We all have our thing that we turn to when we’ve had a long day–cookies, Doritos, wine, chocolate cake, ice cream, beer. It’s that little reward we give ourselves for a job well done. I’ve had a long day, I deserve to treat myself
I recently had a mini-session with an attorney who wanted to work through her over-eating tendencies. As part of the process we examined the circumstances that led to her overeating. Most days when she comes home, she changes clothes, cooks dinner, does the dishes, and picks up around the house. Finally around 8:30pm she sits down on her couch and turns on her favorite Bravo show from her DVR with a handful of cookies. At that point in the day, her predominant thought is That was a long day. I’m so ready to relax.
Habits are based upon patterns in our lives. We have certain cues that set us up for the pattern.
Over-eating is pattern that is predominantly driven by environmental patterns (e.g., sitting down alone at the end of the day and watching television) and thought patterns (Today was a rough day, I just want to relax).
Once you identify the pattern and the cues, you can get to work developing alternative habits and patterns. But before we can do that, we must determine why the pattern exists:
What “reward” are those cookies offering you.?
Sugary foods and alcohol provide our brains with a quick dopamine hit. When we engage in our pattern–sitting on the couch, turning on the tv–our brain gets excited because it knows a hit is coming. It is craving the hit not only because of our pattern but because the hit offers a reward.
The reward is dopamine. At these times during our days, my clients are feeling tired and worn out. Secretly, they are often a little sad. They are swimming in thoughts like I wish I had more time to do the things I enjoy or I really don’t want to go back to work tomorrow. Those thoughts feel terrible. Why feel terrible when we can bury that gross feeling with a rush of dopamine?
Now we add the thought, I’m worn out, it’s been a long day, I deserve a break and we create a recipe (a pattern) for disaster.
Rather than experience the emotions that come at the end of a long day when there is nothing left to do, we push away from it and bury it with a flood of dopamine from a sugary treat or alcohol.
Why do we do that? What is so terrible about experiencing the fatigue and those feelings at the end of the day?
When we avoid our emotions in this way and bury them with the rush we get from external things, we are trading our long-term happiness for momentary relief.
Ultimately, my client wanted to stop over-eating and she wanted to lose weight. That was going to require her to change this habit of buffering negative emotions.
At the end of a long and stressful day, we often experience a wide array of emotions. Some of us experience a bit of sadness or dread as we realize This is my life. This is how every day is going to be for the next 30 years. How can I maintain this pace forever? I don’t want to do this anymore.
Those thoughts feel terrible and they are posing some important questions that bear examination. That examination will never come if we spend our nights avoiding a true examination of our lives. In order to build a better and happier life for ourselves, we must be willing to examine those negative thoughts and to do so we must be willing to examine those negative emotions.
At the end of a “long day” what if we just experienced whatever came up?
What if we were willing to examine those feelings and accept them as part of the 50-50? Instead of burying them with a dopamine rush, we just sat with them and let them pass through our bodies?
Part of they reason my client was over-eating was because she was trying to cover up some negative emotions. First, we identified what those emotions were and what thoughts were causing them. Then we developed strategies to just accept those emotions as a part of life and perfectly normal. From there, she no longer needed to buffer because there was nothing to fix. Nothing had gone wrong.
She was just a human, having a human experience.
When you open up to the awareness that our lives are 50-50 and that negative emotion does not need to be “fixed” or covered up, you can start to shift away from your over-eating habits. You can develop new habits that accept what you are feeling.
The next time you find yourself saying I’ve had a long day, ask yourself
What kind of a “pass” are you giving yourself because you are feeling something negative? How are those choices impacting your life?
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