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The brain is an amazing organ, but it’s not as clever or evolved as we think it is. For instance, we may think we’re telling it to do one thing, while it hears our instruction as just the opposite. Not great when you’re trying to avoid unwanted eating. Here’s a common mistake—and its fix—for handing unwelcome food urges.
I bet that when you want to deter yourself from heading for the drive-through on the way home from work or getting up from working at the computer to check out what’s in your kitchen cabinets (for the umpteenth time), you’re probably telling yourself something like, “I can’t eat that now” or “I really don’t want to eat that.” It’s a common enough tactic that we’ve been encouraged to take: tell yourself what want to do, not what you don’t want to do, right? Except that these words actually may be driving you to eat!
Do this experiment. Read this sentence a couple of times: “I do not want to touch my face.” Keep repeating it and see what comes up for you. First, what are your thoughts about? If you’re like most people, they’re about touching your face. That is, you’re thinking about not touching it, of course, but the subject is front and center in your mind because your words are acting as a reminder to (not) touch your face. This works like telling yourself not to look at the elephant in the middle of the room, which is to say that it keeps you thinking about sneaking glances at the elephant.
Telling yourself what you don’t want to do by using the words that include what you do want to do happens in non-food arenas as well: I don’t want to be anxious, I don’t want to yell at the kids, I don’t want to bite my nails. See what I mean. These words only serve to keep you focused on the behavior you’re trying to avoid. I hear of clients getting into lengthy conversations in their heads which go on for minutes, days or even weeks that keep them riveted on not doing something which is to say, fixated on doing it.
Far better to uncouple from the thought and keep it at a distance from your mind by using mindfulness or distraction. Rather than debate a thought or an urge, disengage from it. If you’re in a burning building, you’re not sitting there thinking, “I don’t want to be in this building, do I?” Your goal is to put as much distance as fast as possible between you and the fire. That’s what to do with unwanted thoughts and urges. Watch them go by like drifting clouds or trains taking you to the wrong destination. Separate yourself from your urges by thinking about other things. If you find yourself going back to your old, unworkable ways with food, remind yourself of the face-touching paradox.
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