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Many of you may look around at friends, family, or perfect strangers and wonder how the dickens they can stop themselves from overeating or noshing when they’re not hungry. One answer is that they’ve learned to delay gratification. Although this behavior involves genetic tendencies, childhood learning is also major behavior-shaper.
Parental modeling and instruction are strong influences in developing the ability to delay gratification. Did your parents model waiting for rewards or have difficulty controlling their impulses? What did they teach you about the benefits of restraint? Moreover, how did they teach this lesson—compassionately or punitively? If you were unfairly punished for surrendering to impulse, might you be rebelling against restraint today?
Trust affects kids’ patience (SCIENCE NEWS 11/17/12) describes the findings of a new study: “Kids’ beliefs about the reliability of the people around them can dramatically shape willingness to wait for a sweeter payoff…” This means that if you trust you will receive something better by holding off, you’re more likely to do so. The question then, is how predictable, reliable, and consistent your parents were in following through. Did they say you’d receive a reward for not acting impulsively, then fail to give you one? It’s easy to see how that response would undermine your ability to resist temptation because there was no reinforcement of healthy behavior. Many disregulated eaters grew up in chaotic households where follow through—negative or positive—was inconsistent at best, hindering their ability to wait for reward today.
To develop a stronger capacity to delay gratification, first, acknowledge the problem—not critically, but with curiosity and without judgment. Then look to your childhood to understand how this behavior developed. True, there’s a bit of biology in many of our abilities, but there’s also a great deal of family shaping. Look at whether or not you received consistent follow through when you restrained your impulses and trusted that you’d receive a reward as promised—praise, a hug, or tangible compensation—and what kind of punishment—fair or unfair—you received when you gave in to impulse.
To become a “normal” eater, practice delaying gratification. If you crave food when ‘you’re not hungry or want to stop eating when satisfied, tell yourself to wait a minute and keep saying that until the urge passes. Reward yourself with heaps of pride and self-praise when you restrain your impulse. Keep a focus for 3-6 weeks on delaying gratification, not only in the food arena, and you’ll be rewarded with stronger restraint.
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