How many of you self-punish to regulate your eating?
Punishment starts with fear, self-judgment, and self-anger. Many disregulated
eaters get stuck in this rigid, misguided approach and never move on to more
enlightened, self-nurturing, self-loving ways of regulating eating. Here’s what
self-punishment does: After you’ve done something you feel badly about, you use
words or actions to make yourself feel worse. Double ouch! Fortunately, there
is another way of changing behavior.
The dictionary definition of punish is to “inflict a
penalty.” We learn to punish in two major ways: By being punished a good deal
as children and by internalizing the punishing attitude our role modeling parents
exhibited when they tried to change their or our behavior. When we call ourselves
“bad” or other derogatory words after overeating, we engage in verbal
punishment. Punishing attitudes abound in society, especially with people who
do not meet certain norms: eg, with food, drugs and exercise. We punish addicts
by ware-housing them in prisons rather than providing treatment. We punish fat
people by discriminating against them and call folks who don’t exercise all
sorts of names, erroneously thinking that it will motivate both groups to eat
and weigh less.+
What, then, can replace punishment as a way to change
behavior? Psychology tells us that, except in extreme cases, it is more
effective to praise and offer incentives to generate appropriate behavior than
to inflict punishment. We need to praise ourselves lavishly, feel pride when we
do something well—you know, throw ourselves a little party. We need to
be kind and compassionate. The last thing we need is to hurt ourselves
when we make mistakes. Compassion doesn’t mean accepting unwanted behavior,
merely acknowledging imperfection and vowing to do better (see upcoming blog on
Compassion versus Acceptance).
Sure, it’s necessary to put criminals in jail and give
children time outs for misconduct. But let the punishment fit the crime.
Overeating is neither a sin nor a crime (not yet, anyway!). Although punishment
might seem like the quick fix, it doesn’t work long-term. When we punish
ourselves for unwanted eating, it shames us unnecessarily; when we exhibit
punishing attitudes towards others, we shame them to hurt not help.
Consider the kind of person you wish to be. It’s scary to
give up punishment as a personal or societal tactic, I know, but try pushing
yourselves to the next level— compassion for self and other—and see if you don’t
get better results all around.