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I assume that all of you who drive know what it means to ride the brakes: your foot rests lightly on or hovers above the brake pedal so that you can stomp down on it in a flash or keep going so slowly that you never really pick up speed. This kind of driving hyper-vigilance comes from a fear of moving too fast and/or of not being able to brake quickly enough. The same kind of hyper-vigilance can be used to describe the behavior of the rigidly restrictive undereater who is constantly riding the brake of appetite.
If you’re one of these people, perhaps you grew up believing that if you didn’t sit on your appetite, you’d never be able to reign it in. Maybe your parents or relatives were overweight or overeaters and you were ashamed of them, leading you to decide early on never to give in to excess eating. Or could be you were a fat child and now find pleasure and acceptance in growing thin and saying no to food. You’re afraid that if you take your foot off the brake, you’ll revert to your old eating habits and grow larger again. Or possibly you were shamed for being an overweight child or praised for being underweight and got the message that if you don’t squelch your desire for food, you’ll lose complete control. Perhaps your parents even modeled this fear and reaction.
Now you’ve got it etched on your brain that you must ride your appetite brake because you’re convinced that an extra bite or a taste of something fattening will trip your switch and you’ll never stop eating. This exact reaction may have even happened to you. Perhaps you did try eating “normally” and found that you couldn’t say no once you started to say yes. Back in your safety zone, you vow never to leave it again. What do you do, however, if you no longer want to eat so restrictively, if you’re tied of living the life of a food martyr, depriving yourself of culinary pleasure, and yearn to feel more relaxed around food. Your inability to change may be based on the false belief that if you stop riding the brakes, your eating will automatically go wild.
In my clinical experience, this does sometimes happen. But, as often, because you’re so in the habit of riding the brakes, this habit kicks in automatically (in fact, prematurely) and prevents you from habitually overeating. After all, if you’ve been depriving yourself of food for years or decades, the response is ingrained. With the proper perspective and desire to eat “normally” you can use your response (also called self control and self discipline) to stop yourself from eating past full. There’s nothing wrong with the skill itself; the problem is in only having this one ability and not its sister—letting go. It won’t be easy to stop riding the brakes, but you won’t be a “normal” eater until you do.
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