Wait a minute... there’s an upside to out-of-control eating?
Of course there is. Otherwise, people wouldn’t do it. If you really want to change your eating behavior but feel like something is holding you back, it’s worth taking a closer look at what the benefits of your current habits might be.
How and why we break unhealthy habits has been the subject of intense study by behavioral psychologists. One well-known theory, first proposed in the ‘80s, outlines five stages we must pass through before we change a problem behavior
Precontemplation. (Problem? What problem?) Contemplation. (I have a problem, and I need to figure it out.) Preparation. (Okay, I’ve got a plan to solve my problem.) Action. (I’m actively involved in changing my problem behavior.) Maintenance. (I've dealt with my problem, but I need to be careful I don’t backslide.)
A sixth stage, called Termination, has also been proposed. That’s when the undesirable behavior is completely in the past and no longer represents a temptation or a threat. But some psychologists believe that certain problems -- alcoholism, for instance -- can never be terminated, only kept in the maintenance stage indefinitely. Overeating may be in this category, or it may not. It depends on the person.
So just what prompts us to move from one stage to the next? How do we advance beyond “I have a problem” to “I have a plan”? More important, how do we move on to Action, and not get hung up indefinitely in Preparation or Contemplation?
The crucial factor, according to psychologists, is called “decisional balance.” Basically, decisional balance is about weighing the pros and cons. The pros of changing your behavior have to outweigh the cons, or despite all your outward resolve, it’s not going to happen.
Yes, you may sincerely want to eat more healthfully. Your doctor has told you to lose weight. You’d feel more confident and comfortable in your body. Great -- those are the pros. But there are also cons involved in changing your unhealthy behavior, some of which you might not even be aware of. Your unwanted behavior is serving some important purpose, or it wouldn’t exist.
Do any of these statements ring a bell?
Mindless eating is my stress relief.
I hate trying to be “good.” No one is going to tell me what to eat.
Junk food is yummy and I’m going to miss it.
If I fail at losing weight, I’ll feel even worse about myself.
If I succeed at losing weight, I’ll get attention for all the wrong reasons.
These are some of the possible cons of changing your behavior. Yours may be different. Try this: get a piece of paper, divide it down the middle, and list all the pros and cons of your own situation. Write down everything that pops into your head, all of your unspoken hopes, fears, and beliefs about what it might be like to give up your current habits. As Freud might say, you need to acknowledge your resistance before you can deal with it.
For me, the pros of eating healthfully vastly outweigh the cons, but I won’t lie to you: at the beginning, there were definitely some cons. For instance, I used to lean heavily on eating as a source of stress relief. Fortunately, for most of us, there are replacement behaviors that answer those needs just as well as overeating, if not better. In my case, yoga turned out to be a much more effective relaxation method than mindless eating ever was.
If you’d like to learn more about this theory of change and the cycles of effort and relapse we go through as we modify unwanted behavior, I recommend by Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente.