Everyone knows the feeling of eating a bowl of ice-cream or having a glass of wine after pledging to stop. We say we’re going to eat and drink less, exercise more, stop smoking, be proactive, keep out of debt, get to bed at a decent hour—and then we fail completely to keep our word.
Sometimes we surrender to our impulses, cravings, or desires before the ink is even dry on our pledge to reform.
It’s time to learn a trick or two from the art of self-regulation. In keeping with this holiday season, I illustrate this method as it involves sweets and sugar consumption, but the practice can be applied to a wide variety of unwanted or unhealthy behaviors.
Take the case of Jamie. He’s overweight and a candidate for diabetes, yet he succumbs frequently to what he calls his “sugar addiction.” He needs to understand that his problem is not about sugar. His craving doesn’t stem from a physical addiction. We might say, instead, that his heavy consumption of sugar is due to a psychological addiction. That’s because the craving and his weakness in succumbing to it have to do with psychological conflict.
We’re all conflicted to some degree. We all want to feel strong and powerful, yet many of us find ourselves entangled in negative emotions involving helplessness, passivity, and feeling controlled. Life often feels like an everyday tussle between excess and moderation, and we find ourselves in various situations tottering back and forth between strength and weakness, resolve and indecision, and confidence and self-doubt. All the while, we want to feel we have some freedom to break the rules of moderation now and then.
When Jamie consumes too much sugar, he’s experiencing the inability to act on his own behalf. Again, that weakness is directly related to inner conflict. The conflict places him in a no-win situation. If he doesn’t have the sugar, he’ll feel deprived and perhaps empty inside. If he does consume it, he’ll feel guilty and perhaps worse physically. His unresolved conflict leads him straight into this no-win situation.
Sugar, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, food, compulsive shopping or gambling, and sexual misadventure are simply the substances and behaviors with which we act out our psychological issues. Whether people are drug addicts or sex addicts, they are acting out the inner conflict that makes it more difficult for them to protect themselves from both negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors. They have little choice but to experience themselves in large measure through the various symptoms of such conflict, until that conflict is partially or fully resolved.
As a result of his inner conflict, Jamie has an unconscious inclination—if not determination—to experience himself through weakness. All of us—as babies, toddlers, adolescents, and even teenagers—experienced ourselves as helpless or somewhat dependent. This old sense of helplessness lingers in our psyche, due especially to our profound experience of it in early childhood. We want to be consistently strong but somehow we haven’t fully achieved such fortitude. We’re still weak in so many ways. The compulsion to go on experiencing ourselves through unresolved inner weakness is the essence of what I call inner passivity. (Read here, here, and here.)
Armed with this understanding, Jamie now has new insight—or self-knowledge—with which he can counter his cravings for sugar. Whenever he feels the craving, he can now “check in” with himself to register or monitor his experience and to become as conscious as he can of what’s going on in his psyche. Keep in mind that people are often reluctant to “check in” with themselves at such moments. They’re inclined instead to give in to the craving in a way that’s quite weak and mindless. They capitulate to the craving with little or no resistance. Or, at other times, they put up a show of fiercely resisting the craving, enlisting some willpower but lacking insight. Now they’re fighting the battle on the wrong front. They make sugar the evil to be resisted, intensifying the sense of conflict, rather than becoming aware of how inner conflict and inner passivity undermine their self-regulation.
The craving for sugar often produces the emotional impression that surrender or capitulation to the craving is imminent and unavoidable. The weaker the person, the more his cravings and impulses rule. The cravings thereby serve the psychological imperative, which requires the individual to come face-to-face repeatedly with his unresolved weakness.
Jamie does now manage to “check in” with himself when he feels the craving for sugar. Doing this—connecting with himself and registering his feelings—is a big step. The tendency to act mindlessly can prevail. Being mindful, in contrast, is in itself a means to feel stronger. Acting mindfully, the individual has a much better chance of counteracting the passive pull. So Jamie now begins to pause and to reflect on what he’s feeling. He acknowledges the choice confronting him: to be passive or not to be passive. He’s determined not to act mindlessly. He wants to make a choice and take responsibility for it. He recognizes that maybe he’ll eat the treat, maybe he won’t.
Jamie understands in this moment that to regularly experience himself in a passive manner has emotional repercussions. He’ll likely feel less motivated, more easily discouraged, or indecisive, guilty, shameful, and depressed. He weighs the pleasure of eating the treat versus all of this downside.
Jamie also wants to feel that he’s faced with making a free choice. He doesn’t want to feel that he’s now trapped himself into saying no to the treat. He doesn’t want to feel that he’s taking on or adopting a rigid method or technique, which would likely only increase his resistance to the method. He wants to feel, if he so decides, that he’s free to eat the treat and enjoy it. All of us, as mentioned, want to feel free to break the rules of moderation once in a while, especially on holidays.
So, in this instance, he does. He eats it. Later, when some guilt creeps in, he minimizes the guilt, based on the fact that he considered the options and made a choice that felt right in that moment. He’s not interested in second-guessing himself.
Cravings arise again hours later. Jamie goes through this same procedure. He especially understands that that his choice is really between being passive and not being passive. Again he decides to eat the treat. This time he especially enjoys the sugary taste, although he acknowledges that the pleasure of the treat lasted only a few minutes. He monitors his thoughts and feelings to see if his inner critic is harassing him for having been passive. He wants to feel strong enough to shut down the inner critic if it attempts to butt in with disapproval and condemnation for eating the treat. If he allows his inner critic to torment him in this way, he’s simply experiencing himself through more passivity.
The next day, Jamie goes through the same mindful procedure when his cravings arise. Because of what he understands about inner passivity, he’s beginning to feel less conflicted. He’s not trying to fight the “evil” of sugar. He’s just wants to do what’s best for him. He can say yes or no. He doesn’t want to feel he’s in an agonizing dilemma. Yet he obviously understands that always choosing to eat the treat would be passive and self-defeating. He realizes that by presenting himself each day with this option to say yes or no is in itself an act of empowerment.
Jamie understands more clearly than ever that he has been choosing not the sugar but the unconscious willingness to be passive and to experience himself through the old familiar sense of weakness. This understanding involves his willingness to take responsibility for that passive aspect in his psyche. He realizes that, if he’s able each time to present himself with this conscious choice, he can avoid being mindless, and he can shift away from being passive and weak. Now he’s able to say no to the sugary treat without feeling deprived. His new emotional strength is his satisfaction. He takes pleasure in being a person who can self-regulate. Over time, he more clearly sees the craving for what it is, and he manages almost all the time, without feeling conflicted, to decline the sugar.
Recognition of his passivity begins to produce self-trust. He understands that by seeing the passivity, he’s weakening its influence. Now that he has identified the passivity, he more easily detaches from it. He’s no longer fighting a battle against sugar. He’s not fighting at all. He’s simply acquires the power to choose wisely.
If you decide to try this technique, but then you don’t use it or even think about it when cravings arise, you would then have evidence, as you later reflect on what happened, for how unconsciously determined you are to remain mindless and passive. This awareness of your resistance to being mindful and strong can help you when cravings next arise. You’ll be prepared to make a greater effort to check in with yourself and to resist the attraction of the passive side.
This approach can be used with other unwanted behaviors that involve alcohol consumption, drug use, overeating, promiscuity, indecision, and procrastination, along with compulsive shopping and gambling.