In case you haven’t heard, temptation is coming to town... gelt and sleighbells in tow. Whether it’s the annual office party, friends stopping by with fruitcake, family get-togethers or just an innocent trip to the newly candy-loaded pharmacy, the holiday season is packed with sugary treats and opportunities to overeat at nearly every turn.
Many a normally level-headed, health-conscious person has found themselves challenged by the sweet temptations of seasonal festivities. This challenge is magnified for those dealing with disordered eating. If you’ve ever have a hard time sticking to your diet or exercise plan, or struggled over the long term to keep doing what you know you “should” be doing, here’s a little trick. Forget about the Should. Remember the Why.
Discipline is tricky–and not just during the holidays. I see it all year long in my work with emotional eaters and in myself and others, too. We set an intention, full of understanding and resolve, and perhaps we succeed for some time. But somehow, whether it be hours, days or weeks, our resolve eventually falters and we go back to our old ways. And there we are, back where we started, until we make another resolve and start again. Why is this so, and how can we learn to remain on course?
I believe that food addictions (and most likely other types of addictions) are often rooted in an attempt by the unconscious mind to help us forget our problems. Because the unconscious mind loves us and wants to make everything all better, the intent behind the idea that turns into the behavior that becomes the addiction is not malicious, simply misguided. Consider the thought, “Just have some ice cream and all your pain will go away.” This thought is a kind gesture, a well-intentioned suggestion intended to help quell our pain, boredom or discomfort. Ice cream tastes good, it feels good going down, it resides front and center in many happy childhood memories. Naturally, it follows that if you’re sad now, you can get happy if you eat some ice cream! Good idea, right?
Well, yes and no. It’s true that at first, as ICE CREAM overtakes our entire consciousness, our problems do seem to go away. We forget everything but the taste on our tongue, in our mouth and throat, the luxurious sensation of smooth, sweet flavor and cold creaminess. Then, sugar hits our bloodstream and our dopamine starts to surge, creating feelings of well being and bliss. So far, so good.
But at some point, this pleasure experience turns sour. Feelings of self-consciousness, guilt, shame or simply physical discomfort take the place of joy and abandon. Our taste buds get oversaturated and lose their sensitivity. Those final spoonfuls may feel like a disgusting chore. And after the ice cream is gone, we feel disheartened, overstuffed or depressed. “Why did I do that? I feel so full/fat/guilty/hopeless/like a loser.”
All of these sensations and thoughts–from first bite bliss to bloated despair–serve as a wonderful distraction from whatever painful thoughts or feelings we were unconsciously trying to avoid in the first place. But the problem is not solved at all. The addiction strategy, this well meaning attempt to take us out of our suffering, does not work. On the contrary, it just prolongs our original problems and even creates new ones.
Fortunately, we can teach our unconscious mind new ways to help us that don’t end up hurting us. We also can engage the unconscious mind in helping us embody the flip side of addictions and indulgences, i.e. healthy habits that take us to our goals.
One useful tool for staying on track with a healthy eating plan is to drop all our rules around food. The part of the unconscious mind that I call the Rebel Self has a strong aversion to rules. The Rebel Self has a motto around rules: “If you make them, I will break them!” The Rebel Self does NOT want to be told what she can and cannot do – she wants to make her own decisions. If you have a Rebel Self (and most of us do) rules are a set-up for failure. Once a rule is broken and you’ve “blown it,” resolve easily goes out the window and it can be weeks before you get back on track.
That’s why I put the focus on TOOLS not RULES. Fill your healthy diet and lifestyle toolbox with information and inspiration, and draw on it as needed. It’s good to have tricks up your sleeve (make your own healthy “ice cream” with frozen ripe bananas, take the stairs instead of the elevator, choose a distant parking spot, eat an apple before you go to the party so you won’t be starving when you get there, etc). Even more powerful are tools that support you at a deeper level, the level of the unconscious mind.
To access this level nutritionally, you must first learn what foods work best for your body and develop a realistic diet-lifestyle program that suits your schedule and your personal needs–be they biochemical, social or emotional. Realistic means sound and doable. A big part of my work as a nutritionist is helping people develop customized programs that they can actually follow! This is critical to your success. For instance, you may have a “crush on raw foods,” as one of my clients put it, but your body craves cooked food, too. Find a way to do both–there are lots of clean cooked foods out there! Embrace the concept of TRANSITION and keep moving ahead in the direction of health.
Once you understand the diet-lifestyle that suits you best, get really clear on Why you want to follow it. What is it that you want this particular dietary program, supplement regime or exercise routine help you to achieve?
Your “Why” can be many things. Perhaps you want this diet-lifestyle to help you to overcome a disease. Or to help clear up your skin. Do you want it to help you lose weight? Tone and firm your muscles? Increase your self confidence? Enjoy the way you look and feel? Provide more balanced alertness and energy throughout the day? Improve your digestion? Decrease aches and pains? Bring you closer to God? Understanding your “Why” is another way of understanding your aspirations and goals.
We all have more than one goal but ultimately, as my beautiful and disciplined friend Meredith says, when it comes to any undertaking the GOAL IS TO FEEL GOOD. We want to feel as good as we possible can, every day–feel good in our body, feel good in our mind, feel good about ourselves and our accomplishments. That’s what makes life a JOY! Feeling bad feels…well…bad! Who wants that? Nobody.
So get clear on your Why, on what it is that you really want out of your diet-lifestyle choices. Whatever it is, use your Why as an inspirational tool. Create a statement (or a series of statements) that highlights your Why. Articulate a few phrases that you can repeat to yourself throughout the day and write them down on a piece of paper, a post-it or a wallet-sized Why Card. For example, you might write on your card: “I want to feel great!” or, “I want to lose five pounds this month,” or “I want perfect digestion.”
Partner your WHY with AFFIRMATIONS that will help you target and change specific behaviors. Always phrase affirmations with positive words, because the unconscious mind does not understand negatives. For instance, if you are trying to reduce food intake at meals, instead of saying “I don’t take seconds at meals,” affirm that “I feel satisfied and happy with one serving of food at mealtimes.”
Remain clear on your Why and remember it throughout the day, using Affirmations to reinforce new behavior. Consider reading your Why Card when you wake up and at bedtime. Give it a glance before you head down to the lunchroom... or out the office party... or into the dining room for the traditional family feast. Be sure to remember your Why when it’s time to engage in the desired behavior to help train your unconscious mind in this new way of helping you meet your deep inner goals and needs. With practice, your WHY will become an integrated part of YOU.
Until that time and always, love yourself, forgive yourself, have faith in yourself. Find ways to address the discomfort in your life, the pain or unresolved issues that in the past led you to develop behaviors which only ended up hurting you more. And develop new habits that take you into the life you are meant to lead, the life of happiness, confidence, and health. The life you want. The life you deserve.
In radiance and joyful resolution, Diana