External and Internal Cues
I think it’s time to step back and look at the context of my cookie monster cravings. What are the triggers or cues in my environment that make me start to think about eating sugar?
- Being in my kitchen (we keep chocolate in the cupboard, and sometimes ice cream in the freezer, and occasionally some homemade baked goods on the counter)
- Walking by, or running an errand near a favourite bakery, cafe, ice cream shop, or bubble tea place
These are my external cues; basically just being physically near a place where I know there are tasty sweets available. Maybe in my next post I can explore some ways of dealing with these.
What about my internal cues? What are the feelings or thoughts that trigger my cravings for sugar?
- Feeling exhausted, worn-out, or just sleepy
- Feeling angry, frustrated, at the end of my patience
The Internal Battle
I’m going to walk through a scenario in which I encounter a cue and choose to resist temptation:
It’s the end of a long day that started before 6 am. It’s late, and my daughter is finally in bed but I’m still frazzled. My body just wants to crash but I need to get some things done. I walk into the kitchen and, with hardly a conscious thought, as if I’m running on auto-pilot, I open the cabinet door and start to reach for a sweet, sweet kick of fair-trade dark chocolate.
I catch myself just in time and think “Wait! I already had (insert substantial amount of sugary foods here)”. But I’ve already taken hold of the paper- and silver-wrapped bar and the dopamine is firing in my brain’s reward centre, and part of me is saying, “Come on! You NEED this NOW!” I take a long… slow… breath. And I remind myself of the first part of my goal: to eat sugar in mindful moderation. And the first part of my motivation: to have a happy and healthy relationship with food.
I don’t want chocolate and sugar to control me. I know that, in this circumstance, the only reason I’m eating this chocolate is because I’m frustrated and tired and the sugar-addict in me is convinced that it will soothe and calm me. But my wiser self knows better. If I eat this, I’m just going to be left feeling unsatisfied, and certainly no calmer or happier than I was before.
My daughter is sleeping peacefully now, and what I really need is to get my essential and most important tasks done so I can get some rest. Either go right to sleep or if it’s early enough I can sit down with a book and some herbal tea. I’m really not trying to deprive myself of good things, as much as my sugar-addict side will try to convince me that’s true.
And that’s probably the hardest part of making the decision to not eat the chocolate: I’m going to be making arguments against myself – trying to undermine my own goal and motivations, or even insulting myself for wanting to change, thinking I can change. It’s like a disinformation campaign inside my own brain, filled with half-truths and attacks on my weak points and fears.
But I need to be able to remember and remind myself that I will always have the choice – I am not helpless in the face of my short-term desires. Not only will I always have the choice, but I will always have the strength to make the decision that seems more difficult.
Being Bad? Being Good?
So in this hypothetical situation, I’ve avoided the sticky trap. But even a success like this can become a pitfall if I start to congratulate myself on “being good”. The next day I might try to rationalize with myself that since I did so well yesterday, maybe it’s not so bad to give in today. But that’s nothing more than a justification for future impulsive behaviour, and justifications like these are exactly what keep me stuck.
“… you need to look at what you have done and conclude that you must really care about your goal, so much so that you want to do even more to reach it.
“…. Moving beyond the traps of moral licensing requires knowing that who we are is the self that wants the best for us – and the self that wants to live in line with our core values. When this happens, we will no longer view the impulsive, lazy, or easily tempted self as the “real” us. We will no longer act like someone who must be bribed, tricked, or forced to pursue our goals….”The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
So instead of congratulating myself on “being good”, I’d be better off reminding myself of the reason I made that decision yesterday. Why? I did it because of how important it is for me to start eating sugar and chocolate in mindful moderation. After all, this is not about denying myself, it’s about living life to the full, making the most of the time and talents I’ve received, living up to my own values.
So it’s not really a battle against myself. It’s a battle for myself.