Why Old Eating Habits Keep Coming Back and How Your Response Can Reduce Their Frequency

Things were going so well. So why do you find yourself picking at junk in the pantry or eating when everyone else has gone to bed? And what can we do about it?

Things were going so well. So why do you find yourself picking at junk in the pantry or eating when everyone else has gone to bed? And what can we do about it?

Sometimes I am just going along in my day to day life and everything seems good, only to find myself staring in the pantry wanting something that isn’t there.

The pantry is filled with plenty of food and I’m not actually hungry, but there is something I want in there. And even though with every available brain cell, I know that the want I am feeling comes from something other than food and that responsible present day Andrea would walk away from the pantry and go think or write about her feelings and what might be causing the need to fill it up with food, and if I did that, I wouldn’t even want something in the pantry anymore. But there is another Andrea from my past who appears and says “Hey, shhhh, don’t listen to her! You listen to her all the time! What about us? We used to have so much fun together! Let’s eat like old times – just this once! I promise I’ll leave you alone if you just give me big two handfuls of trail mix and half a bag of popcorn. I swear!” Sometimes I let past Andrea in for a bit. Not for very long – but just long enough to have me go “Why am I eating this?”.

Old eating stuff is going to come up from time to time, no matter how long you’ve been at this healing process.

But why is it coming up? And what’s the best way to handle it?

These eating episodes are a little annoying but I handle it much differently than I would have in the past and that is the difference between still being in an unhealthy place and being a normal human being with an challenging eating past.

The women I work with have this struggle too. They confess to overeating at dinner, to choosing a cupcake over an apple when they wanted a snack, to still having small binges occasionally when they’ve had a rotten day. They know they have tools to turn it around, to choose something different and most of the time they do, but sometimes they may even want to give in to the old desire and they think that this means something has gone terribly wrong in their journey – that they are WRONG for these things to be happening in their eating life or wrong for wanting to eat this way sometimes.

Nothing has gone wrong. In fact, I don’t think you can truly make progress in healing the relationship you have with food without having some screw ups along the way. If you never get to test a skill out, how do you know if you’ve really mastered it? If you’re training to be a pilot but have never actually flown a plane, I don’t want to get in a plane you are flying. Learning is one thing, gaining lots of experience is another!

One of the biggest indicators of progress is in how we handle ourselves when things don’t go the way we planned them to. When our old habits resurface (and they will), do we roll over and say “I give up! I failed!” or do we dust ourselves off and keep moving forward? Do we shame ourselves for making a mistake or do we remind ourselves that we are human and aren’t expected to be perfect?

Old eating habits (overeating, restricting, bingeing, emotional eating etc) will reappear in your life. That is a given. So why do they keep reappearing? We’ll get into that below. I’ll also tell you how you can respond so that they happen less and less.

When and why do old eating habits reappear?

Old habits resurface when we stop being so vigilant or we stop paying close attention to eating. When we start to feel confident that we know how to do this now, we know how to eat mindfully or intuitively. We start to want to be “lazy”  – paying close attention to every bite we eat, and the sensations in our body, as well as why we’re eating etc is a lot of emotional work and sometimes we just want to go on autopilot. Don’t feel bad about this desire to be “lazy”, it’s actually the way our brains are designed to function. Your brain want things to be as efficient as possible so it can use energy on more important things so it’s going to try to make you choose actions that feel automatic over things that feel difficult. Remind yourself that “being present” eventually won’t feel like work if you continue to choose it daily. Your brain will start to see that as the “easier” response. And yes, it takes a long time but it will get a little easier.

Old habits also will pop up when we’re stressed out. New job, new baby, moving, worries about your kids or parents, illness, anxiety disorders etc. Anything that causes you to feel stressed or having a lack of control over your life can mean you will look for ways to comfort yourself and relieve stress. For those of us with a history of overeating or emotional eating, turning to food might be your first reaction, even if you’ve been doing really well. That habit is wired in your brain through lots of neural pathways and while you are building new ones every time you choose to do things differently, it will be a long while until those old pathways are no longer dominant and the “easier” route. We can’t undo decades worth of repetition in just a few months. Under periods of stress, our brains want to conserve our energy to deal with whatever crisis you are going through, so it’s going to choose the path of least resistance, and old, reliable paths that don’t require any thinking will win almost every time (that’s why we find ourselves grazing in the pantry and hardly even remember making a decision to do that).

