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One of the chief complaints I hear from clients and patients is how utterly impossible it seems to say no to food on a regular basis when they’re not hungry or to stop eating when they’re satisfied. They speak about going unconscious, falling into a trance, blocking out consequences, and being reduced to overwhelming won’t-take-no-for-an-answer desire. In clinical terms, they cannot refrain from acting on impulse.
Three related skills are necessary to inhibit impulses, slightly different takes on saying no to yourself around food (or anything else). The first is the capacity for frustration tolerance, which means being able to endure frustration in order to achieve goals. If you have a doctor’s appointment but return home because you can’t easily find a parking space or if you give up on doing your taxes because they’re complicated and a brain drain, you have a low threshold for frustration. Frustration is unpleasant but bearable; we all encounter it and should not expect a frustration-free life if we want to see things through. Building tolerance for frustration—managing the feeling until it passes or self-talking it away—is key to learning to say no to food when you’re not hungry.
The second skill is the ability to delay gratification, which means saying no to what you want now because of how you’ll benefit later. If you can save money for a car rather than splurge on petty amenities, you’re good at delaying gratification. The same is true if you can keep secret your brother’s surprise party so that you (and he) can enjoy his delight when every yells “Happy Birthday.” Delaying gratification develops from staying focused on consequences and waiting for your rewards and is helped by being able to tolerate frustration.
The third skill is impulse control, or the ability to refrain from giving in to every urge. We often think we have to express everything we feel or need to act on every thought that pops into our head. There’s a difference between impulse, which is internal, and expression and action, which are external. Managing impulses effectively relies on both frustration tolerance and delayed gratification, that is, being able to tolerate not getting what you want and foregoing current pleasure for future reward.
Like every skill, the more you practice these three, the better you’ll get at them. There is no other way to become skilled, but in time you’ll get the hang of them. Think about them the next time you want to eat when you’re not hungry or don’t want to stop eating when you’re full or satisfied. Remember, practice makes proficient.
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