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Empathy and Connection: How to Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

Let's get awkward. Let's talk about your relationship with food, and mental health. Do you feel uncomfortable yet? Good.

For me, talking about mental health is like talking about the weather or why I love puppies. I’m so ready to discuss the connection between mental wellness and food that I often forget how uncomfortable it can make others. These two topics can make people so uneasy you’d think I'd started asking questions about poop! (I might at some point, but I don't typically open with that.) Is mental health uncomfortable because we don't understand how it's correlated with our food? What does nutrition have to do with mental health?

Give it to me straight: have you ever been hangry?

If you have, or know someone who gets that way, you've experienced first hand that blood sugar, stress, hormones, and emotions are all intricately tied together.

Other times, the uncomfortable awkwardness stems directly from the stigma surrounding both emotional eating and mental health. People have strong (and often complicated) mental and emotional relationships with food.

Our love for food can make a discussion about nutrition feel too personal. We use food to nourish our bodies, to punish our bodies, to make statements about our identities, to socialize, and to fill emotional voids. For many, nutrition is directly linked to body image and self-esteem. As the number of diet-related diseases soar, it's hard to deny that our nutrition is directly correlated with our overall wellness.

So, there's definitely a connection with what we eat, but why else would talking about mental illness be uncomfortable?

It’s hard for people to think about mental health without thinking about mental illness. People are uncomfortable with mental illness because it threatens their sense of self. But like nutrition, mental health and mental illness aren’t something we can ignore. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 25% of adults in the U.S. have a mental illness,1 and only about 17% of adults in the U.S. are considered to be in “optimal mental health”.2

So, mental illness is more prevalent than total mental well-being, and a whopping 58% of people are walking around somewhere else on the spectrum!

If mental health and nutrition directly impact the majority of us, why are these topics so taboo?

Ahhhh, because humans are judgy and leery. It’s okay to be judgy about chunky milk or leery of your grandmother’s suspiciously wolf-like ears, eyes, and teeth, but it’s important to separate judgments needed for survival from judgments that defend our egos.  

Egos do not like to be uncomfortable.
And discomfort drives judgment.
And judgment drives stigma.

...and stigma can lead to misunderstandings and discrimination, creating atmospheres of shame, embarrassment, unrealistic expectations, and isolation.

Stigma and discrimination almost always come from judgment, and can make us miss out on the gifts and perspectives that other people have to offer.

When encountering something new or different (your lack of motivation, someone’s erratic behavior, your cousin’s latest detox regimen...) it’s completely normal to feel uncomfortable.

But, how you respond to your discomfort matters.

You can either allow your ego to be defensive and judgmental, creating an “us” and “them” situation, OR you can choose to embrace your discomfort. Explore it, and let vulnerability drive connection.


Brenè Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher said it perfectly: "Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment.”3

A good first step in getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is to practice empathy. Empathy helps us build connections with one another by understanding each other’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. The following exercise can help you better understand (and become more comfortable with) your own thoughts and feelings. Not to mention, comfortable egos make identifying with others much easier.

So when your judgy self coming on…

Practice Empathy for Yourself:

  1. What am I thinking?” - Try to stay neutral. Try not to think of your thoughts as “right”, “wrong”, “good”, or “bad”.
  1. How am I feeling?” - Are you feeling disgusted, envious, threatened, hurt, or something else?
  1. Why?” or “What do I need that could be influencing this thought/feeling?” - Checking in with yourself could help you understand your actions more clearly.

Here's how this plays out in my life:

This morning, I woke up and didn't want to make breakfast. I know the importance of breaking the fast. I know the value of a home-cooked meal. That judgy little voice in my head started shouting: “Lazy! Hypocrite! How can you call yourself a nutritionist?!”

 I felt awful. Then, I forced myself to back up and practice empathy for myself.

  1. What am I thinking?” - I’m thinking that I don’t want to make breakfast, and that's bad. (Dang…this is where I derailed! My nutritionist ego was uncomfortable. I immediately began judging this thought as bad, imposed an unrealistic expectation on myself, and was walking around in a cloud of shame and embarrassment as a result. And it took a whopping 3 seconds to get there!)

Let’s try that again:

  1. What am I thinking?” – I’m thinking that I don’t want to make breakfast. - (This time, I tried to stay neutral and resisted the urge to fix myself or the thought.)
  1. How am I feeling?” - I feel mentally and physically exhausted. I feel unmotivated. I feel hypocritical because I spend a lot of my time telling other people how important it is to make breakfast.
  1. “Why? What do I need?" - My parents just left after a long visit, I started a new job this week, and I was up late last night talking with a friend about a fight she had with her husband. I need a break.

Oh, right... No wonder I’m feeling exhausted and unmotivated. No wonder I don’t want to make breakfast today. I think I’ll give myself the break I need and stop beating myself up about it.

What about when the judgment is aimed at someone else?

For example: I’m frustrated with my partner because he doesn’t make himself breakfast. I think he’s being lazy.

 First, I need to check in with myself about how I’m feeling and why, then:

Practice Empathy for Others:

  1. What might this person be thinking?” - He might not want to make breakfast. Or maybe he does, but something is stopping him.        
  1. How might this person be feeling?" - Maybe he is feeling the way I felt in a similar situation - exhausted and unmotivated.
  1. What might be influencing this person’s thoughts/feelings/actions?” - Maybe he has a lot going on in his life right now. Maybe he isn’t sleeping well at night, so he doesn’t have the energy to make breakfast in the morning. Maybe he just needs a break. Maybe he doesn’t know the importance of breakfast. Maybe he just likes my cooking better. Maybe there’s something else going on.
  1. How might my words or actions impact this person positively or negatively?" - It’s possible that he is already judging himself harshly, the way I judged myself when I didn’t want to make breakfast. If I say or do something that indicates I think it’s “bad” to not make breakfast, I could be contributing to the shame he might already be feeling. If I remain neutral or mention my own struggle, maybe he will feel comfortable telling me more about his own thoughts and feelings.
  1. If appropriate/possible, learn more by asking genuine questions and listening actively.


Why is empathy so important?

 Whether the topic is mental or physical health, misunderstandings, confusion, and stigma abound. People are afraid to ask for help, believing they should be able to figure it all out on their own. People struggle to navigate conflicting information, wondering if any of it's even real. People shy away from experimenting with new diets and natural interventions because of possible side effects, the fear of failure, and a lack of support. People avoid talking about these uncomfortable topics, leading to isolation.

Uncomfortable egos lead to judgment which leads to stigma and isolation.

The antidote to judgment is connection. Empathy helps us build connections.

This holiday season, let’s check our judgy egos at the door and work to create compassionate connections. Move toward that ideal state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being in which we can realize our abilities, cope with stress, work productively, and make contributions to our communities.

Oh, and one last thing: try not to judge yourself for judging yourself or someone else. (Bah!)

In an ideal world, we would all be empathic and compassionate and connected all the time, but, in the real world, we can ask ourselves and others for forgiveness when we let our egos win.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC report: Mental illness surveillance among U.S. adults. Centers for Disease
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health basics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.
  1. Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. Culture of Empathy Builder: Brenè Brown. Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

Michelle Harreld was raised in Strawberry Point, IA and earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. She completed a master’s degree in Nutrition at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, OR, and is currently the Nutrition and Wellness Coordinator for the NorthStar Clubhouse, a community mental health organization in Portland.

Hannah Anderson
Hannah Anderson