Old habits will appear when we’re sick, tired, bored, PMS’ing or even overwhelmed. We don’t necessarily have to be going through a crisis or feeling lazy to find food starts to feel like a problem again. The level of self control we have at our disposal changes based on what else is going on in our lives. I know that when I get sick, I am more emotional and I want to wallow or indulge in feeling crappy. I know that probably sounds strange, but it’s the truth! When I get into a place where I want to “indulge in feeling crappy” I will turn to food. If I feel like crap when I’m sick, eating crappily or eating too much in general will make me feel worse and for some reason it feels justified. It’s ironic, because I know that eating well when I’m sick will actually contribute to me feeling better in general much quicker, but sometimes I have an emotional brat in me who wants to come out and she’ll take advantage when she knows I’m down. Maybe you can’t fathom overeating when you’re sick (most people aren’t even interested in food then!), maybe for you it’s when you’re feeling lonely, have a lot on your plate or are generally just exhausted. In any of these situations, our guard is down, we’re occupied by something other than being present and taking good care of ourselves (which in all honesty is most of the time, right??) and that means there’s an opportunity for less than desireable eating behaviors to show up.

Old eating habits can show up anytime. You probably read the above scenarios and go, okay, I see why they come back up when I’m busy paying attention to something other than my thoughts and actions around eating. That makes perfect sense. But what about when I’m going along in life and things seem pretty ok and suddenly I find myself in my car eating a bunch of cookies? Slightly stale ones at that. They weren’t even that good, but I couldn’t stop. I eventually had to get out of the car and toss the rest of the package in a garbage can in front of the store before driving home because I knew that if the rest of the cookies stayed with me, they would have ended up in my belly which was already stuffed to the brim. Sound familiar? Maybe your slip up happens in your kitchen at night when everyone else is asleep or maybe it happens when you’re out to dinner with friends, in full view, you eat twice as much as you know you need.

Even though things are going well, we can still have “blips” in our progress. Self-sabotage is real. Some of us can’t handle for things to go well and we will do whatever we can to mess it up, so that if it does go badly, we can say “see! it wasn’t meant to be!”. Deprivation is another reason this stuff will keep coming back. You think you’re eating mindfully, thoughtfully. You think you are eating what you desire and also eating nutritiously, but deep in the back of your mind are a whole bunch of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and you’ve listened to the “shouldn’ts” a few too many times and now all you can think about is those damn cookies. And also, sometimes a little overeating is a normal part of life – yes, normal.

Slip ups, mistakes, old habits are inevitable. We’re human. There’s nothing you can do to stop the occasional overeating hiccup from appearing. No matter how “good” you are, no matter how rigorous you’ve been in applying all you’ve learned about habit change, you will still find yourself making food choices sometimes that could bring up old feelings of shame, guilt, disgust or make you want to take drastic habits. There’s no avoiding this part.

But here’s what you can do about it:

You can choose how you respond when it happens.

There are really only two options.

Option 1

Respond with the old familiar ways – feel shame, disgust, guilt. Beat yourself up. Tell yourself how gross you are, how foolish you are, how undisciplined you are. Make this eating choice mean all possible terrible things you’ve ever thought about yourself. Remind yourself that this is why you aren’t getting farther in life, that this is why you are single, that this is why you don’t have more opportunities in life. This is the source of every problem you’ve ever had. Let this one moment in eating turn into more years of pain, sadness and despair.

Option 2

Respond with love. Remember ultimately WHY you are eating like this in the first place. You are trying to bring yourself comfort. You are trying to give yourself a kindness when you aren’t feeling any elsewhere. You are just trying to feel love. Let the few hours of physical discomfort be just that. Let any feelings of shame, disgust or guilt float on by. Remind yourself that you are not bad or gross for eating something. Accept that this was just one small choice and it’s in the past now. It does not mean anything. Respond to yourself the same way you would to a crying child (you are eating this way because a part of you is crying inside in some way – answer that cry with LOVE). You are just a person, trying to do her best, with the way she knows how in this particular moment. Let this one moment in eating just be that, one moment of eating.

One of these will make it a lot easier for overeating, bingeing to come back over and over again. One of them will make your eating life remain an uphill climb. And the other, while it may feel harder at first, will make your long term success more likely. It will make these episodes less frequent. Which will you choose?

I hope you choose love. Responding with love and letting go of the urge to shame yourself can be challenging at first, but do it over and over again and not only will it feel easier, it will start to feel good and you will see your “mistakes” as no big deal in the scheme of things. This makes moving forward so much easier. When this happens, you will truly have made progress – your backtracking and slip ups will happen less and less, and when they do happen, you will have the tools necessary to get out of it and get on with your life.

It’s just love. The very thing you are looking for when you eat, is the thing you need to get out of here, and you already have it inside of you. Practice using it on yourself and you will cultivate more of it in your life.

Do you find old eating habits reappear in your life from time to time? How do you choose to respond to these episodes? What benefits does that choice bring you?

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