I heard the following story from a patient of mine (one of the perks of being a therapist) while we were talking about the influence of mental outlook. Two psychologists were debating which is stronger, one’s perspective or one’s circumstances. So they recruited two young boys to participate in a little experiment. One of the boys always had a positive and optimistic attitude while the other was always negative and pessimistic. They put the negative kid in a room filled with toys and candy for a day, while the optimist spent the day in an empty, dark, and smelly barn. At the end of the day, they interviewed the boys.
When they talked to the pessimist he was crying miserably about the broken toys scattered around and how upset his stomach was from all the candy he ate. When they brought the other boy out of the barn he was covered in filth and picking straw out of his hair but had the biggest smile on his face. “Why are you so happy?” the scientists asked. They boy beamed excitedly and said, “With all this horseshit around, there’s got to be a pony somewhere!”
This story is a nice illustration of the way your view of an event can affect your reality and how that, in turn, affects your response to a situation. Here’s another example of how changing your perception of circumstances that make you feel controlled can make a very big difference, and it’s especially relevant to emotional eating. As I’ve pointed out before, perhaps the major factor that connects dieting behavior with binge behavior is the feeling that certain foods are simply Bad. Due to the “demands” of the diet to restrict those foods, binge behavior can follow as a way of reasserting autonomy.
This tendency to see certain foods as Bad is practically universal among chronic dieters. So let’s challenge it. Where does the Bad characteristic of a food reside? Is it a feature of the food itself? Well, if it’s inedible or toxic it would be bad. If it contains a common allergen, like peanuts, it would certainly be bad for someone who may go into anaphylactic shock from eating it. Those are features that are in the food and make it bad for you.
But what about food that someone simply finds disgusting? In my opinion, even though I’ve never tried it, escargot is Bad because it looks gross. But it’s not true for other people. That’s a difference in perception, which is “in” the person, not in the food. People often refer to some items as Junk Food, and determine that those foods are Bad. Relative to other foods, they may be have more calories and less nutritional value per ounce, but if you’re mindful of how much and how often you eat it, those characteristics wouldn’t be harmful.
The reason that such food causes the negative reaction that it does is not because of its inherent attributes, and certainly not because of how it tastes, which is usually pretty delicious, but because people find it very hard to eat it in moderate amounts. Demonizing it is really more of a way to strengthen their resistance to it. On the other hand, it’s tasty, it can make you feel good, and if it’s dessert, it can bring a good meal to a satisfying conclusion. Those are all good traits, not bad ones!
The problem is that by labeling an item of food as Bad and avoiding it, it begins to control you. It occupies your thoughts; it makes you go out of your way to avoid it; it makes you feel deprived. Of course, it’s really you who are allowing it to have that power because you have deemed it to be Evil. Let that go on long enough and you’re building up the steam for a blow-out binge.
On the other hand, you can look at that dessert and view the choice you face as Good versus Good, as in, “It would be good for me to limit what I eat because I think I’ve eaten plenty and I’m pretty close to breaking my calorie budget, but that dessert table looks really good to me and I want to go to there.” That would make you feel that it’s your choice, and since you’re the one in control, you would feel free to choose either on its own merits – not simply as a way to prove something to yourself.
Rather than thinking of any food as Junk or Bad, or thinking to yourself, “…that dessert table holds the Snack of the Devil’s Spawn…must resist,” change how you’re perceiving it. If you have a small piece of cake and you enjoy it, then it’s good in every sense of the word. But if you try to resist, hold back and distract yourself, then like the people in the White Bear studies , you’re eventually liable to give up the fight and give in to a binge. Then, yes, that would feel Bad.