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I’d wager that one of the major unrecognized causes of runaway eating is cognitive dissonance. You may not know the term, but you sure know the feeling. We all do.
David Denniston, CFA describes cognitive dissonance in 7 Signs You Exhibit Cognitive Dissonance as “the distressing mental state people often feel when they find themselves behaving in ways which don't fit with their self-image, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold.”
Here are some examples from my practice: mixed feelings about whether to leave a spouse or partner, how to set boundaries with children, parents or adult siblings, choosing to change jobs, and deciding to retire. Of course, these are the big internal conflicts we encounter. Smaller ones include what precautions and risks to take during a pandemic, exposing emotional vulnerability, and how to spend your money.
Denniston explains that one reason for cognitive dissonance is that “people desire to be consistent and will go out of their way to make sure their actions fit their beliefs and opinions.” This is where shoulds come in. If you feel you’re a “nice” person—whatever that means—and want to do something that might hurt someone, you’ll experience cognitive dissonance. Or if you feel you ‘shouldn’t’ eat a piece of chocolate cake because it’s “fattening” but crave it intensely, you’ll likely experience it.
Cognitive dissonance may involve opposing beliefs, values or feelings: when you feel conflicted, first you experience mild discomfort that gets stronger until it turns into major anxiety and what you “should” feel, think or do becomes the major preoccupation of your life. Dennis cites specific signs that we’re experiencing cognitive dissonance: 1) feeling uncomfortable, 2) avoiding internal or external conflict, 3) avoiding the facts, 4) rationalization, 5) fear of missing out, 6) shame and 7) guilt.
Instead of food seeking or obsessing about weight (or other things), identify that you feel conflicted and are experience cognitive dissonance. Recognize that this is a human trait experience that is inescapable if you live a rich, full life. Acknowledge that there are few “right” answers in life, but many best ones. Self-talk yourself into tolerating the discomfort of being pulled in two directions until one feeling or the other grows stronger (which it will always do) and then you’ll know what to do. You can’t escape cognitive dissonance but you can avoid eating to escape it.
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