• Claire Sutcliffe

Respond, Don't React

How old emotions trigger emotional eating, and how you can heal the past.



I’m standing at the kitchen counter in my Manhattan apartment. Through the open windows, I hear the cars and taxis beeping their horns and the murmur of life all around me. It’s Autumn. The sky is turning amber and casting a golden light across the living room. My children aged, eight and twelve are watching TV. They’ve been fed, done their homework and are chilling before the bedtime routine. I’m now cooking dinner for my husband; grilled chicken with rosemary and olive oil, a rice salad and green salad. I peel a carrot in an almost meditative state and start to grate it over the crisp, green leaves.


It’s one of those rare evenings when I feel like I’ve got my act together. I have enough time to do everything. Instead of panicking and shouting commands, I feel peaceful and find cooking meditative. I love these moments, when life flows seamlessly as if everything is perfectly timed. It’s quite a contrast to the days when I an overly ambitious, underprepared and try to cram too much into my days. This always starts a chain reaction. The kids’ hunger and cries for snacks, send me scrabbling for something in a box that I can cook in a few minutes. Instead of a fresh, quickly pan-fried chicken breast, they get an oily, breadcrumb coated concoction from the supermarket, carrot sticks, and boxed mac and cheese. But tonight, I gave myself a buffer and got it right. And at breakfast, I remembered to defrost the chicken. It’s not rocket science.


My husband walks in at 7.45pm kisses me with a smile and silently drifts off to the bedroom, to change out of his suit. He has been winding down on the subway ride home and needs to compartmentalise his day’s thoughts. I can tell he hasn’t finished and I’ve grown used to this state. He’s never in a hurry to share mine or the kids’ news. If I bombard him with this when he walks in, he sees it as another problem to fix and scurries away looking stressed. He says ‘hi’ to the children, but doesn’t scoop them up or tell them they are the most important people in his life, even though I know this is what he feels. Alphas are not demonstrative in that way.


From the bedroom, I hear the sound of the telly. As he passes the door he hollers, “I’ve got to go to London on Sunday.” Clearly, this is something on his to-do list that he needs to communicate, as it impacts me in some way. He just has no idea how much it affects me.


Suddenly I am enraged. I feel a physical sensation rise through my body that is such a contrast to my calm mood only moments earlier. I absent-mindedly pop the rest of the carrot in my mouth - a classic emotional eaters response to stuff down the rise of emotions. I’m confused, but instead of opening my mouth and screaming the word’s that float through my head, I munch. After all, “Fuck off then, you may as well leave now,” seem wholly inappropriate, even by my loony standards.


I trace my feelings like an electrician sorting through the myriad of coloured wires in an electric cable, to see if I can find the one that has shorted. I feel abandoned, powerless, alone, like no-one is here to support me. I am left holding the baby while he swans off to London. So this is what my delusional pity party is about.


The truth is, I am alone most days as my husband leaves the apartment at 5.30am and returns most evenings after 7pm. Even at weekends, he needs alone time to recharge his batteries by watching sport, going on a bike ride along the Westside Highway to Yonkers or catnapping to pay back his sleep debt. Sometimes I feel like a single parent even when he’s around. So why this reaction?


I ask myself the question, When did I first feel like someone had left me? I realise this is an old pain. It’s past loss, abandonment, and sadness. I am thirteen years old and my father is dead and my mother is preoccupied with her own life and worries. I’ve been left. I am alone. “I miss Dad,” I say. “I miss him too,” my mother replies. Somehow her aloneness squeezes out mine. She doesn’t respond to my needs but takes my words as a cue to talk about her own needs. I’ve not only been abandoned, but now I am overwhelmed, and powerless; I don’t know how to support my last remaining parent and make her feel better.


I wake up and come back to the present moment. I realise my husband pushed a button and I short-circuited. At least I manage to fixed my faulty wiring before I reacted. Acknowledging that moment long ago, was like uploading photos from the past and then editing them in Photoshop to make them appear different. When I was a child, I was powerless and unable to make everything better. Clearly, my mother was unable to fast-forward her own grief to respond to mine, so instead of processing my emotions then, the energy was stored.


We all have repressed, under-processed emotions from the past. Moments where we felt either over-whelmed or under-supported. One of my favourite spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle calls them Pain Bodies. Peter Levine of The Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute suggests that we get stuck in a fight, flight or freeze response and this old survival response gets trapped in the brain and body. I have watched him release this energy in others using movement, but just a recognition of it is enough for me.


I remind myself, that was then, this is now. I sit still, really feeling my old sadness. The loss, loneliness and my mother’s despondency and grief. Then I tell that little girl, ‘It’s OK to be sad. Trust me life gets better for you and mum. Let it go. You don’t have to carry that burden any longer.”


I am back in the present moment eating a carrot in my kitchen. The light outside has turned to dark. I am blown away by the human mind – how it holds on to memories and how the law of attraction causes like energies to attract. It’s as if my brain stores experiences under similar headings; leaving, abandonment, aloneness all get put in the same file. Feeling sad a moment ago was quickly compared with feeling sad twenty years ago. New emotional energy was filed next to old memories with a similar voltage or vibration. In opening the old file it also reactivated that old energy. But it also gave me a chance to become aware of its existence and to address it and lay it to rest.


I laugh as my husband appears in the kitchen and steals a carrot, and I give myself an adult talking to; He’s not leaving you. He just has to work. He’s providing for us so you can stay home with the other two people you love the most in this world. He’ll be back next Saturday. He’s not going to die. And just like that, I heal an old wound with the salve of self-awareness and am free to respond in a kind, non-reactive way. “How was your day?” I ask.


A strong reaction is always a sign that your internal fuse box just blew and you need to fix your inner wiring.


Stop, pause and ask yourself “When did this happen before.” Try to process the old hurt.


Slow down your reaction and think, “What is a more appropriate way to respond.” Then act with kindness.

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