Category Archives for "Emotional Eating"

reflective brain and impulsive brain

I Know What I Want To Do… So Why Don’t I Do It? Part 2

In Part 1 of, “I Know What I Want To Do… So Why Don’t I Do It?”, you learned four reasons executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says are responsible for why we often don’t follow through with the things we say we want to accomplish. These four reasons have to do with our perception which often doesn’t match reality.

These reasons that Goldsmith described include:

  1. We believe in this “dream,” that at some point our future we won’t be as crazy busy as it is now, and then we can do the things we say we want to do.
  2. Then there’s “planner bias.” When we make plans, we are usually relaxed and comfortable, just creating the plan. We expect we’ll be in this same state when it’s time to execute the plan. But as Goldsmith explains, “The person that’s doing the planning is not the same as the person that’s doing the executing.” 
  3. We often underestimate the time it will take to follow through with what we want to do or we aren’t realistic about the effort required, or both.
  4. Inevitably, some crisis comes up while working on what we want to be doing, that stops or stalls our plan. As Goldsmith says, “Although the odds on any one low probability event occurring are slim, the odds on some low probability event occurring are incredibly high.”

While these issues are about our perception of what we want to do and what the circumstances will be at the time of working on what we want to do, psychologist Glenn Mackintosh answers the same question by looking at two systems at work in our brain.

Our Brain Has Its Own Agenda

I often talk about the research (along with anecdotal evidence from millions of dieters) that shows we really aren’t in control of our body weight, shape or size. We like to think we can control our size or our shape, and plenty of marketers still claim that you can have “the body of your dreams.” But it really comes down to our genetics. And the more we try to change our body to conform to what we want, it fights back, takes control and you end up with change in the opposite direction, gaining more weight.

A similar case can be made for our brain. While we do have control of our conscious mind (although it doesn’t always feel like it!), the subconscious is in the background, running much of the show, regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish with your conscious mind.

Glenn explains the role your brain plays in whether you follow through or not with something you want to do in his YouTube series, Thursday Therapy, episode #29, “I know what I want to do, but I can’t do it!” But in the beginning, he does share some comforting news:

…this is super normal, you’re not crazy. I get the frustration, it is frustrating… but I want you to try and have a bit of self-compassion because this is a very, very normal thing.

And then he tells us what’s actually going on when we don’t do what we say we want to do…

…we actually have two parts of our brain that are making the decisions around what we want to do and what we don’t want to do simultaneously.

If you’ve ever felt like you had two minds working against each other, keeping you from accomplishing something important, in a way, you did!  But there’s no reason to beat yourself up because, as Glenn tells us, this is normal. According to Glenn, these two systems in our brain go to work when we are thinking about what we want to do (or what we don’t want to do).

These two systems are the reflective and the impulsive systems.

Your Reflective System

The first system Glenn describes is the reflective system. Glenn compares it to Mr. Spock from Star Trek:

…the reflective system is quite logical, it’s a very slow thinking system. And it’s kind of related to willpower. It takes a lot of effort, so I think of this like a “Spock”-type thinking and this is the part that makes all of the plans.

Keep in mind when Glenn refers to willpower, he’s not talking about willpower related to dieting. Willpower is part of mr. spock reflective brain“diet mentality” and not appropriate for decisions around food and eating, but in other situations, it can be a very useful tool. Using the reflective system, including willpower, can be effective in getting yourself to do something worthwhile that you just don’t feel like doing at the moment.

According to Glenn, the reflective system

  • is more logical
  • gives a lot of thought to situations before reacting
  • doesn’t pay much attention to emotions

Your Impulsive System

Here’s how Glenn describes the impulsive system:

…this is a like a fast and intuitive kind of a system. It happens without a lot of conscious thought at all. It’s impulsive and it’s related to our emotions. I think of this system as being like Homer Simpson.

Homer Simpson impulsive brainBecause the impulsive brain is triggered by emotions, it’s responsible for quick “reactions” that we often regret. The comparison to Homer Simpson illustrates this system at work. Homer is well known for acting on his emotions and for being quite impulsive, especially around food. Put a sad Homer around a box of donuts, and you’ve got an impulsive system’s dream!

Characteristics of the impulsive system include…

  • fast thinking, doesn’t take time to think through situations
  • childlike and emotional
  • more unconscious than the reflective system

Using the Systems For Better Follow-Through

Glenn suggests the best results – following through with what you want to do – comes from transforming the relationship between the two systems. This involves changing the impulsive system to want what you want so you don’t need to use more willpower (and the reflective system) or end up arguing with yourself.

…you can transform the relationship between those two systems, so you can actually do more of those things that you say you want to do.

Because the impulsive system involves the subconscious mind, to change it to want what you want, Glenn recommends what he calls the “Alternative Therapies.” These are tapping (EFT) and hypnosis. Over time the subconscious mind can be changed… Homer may actually want to exercise rather than eat the donut. It turns out, the effects of these therapies actually increase over time, according to Glenn, so…

…because they’re working on that impulsive system and changing the impulsive system, you don’t need as much willpower to fight with yourself to make those decisions that you want to do.

Glenn still recommends taking measures to transform the reflective system as well. He suggests, instead of attempting to boost willpower (which isn’t always easy to do), brains working togetherto look for those things that may weaken it – and remove them. Keep in mind an improved impulsive system will keep us from having to rely on willpower alone. But there are several factors that can weaken willpower which we need to be aware of, including:

  • not getting enough sleep or quality sleep
  • drinking alcohol or using other illicit substances
  • not eating enough
  • getting dehydrated
  • negative emotions you aren’t feeling or processing

The last factor Glenn recommends considering so you are able to follow through is your environment:

…set up your environment for success so that impulsively you’re making the right choices for you and it doesn’t take as much willpower.

