Itâ€™s a fact of life that unless we live in a monastery on a mountain, weâ€™re all faced with food temptations, all around us. And in the face of those temptations, it can feel like we have no self-control, and that can be discouraging.
So whatâ€™s going on and how can we deal with this? Letâ€™s talk about these issues, and how we can find new joys in the middle of this process.
Whatâ€™s Going On?
Delicious pastries, donuts, ice cream, chocolates, french fries, chips, cookies, fried stuff â€¦ theyâ€™re all filled with â€œfood reward,â€ which is a property in food that basically tells our brains to go into eating mode. Fats, sugars, fried stuff, salty things, refined carbohydrates combined with frying and salty or sweet tastes â€¦ these are all high reward. But things that are visually appealing, smell good, have a lot of variety â€¦ these also are high in food reward.
So these are the temptations â€¦ our brains kick into eat mode, send out hormones to make us hungry and our mouths salivate, and the self-control parts of our brains shut off.
At the same time, our lack of self-control can come from years of habitual conditioning â€¦ reaching for these temptations when weâ€™re feeling stress or tired or bored or lonely. Itâ€™s hard to break years of conditioning like this, so there will be lots of failures if youâ€™re trying to change.
How Do We Deal with This?
So whatâ€™s the best approach? How do we develop self-control?
The truth is, thereâ€™s no easy answer.
So, Iâ€™m going to give you some ideas to explore. Yes, this is a cop-out, because Iâ€™m not just giving you one answer, but the truth is that every person is different when it comes to this, and the only way to figure out what works for you will be to experiment.
Here are some ideas to test for yourself:
- Develop mindfulness with temptations. What is coming up for you? What are your triggers? How do you feel when you give in?
- Can you sit with a temptation without acting on it? What happens?
- Can you eat a little of a temptation without feeling too guilty? Is it possible to savor a small amount, and then take a break?
- Distract and delay. Go to another room, tell yourself you can have some but not for another 10 minutes, drink some water, go for a walk. See if the urges go away.
- Donâ€™t escape your feelings, donâ€™t act on them. Turn towards them.
- If you give in and overdo it, and it makes you feel bad, notice this. Instead of beating yourself up about it, just learn from this.
- Watch your rationalizations. Just hear them, instead of believing them, ask if theyâ€™re really true.
- Pause between stimulus and action. Rather than being Pavlovâ€™s dog, see if you can put a pause between the temptation and action. See what itâ€™s like to dwell in this pause.
- Explicitly donâ€™t pay attention to the rewards of the food, but think about the downsides. Think about the long-term health consequences, picture what your life will be like if you eat this every day, think about how youâ€™ll feel afterwards. You can choose what to focus on.
- Remember your long-term motivation.
- Remove yourself from the environment. Donâ€™t be around your triggers. Or remove your triggers from your environment.
- Know you have less self-control if youâ€™re tired, constantly battling temptations, stressed, angry. Self-care is important, and managing your stresses and energy and number of temptations will help. Get rest, simplify your schedule.
- Learn to believe that you can. In the beginning, you will probably have doubts that you can stick to this change. Thatâ€™s OK â€” start on it anyway. Stick to it for one small step (drink a glass of water, eat one fruit), and see that you can do it. Then stick to it for another small step. Each time you do it, use this as evidence that you are capable.
- Use failure to learn. While doing the habit is evidence that you can do it, failure should not be evidence that you canâ€™t. Use it as an opportunity to learn: learn about how you work best, about how habits work, about negative self-talk (see next item) and urges. Learn about obstacles, which are inevitable, and how to get around them. Each time you mess up, this is an amazing opportunity to get better, to improve your method. Failure isnâ€™t a bad thing â€” itâ€™s new information to improve your habit method.
- Donâ€™t believe the negative self-talk. There will be thoughts in your head about not being able to do it, or wanting to quit. Donâ€™t listen to them. See them, acknowledge them, but donâ€™t follow their commands or believe what they say. They just come up because your brain is trying to get out of hard work. Lazy brain, lying brain. Instead, come up with better counterarguments: â€œBrain: You canâ€™t do this.â€ â€œYou: Actually, I can and have. Other people have done this, and so can I. And I will only really know if I try.â€
Can We Find Joy in This New Mode?
If you read those tips in the section above, it can seem like a lot of hard work and deprivation. Yikes! Who wants to do all of that?
Well, first, you don’t have to do all of those all the time. This isn’t a course in extreme self-restriction. Those tips are about learning techniques that might help you over the long term. So try them out when you feel up to them, but don’t kill yourself over this.
But more importantly, there are other modes of being than only 1) complete indulgence and 2) deprivation. What are they?
Here are two to play with:
- The joy of exploration and discovery. This isn’t only about controlling yourself to not eat too many unhealthy foods … it’s about discovering a healthier way of living. It’s about exploring new, interesting, healthy foods. It’s about learning to let go of your urges and be mindful of what your body really needs. It’s about learning how to be a different version of you, shedding your old skin and putting on a new identity. See the joy in this discovery, this exploration of self and health. There’s new territory to be covered here, and that can be amazing.
- The joy of equanimity. See that you can sit mindfully with love for everything around you. You can walk through a party with equanimity, dwelling in this joyful state as others eat pastries. You can open your heart with love to everything in your home, everything in your office, yourself included, your urges and weaknesses included, your guilt and tiredness included, and say yes to it all. With love.
For the next few days, explore the tips above, journaling about them and discussing them in Slack. What works for you? Can you find joys in equanimity, discovery and exploration?