A patient once told me that she wanted a taste of her daughter’s ice cream, but resisted. At first, she felt proud of her self-control, but later she binged. When I asked why not have a taste of ice cream if she wanted it, she reacted with horror: “Because I can’t go around eating ice cream, cake, and candy all day!”
For most people, the decision to eat is a fairly simple matter of recognizing that they want to eat and then taking an amount that should satisfy them. This process usually happens naturally and without much deliberation, but it requires trust in their intuition and judgment. Emotional eaters, on the other hand, understandably have little trust in their food judgment. They tend to view their options as binary, meaning there are only two conditions that one can be in while eating: “in control” or “out of control”.
This makes strict diets very attractive to them, since the clear rules make judgment unnecessary. But such rigid dieting isn’t sustainable, so it makes binge eating inevitable because for binary thinkers it’s the only remaining option and, like dieting, it also requires no judgment. Therefore, for someone like my patient, even a taste of ice cream can lead to a binge, since she would feel that she had already lost control.
People tend to think of self-control as the ability to override an impulse to act; to exert willpower and restraint over one’s behavior. However, there’s another way to define the term control, which can help emotional eaters begin to view their eating differently: to guide and direct one’s behaviour. In this sense, self-control can be better understood as a more fluid and dynamic adjustment of behavior; self-regulation and not merely self-denial.
When emotional eaters understand this and, like those who come to me for help, are eager to get out of this trap of dieting and binge eating, then, as I tell my patients, everything is on the menu. Eating decisions are no longer a question of what’s permitted; the question instead is more subjective: “Do I want it or not?”
My patients’ initial response to the idea of deciding if they really want something is, “What do you mean by ‘want’? If I allow myself to eat what I want, I’ll eat everything!” My answer to that helps clarify the difference: “If you think you want the entire cake, then cake is not what you want”.
What then do they want? They want to feel free from the scrutiny and judgment of others. Free from the feeling that they must please others by choosing what they should eat instead of what they want to eat. That the enjoyment of food is as important a motivation to eat as hunger, and they can allow themselves to experience it.
This idea at first feels foreign to them and even a bit subversive. But then it becomes a revelation. When they realise that, like anyone else, they’re allowed to eat for pleasure, then there’s no longer a reason to eat out of defiance or to binge alone like a thief in the night, moving quickly and hiding the evidence so they don’t get caught.
They can relax and enjoy what they want. And that’s when they finally understand that they never really wanted the entire cake in the first place.
The original version of this article was published on the PESI UK Blog on Sept 25, 2019