Changing versus Understanding Behavior
Many of you look back on overeating, bingeing, or making food choices you wish you hadn’t made and wonder why you did what you did. A caution: It’s one thing to seek understanding out of curiosity, but quite another to grope for explanations that only drag you through the past, leave you frustrated about changing your eating future, and prompt you to pass judgment on yourself. When you ask yourself why you act in a certain way around food, what exactly is it you want to know?
As a therapist, I’m the last person to say that you don’t need to understand your past to change your present or generate a brighter future. It’s crucial to recognize cause-and-effect, comprehend patterns from childhood, and acknowledge the mistakes you’ve made in your food decisions and why you’ve done so. So if you’re asking why you made an unwise eating choice because you haven’t examined your history then, by all means, explore away. You’ll find valuable information. However, if you’ve been over the same territory many times before and get how yesterday impacts today, I doubt you’re really looking for new information or even an explanation of what made you choose poorly in the present. How could you be? You already know the answer.
More likely, you’re seeking a way to avoid repeating your previous mistakes in the future. In that case, the question is not why you made an eating mistake, but how not to do it again. As long as you already understand the why—and if you’ve been working on this issue for a long time, you probably do get it—then shift your attention to how to change. Focusing on the why will only drag you back into the past which is not where you want to be. Instead, target the future by critiquing how you can do things differently when the same situation arises again (and, it will, you know!). Consider options, devise a strategy, come up with a plan. Keep your sights on what you can do differently, not on why you didn’t act in your self-interest yesterday. Enlighten yourself, then move along.
This is a difficult pattern to shift. The “Why did I do it?” question arises almost automatically, so you’ll have to stay aware of your thoughts to notice when it comes around. Instead of instantly responding to the question, switch gears to “How can I change?” which is the best question you can ask yourself to guarantee a better eating future. If you can catch yourself when the “why’s” come up, you’ll notice how often you ask this question of yourself. That’s okay. You’re trying to make meaning of your past behavior. But don’t be seduced into backtracking over material you already understand. The payoff is in the present and the future, in thinking about how to act differently.