Think about the self-care activities you want to be doing. This may include making sure you have the foods at home that you enjoy eating and make you feel good, figuring out how to make it easier to get some activity (put your exercise clothes out for the morning, join a gym that is close to home, etc.), or having cold water on hand that’s easy to grab when you’re thirsty. Whatever it is you want to be doing, there will be ways of making it more accessible or more automatic to keep the willpower requirement as low as possible, especially while you’re strengthening your impulsive system at the same time!

Glenn Mackintosh is one of my favorite people on YouTube for information on Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating – especially from a psychological point of view. I highly recommend his videos, especially Thursday Therapy. You can watch episode #29 below and follow Glenn on YouTube. He is an expert on hypnosis and tapping (EFT) as well.

Let me know what you think of these ideas and what you’ll be working on first in the comments below!

Stay tuned for part 3 of this series, coming soon!

1 ending overeating

Ending Overeating: Feel Your Feelings


Do you stuff your feelings down with food? When you get stressed, frustrated, lonely, angry or depressed do you find yourself eating, rather than dealing with the circumstances that are causing these emotions? Ending overeating is absolutely possible, but before we get started…

Please, don’t beat yourself up! You’re certainly not alone. Not only are millions of people doing the same thing, but I’ve been there too.

Overeating is a Learned Behavior

We don’t start out in life eating for emotional reasons. It’s actually something we learn. At an early age, many of us learned that we couldn’t trust our bodies to tell us when to eat. We heard things like, “You can’t be hungry, it’s not dinner time!”

Emotional eating is often taught by our parents or other authority figures. What happened when you fell down and hurt yourself? Did you get a cookie, “to make it better”? This may have taught us to associate love with food.

In our society, we associate holidays, birthdays, and almost any event with food. We eat for almost any reason – stress, anger, sadness, boredom, happiness, excitement, just about anything but physical hunger.

Do you ever crave “comfort food”? We all do at times. However, if you have this craving frequently or it happens often when you’re experiencing a negative emotion, it may be time to pay attention. Food cravings or urges to eat, especially when you aren’t physically hungry could be a sign of trying to avoid painful or uncomfortable feelings.

This is How You’ve Been Taking Care of Yourself

You may not even realize this is what you’re doing. Just like associating food with love or learning you can’t trust your body to tell you when it’s hungry, you may have learned to “stuff down” negative feelings or to “numb out” when emotions are running high.

Sometimes food is used as a distraction, which is similar to stuffing down or numbing out but often has a different motive. It’s not a conscious decision, but when we overeat so much that we feel sick, it creates a distraction from whatever difficult situation or feeling that triggered us to eat. Instead of dealing with the root cause or emotion, we now have a reason to beat ourselves up, start a diet and turn ourselves into a “project” that needs to be “fixed.”

If you can relate to this, again, don’t beat yourself up. You learned to take care of yourself with food.

Does that sound ridiculous? It’s true. Without proper instruction or modeling by parents on how to effectively deal with emotions, we found a coping strategy. I encourage you to see this situation with gratitude that it was food. You could have learned to use drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling, or any other destructive habit that creates much worse outcomes.

There is a Way Out

There is good and bad news about ending overeating. First, the bad news – you will have to feel your feelings. The good news is as you truly allow yourself to feel your feelings, they will lower in intensity and so will the desire for comfort food.

There’s a good chance you won’t know what you are feeling in the beginning. This is because eating has become your learned response to any intense feeling. Stay aware and notice when a craving hits or you’re triggered to eat. If you aren’t physically hungry, ask what you’re feeling.

This isn’t always easy, especially when you don’t want to face the truth of the issue. Run through a list of emotions – anxious, lonely, bored, tired, angry, hurt, embarrassed? If you can’t identify the feeling, that’s ok. Keep trying and practicing as feelings come up. Journaling thoughts and feelings is a helpful practice for identifying emotions and simply feeling better in general.

If you can determine the emotion, ask yourself, “Am I going to die if I sit with this feeling for five minutes?” (If you get a ‘yes’ then start at 30 seconds, it really doesn’t matter how long, it’s about taking action.) Just sit and feel. It may not feel very good at first, but notice how it gets less intense as you allow yourself to feel it. As you practice this more and more, you’ll find it easier to deal with emotions and find yourself less drawn to food to solve your problems.

Feelings Serve a Purpose

Emotions are messengers – whether positive or negative – they let us know that something is going on. There’s something that we need to pay attention to. But when we eat to temporarily shut down the negative feelings, an unintended consequence shows up. It turns out that we can’t turn off emotions or feelings one by one. When we shut down sadness, we also shut down the ability to feel happy, or any other emotion.

This leads to feeling numb, which is uncomfortable, and we stay stuck in this negative cycle. We go back to our coping mechanism, overeating, in an attempt to feel anything at this point. Then guilt and shame show up for having eaten certain foods or too much food, and the cycle continues, on and on.

Spending a short time feeling unwanted emotions is a better option than staying stuck in a diet-binge cycle. Being stuck not only feels bad but with time it can lead to all kinds of unwanted outcomes. It can even drive someone who has never dieted into a dieting cycle, paired with binging, all due to trying to avoid feelings.

If you notice you’re reaching for food when negative feelings come up, become aware, and at the very least, give yourself a few minutes to sit with the feelings. If you’re already stuck in an emotional overeating or binging cycle, or the dieting/binge cycle, and you want out, honoring and feeling your emotions is a good place to begin.