Adapting Addiction Recovery Skills to Eating, Part 4



Strategy 4: Separate a Substance from Its Related Behavior

You’ve been following along, able to Identify Your Triggers, Avoid them, and attempt Abstinence from your unwanted eating behaviors. So why isn’t everything fixed?

Think back to when you started your recovery from addiction… surely there were slips and slides and lapses and do-overs. That’s what the Desire chip is for, right? So each time you make an attempt and don’t succeed, you have the possibility of identifying a barrier to change that you may not have thought of before.

One common barrier to changing eating behaviors is a Confusion of the Substance with its Related Behavior(s). In other words, you believe that you are hooked on the substance, when really it is the situation that surrounds that substance that is appealing. An example would be someone who is addicted to gambling and alcohol. They might commit to staying out of the casino, but they still drink to excess even sitting at home. Gambling may be a separate problem, but stopping gambling doesn’t address the alcohol addiction. Someone else might say, “I only drink when I’m gambling. If I don’t go to the casino, I wouldn’t bother with booze.” That person has separated the substance from the behavior. If they stay away from gambling, their drinking isn’t a problem.

It is difficult at times to separate two or more related behaviors, and usually only time and attempting to change can reveal the truth. That’s why this barrier is only revealed AFTER you have taken the initial steps to change.

Answering the following questions on your own or with a support person may give you some insight about whether you may have linked two or more issues together.

1. What Are the Good Parts of the Unwanted Eating?

It may be hard to see something good in this behavior you are trying to quit, but I can almost guarantee there is something in there. Take the example of overeating brownies. If this is a behavior you are trying to stop, it can feel like the worst thing in the world. You can swear off brownies and keep them out of your house. But if you find that against all odds you don’t stay away from brownies, consider if there is some good aspect of this behavior… something that feels good right up until it feels bad. Maybe you really like how brownies taste. Perhaps it feels like a reward at the end of a hard day, or something you can do that you don’t have to share. If you can identify the benefits you get, you may be able to find another way to get that same thing – doesn’t everyone deserve to eat something they enjoy, have a reward at the end of the day, or have something of their own that they don’t have to share? You deserve all of these things, you just don’t deserve eating a whole pan of brownies just to get it.

2. Do you prefer the process of eating or the outcome?

What you’re trying to answer is exactly which part of the unwanted behavior has the payoff in it for you? Do you like how you feel when you are in the process of eating the brownies? Or do you enjoy how you feel after they’re gone? Perhaps you hate how you feel after it’s over, you only like the excitement you feel building up in advance. Perhaps you detest how you feel while doing it, you only like the contented feeling you get when you’re done. Or perhaps you feel awful when you see them and the only way to feel better is to make them disappear. Try to pinpoint the exact moment you go from being excited about brownies to hating them, or yourself. It is very challenging to stay in touch with your emotions in this way, but if you can, you will gain valuable information. If your response is something like, “Why would I stay in touch with my emotions?? The whole reason I eat is to get away from them!!” well that begs the question why are your feelings so scary? Definitely one to discuss with a counselor. Because inner demons don’t just go away when you feed them.

3. What if You Change the Eating Situation?

You can answer this question as a thought experiment – you might be surprised at how strong your reaction is to just thinking about changing your eating. For example, let’s use the same example of overeating brownies. Let’s say that you overeat brownies in secret. What if you made that same pan of brownies, and then ate them one by one in the lunch room at work. Do you instantly think, “No way I would do that!” If so, then you know it’s the secrecy you like. Or the way that you check out and relax when you’re eating alone in a way that you couldn’t with people around. Or if you tend to eat brownies in the middle of the night, what would it be like to eat them in the daytime? Would it be different? Feel different? Have a different effect on your mood or your day? Change the scenario just in your mind, or actually try it one day, and see what you learn. Perhaps you are using food to take a break, or to relax, or something else that you are most certainly entitled to, but just need to get in a more effective manner.

4. Would you Eat any Other Food That Way? Or Do Any Other Behaviors in the Same Situation?

Another thought experiment: You go to the store, you pick out some brownies. You take them home and you eat them at home late at night. What would it be like if you brought home carrots instead? Would you look forward to waiting till everyone’s asleep? Would you enjoy eating carrots, or carrot cake, or jello? Or is it only the brownies that make you feel good? What if you got up in the middle of the night to do origami? Or yoga? Or smoke? What would be different if you did a different behavior that doesn’t involve any eating at all? How can you take what you learn and adapt your behavior? Perhaps what you need is a better night’s sleep, or a hobby, and food is just a shoddy substitute.

5. Why Might you NOT Want to Change this Part of your Eating?

This is a super tough question when every part of your mind is thinking, “Of course I want to change! Why do you think I’m here???” But it turns out that only the conscious part of your mind has that thought, and there is more to you than meets the eye. It is extremely hard to dip into your subconscious mind, but you can do it if you think about things in a different way. What would be scary about changing your behavior? What would it be like if you didn’t have brownies to turn to in the night? What might you miss out on, or be losing, or what might you have to do or face if you didn’t have brownies to distract you? Once again you may identify a normal human need that you can meet in a way that doesn’t involve brownies or overeating behavior.

You may find responding to these questions difficult, or you may feel the answers are immediately obvious.

Either way, the more challenging task is to find a way to get what you really need from your life instead of turning to food to get it. This is no different than the task that you faced when you committed to living a drug-free life, or a life without alcohol, or anything else. Change can be hard, but if you can identify the barriers that are holding you back, you will have an easier time of facing life in a different way. It can be tempting to think that food is an easy answer, that food doesn’t require anything of you, no deep introspection, no time with your journal. But I suspect that there is something in you that knows this is false. That although food doesn’t ask anything of you, you ask more of yourself. That is why you are looking for clues, looking for answers, looking for help.

If you know there is more out there for you than the food problems you are facing, please call Casa Palmera at (858) 481-4411. Phones are answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and intake counselors can point you in the right direction. No barrier is too high to change when you have the right kind of help.