Fight temptation: The brain tries to make you slip back into old habits
At one of my weight-loss seminars, I worked with a woman who’d dieted for months – and then felt compelled to start over-eating again.
It turned out that, one day, when she was looking slim, she’d been chatted up by a man. Instantly, she’d felt the urge to start eating unhealthily again.
That urge was subconscious, but we figured out the cause behind it. In the past, when she was very slender, she’d had an affair – even though she loved her husband.
So the part of her brain that was making her over-eat again was, in fact, trying to protect her marriage. With our conscious minds we all know that, rationally, it was ridiculous for her to start over-eating again. However, the unconscious is not logical.
There are many reasons for self-sabotage when you’re trying to change a pattern of emotional eating – whether you did it to cope with stress, with past traumas or just to bring moments of fleeting comfort.
Some people continually set goals for reforming their unhealthy eating habits – but as soon as they notice they’re succeeding, they feel a terrible compulsion to fail. Other people have experienced failure in the past, which really hurt.
Indeed, the closer they got to their goals – such as reaching a healthy weight – the more painful they found their feeling of failure.
Therefore, their unconscious mind tries to get the failure in quickly before it becomes too painful.
Therefore, they start over-eating again to protect what their sub-conscious believes is their true self. Here again, there is a negative outcome but a positive intention.
Some people have dinner with friends in a restaurant and stick religiously to a diet. They count calories or eat lots of vegetables; they don’t eat chips, bread or dessert. Then they go home and eat an entire packet of biscuits and a whole cake.
Why would anyone do that? They do it because the diet they’re on has stressed them out and their method of stress control is eating.
Remember, the unconscious mind is purposeful but not logical. These people aren’t thinking: ‘I must undermine myself’ or ‘I must have food’.
One part of them is trying to lose weight, the other part is trying to control stress. That’s like driving down the street with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake. It just damages the car.
Self-sabotage is just an unfortunate consequence of the way our brains work, but it’s not inevitable. Nor is it incurable – the mind trick in the box below will help stop you wrecking your diet.
THE TRIGGERS – AND HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM
Many of us have accumulated habits that are accidentally counterproductive. You may, for instance, love to come home and unwind in front of the TV with a beer or a glass of wine and a big bag of crisps.
You aren’t hungry, you don’t actually need the alcohol, but you’ve associated the idea of TV, alcohol and crisps with relaxing.
Some people don’t even wait to get home to offload their stress. At my seminars, I’ve met women from all over the world who have a chocolate drawer or a packet of biscuits at the office that they hit when they get stressed.
They aren’t trying to eat too much; they’ve just found a way to change – temporarily – how they feel. Most of the time, we aren’t consciously choosing these behaviours.
They’ve simply become automatic – because one of the most basic functions of the brain is association.
We create associations all the time. The more times we perceive two things together, the stronger the link between the two – and the more likely that each one perceived individually will cause us to think of the other.
Physiologically, these links correspond to a string of neurons communicating with each other in your brain. A neural pathway is created, then strengthened each time it’s used.
On top of that, our minds have momentum. When we’re awake, we’re thinking almost all the time, and one thought leads to another and another and another, all day long.
This momentum, combined with associations, creates the simplest and most common form of self-sabotage.
So if you indulge in emotional over-eating, it becomes associated with all sorts of other things in your life. It could be a piece of music, a cafe you once passed, a boss who annoyed you, or remembering a holiday.
Even if these things just come to mind, they can trigger a craving for food.
By now, however, I hope you’ll be well on your way to controlling your emotional eating – and that means all the patterns associated with it will need to change, too.
The solution is simple. We can’t fight the process of association, nor the momentum of the mind; instead we can use those same forces to create a new neural pathway.
What follows are some of the most common forms of self-sabotage – so see if any apply to you. If they do, use the solutions beneath each one to get rid of them.
1 SUDDEN TEMPTATION
Imagine walking past a patisserie and looking at a lemon meringue pie in the window. You don’t normally eat that sort of thing so it seems innocent enough.
‘I wonder what that tastes like,’ you think, and, out of mere curiosity, you walk in and find out how much it costs.
‘Oh, that’s not so much,’ you think, and suddenly you’re on the brink of eating something you don’t want and don’t need because of a few casual thoughts.
Solution: Genuine hunger isn’t triggered by association. It comes on slowly and persists. Remember the four golden rules I told you about yesterday?
- Eat only when you’re hungry.
- Eat what your body tells you it wants.
- Eat consciously and enjoy every mouthful.
- Stop eating when you think you’re full.
2 I DESERVE A TREAT
Even when you’ve only had a few days of eating healthily, your body feels better. That’s when this thinking kicks in.
‘I’ve done so well,’ the mind says. ‘Let’s celebrate — by eating!’
