienation from God and Adam, and bring on loneliness, emptiness, sickness, and death. (Sin is never enticing when you know the whole truth.)  Instead of gaining freedom from her newfound knowledge, Eve became a captive in its trap. Satan tempts us the same way. Every time we try to gain our liberation by knowing who to blame, we become captives, too.

Blaming never liberates. It traps us into a negative mindset, focusing our attention and energy on what we’re against rather than what we’re for. I've never seen someone get better who was focused on blaming others for their troubles. That just makes them consumed with the problem, rather than the solution. Only righteousness can lead us in a positive direction forward. Consider Proverbs 11:6: “The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the unfaithful are trapped by evil desires.” Did you catch that? The "unfaithful." In other words, when we lack the faith to believe that despite whatever has happened, God still has a plan and is still working for our good, we're easy prey.

Here's one evil desires that gets to us all: The desire to get even—to want another person to hurt as much as he/she hurt you. Our gut reaction to being hurt is revenge. We want to lash out, to even the score. It wouldn't be a temptation if we didn't really want to do it. The problem is that retaliation only adds more damage to a broken heart. It doesn't help us get better. Often clients tell me:  “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t know what he’s done to me!” No. I don’t. But I know what unforgiveness will do to you. And that’s much worse.

In his book The Search for Significance, Robert McGee wrote: “We tend to make two major errors when we punish others for their failures. The first is that we condemn people not only for genuine sin but also for their mistakes. When people who have tried their best fail, they do not need our biting blame. They need our love and encouragement. . . . A second major error we often make by condemning others is believing that we are godly agents of condemnation. Unable to tolerate injustice, we seem to possess a great need to balance the scales of right and wrong. We are correct in recognizing that sin is reprehensible and deserves condemnation, yet we have not been licensed by God to punish others for their sins. Judgment is God’s responsibility, not man’s.”[1]

When we’re preoccupied with assuming and assigning blame for failure, we get trapped in a negative mindset. Others become defensive. Then we get even more negative. And they get more defensive . . . and the downward cycle continues. It's my natural reaction to want to know who is to blame when things go wrong. But I have come to realize that the need to prove I’m right and the inclination to analyze things beyond all measure have never satisfied my spiritual hunger. By pinning the blame on someone else, I merely feed my ego. I evoke others’ sympathy, justify my complaining spirit, and feel morally superior. That makes recovery from pain murky, at best.

I don't think I'm alone. Consider whether placing blame has helped or hurt you spiritually. Does it make you feel closer to God or more distant? Does it get you out of a hole or dig it deeper? Are you still hanging on to a hurt caused by someone else?

How do you let go of that? By being the opposite of "unfaithful", by believing:  God knows the truth about your situation. God will judge it fairly. And He has a wonderful way of revealing what we need when we’re ready for it. You couldn't have figured it out anyway. But you can trust God to teach you what you need to know as you lean into him. You will move forward if you set your eyes on him.

We'll continue looking at BLAME next time with more excepts from Chapter 1 of my NEW BOOK!

[1] Robert S. McGee, The Search for Significance (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, a division of Thomas Nelson Inc., 2003), 78-79.