Or maybe you feel a bit tired. ‘I’ve done the work,’ says the mind. ‘Now I deserve a treat.’
Another version goes something like this: ‘I’ve completed a whole month of my new way of life. I feel great, I weigh less, I understand myself and my feelings a whole lot more. I deserve something to celebrate this milestone. Why don’t I just eat a lot?’
Solution: This idea of celebration or reward is based on the past, when food was a guilty pleasure. Now you’re enjoying food every day, you need to find a bigger, better way to celebrate.
3 A TINY BIT WON’T HURT
Sometimes, when old habits crop up, your mind thinks: ‘Hey, a tiny bit won’t hurt.’
For example, if you used to eat a whole packet of biscuits a day, you may find yourself looking at a packet in a supermarket and thinking, ‘Hey, one biscuit won’t hurt.’ Rationally, you’re right.
But this isn’t a rational situation. You can tell the mind is making up a justification to carry on your old emotional eating habit because you’re not actually hungry.
If you’re not hungry, there’s no need to eat. It’s not the biscuit that would hurt you, but continuing your old pattern of behaviour – eating when you’re not hungry.
Always seek out the positive desire behind your impulse. Do you really want one biscuit? Maybe what you really want is a hug or a cuddle…
Solution: When you find your mind thinking, ‘Such and such won’t hurt,’ ask two questions: If I express it in positive terms, what will it do? Then ask yourself: what do I really want?
4 THIS DOESN’T COUNT
When you’ve established new patterns of eating, the old ones take some time to fade. The mind has a tendency to want to cling to the old habits, so it tries to return to them in a roundabout way.
For example, imagine your old emotional eating habit revolved around chocolate: chocolate bars, chocolate cakes, chocolate drinks. You’ve now moved on and you feel great. One day, you find yourself daydreaming about desserts.
You don’t normally eat dessert, but after lunch you order one.
After a few mouthfuls, you’ve had enough – but you find yourself thinking: ‘Well, it’s not chocolate, so this doesn’t really count.’
This is an argument from the bad old days of dieting. Something does or doesn’t ‘count’ if you follow some arbitrary regime or count calories. But you’re not doing that any more.
The real questions to ask are, ‘Am I hungry?’ and, ‘Is this mouthful completely enjoyable?’
Solution: Don’t get caught up in wondering whether something ‘counts’. Follow the four Golden Rules [When you’re hungry, eat; Eat what your body wants; Enjoy every mouthful; Stop when you’re full]. That’s it.
5 IT’S NOT MY FAULT
This is the belief that because you feel a desire, the outcome is uncontrollable. All sorts of thoughts arise unbidden in our minds, then just drift away or get forgotten.
In this case, the mind tries to use desire as an excuse to behave in the old way.
Solution: Stick to the four Golden Rules! Remember, genuine hunger is not triggered by association. It comes on slowly and persists.
6 RELISH THE COMFORT
Stepping free of emotional eating is like experiencing a new start in life. You now have new ways to relax, new ways to work and new ways to feel good.
There’s so much that’s new that, at some point, you may want to feel something familiar. So you return to your most familiar form of comfort: emotional eating.
Solution: Don’t fight this desire, but find a different comforting, familiar experience. It may be curling up on the sofa with a book, watching your favourite DVD. It may be calling an old friend, or something simpler, like putting on your favourite clothes.
7 CAN’T STOP THE CRAVING
There are times when an idea just gets stuck in your head. And if you can’t stop thinking about eating, it can be infuriating.
Solution: This is an example of the imagination being more powerful than the will, so we’ll use the imagination to deal with it.
1. If the idea has a picture (such as a bar of chocolate) notice where you see it – to your left, or right, above, level with or below your eyeline.
2. Wherever it is, shrink it, drain out the colour so it’s black and white and move it off into the distance.
3. Finally, reduce it to postage-stamp size and send it way, way behind you.
4. If the idea has words, use a voice in your head to hear them. Notice where you hear that voice, then move it away so it seems to be coming out from the tip of your thumb.
5. Now change the voice to something ridiculous, like Donald Duck’s.
Each time you use one of these solutions, you reinforce the new pattern it creates and make self-sabotage less likely.
But don’t take progress for granted. You’ll know real change is taking place when you’re absolutely sure that three things are happening:
1. You eat differently. You compare what you ate before with what you’re eating now, and it has changed.
2. Your body is different. You’ve moved towards your ideal weight and are more comfortable in your own skin.
3. You feel better emotionally. You feel stronger and calmer, capable of experiencing sad, painful or challenging feelings without having to distract yourself, and capable of enjoying good feelings completely.
As time passes, you simply won’t be thinking about food so much.
By tuning into your body’s wisdom, you’ll eat when you’re hungry, enjoy every mouthful and stop as soon as you feel full. Simple and delicious.