Great Expectations

February 13, 2013

Two psychologists were debating which is stronger, one’s perspective or one’s circumstances. So they recruited two young boys to participate in a little experiment. One of the boys always had a positive and optimistic attitude while the other was always negative and pessimistic. They put the negative kid in a room filled with toys and candy for a day, while the optimist spent the day in an empty, dark, and smelly barn. At the end of the day, they interviewed the boys.

When they talked to the pessimist he was crying miserably about the broken toys scattered around and how upset his stomach was from all the candy he ate. When they brought the other boy out of the barn he was covered in filth and  picking straw out of his hair but had the biggest smile on his face. “Why are you so happy?” the scientists asked. They boy beamed excitedly and said, “With all this horseshit around, there’s got to be a pony somewhere!”

This  story is a nice illustration of the way your view of an event can affect your reality and how that, in turn, affects your response to a situation. Here’s another example of how changing your perception of circumstances that make you feel controlled can make a very big difference, and it’s especially relevant to emotional eating. As I’ve pointed out before, perhaps the major factor that connects dieting behavior with binge behavior is the feeling that certain foods are simply Bad. Due to the “demands” of the diet to restrict those foods, binge behavior can follow as a way of reasserting autonomy.

This tendency to see certain foods as Bad is practically universal among chronic dieters. So let’s challenge it. Where does the Bad characteristic of a food reside? Is it a feature of the food itself? Well, if it’s inedible or toxic it would be bad. If it contains a common allergen, like peanuts, it would certainly be bad for someone who may go into anaphylactic shock from eating it. Those are features that are in the food and make it bad for you.

But what about food that someone simply finds disgusting? In my opinion, even though I’ve never tried it, escargot is Bad because it looks gross. But it’s not true for other people. That’s a difference in perception, which is “in” the person, not in the food. People often refer to some items as Junk Food, and determine that those foods are Bad. Relative to other foods, they may be have more calories and less nutritional value per ounce, but if you’re mindful of  how much and how often you eat it, those characteristics wouldn’t be harmful.

The reason that such food causes the negative reaction that it does is not because of its inherent attributes, and certainly not because of how it tastes, which is usually pretty delicious, but because people find it very hard to eat it in moderate amounts. Demonizing it is really more of a way to strengthen their resistance to it. On the other hand, it’s tasty, it can make you feel good, and if it’s dessert, it can bring a good meal to a satisfying conclusion. Those are all good traits, not bad ones!

The problem is that by labeling an item of food as Bad and avoiding it, it begins to control you. It occupies your thoughts; it makes you go out of your way to avoid it; it makes you feel deprived. Of course, it’s really you who are allowing it to have that power because you have deemed it to be Evil. Let that go on long enough and you’re building up the steam for a blow-out binge.

On the other hand, you can look at that dessert and view the choice you face as Good versus Good, as in, “It would be good for me to limit what I eat because I think I’ve eaten plenty and I’m pretty close to breaking my calorie budget, but that dessert table looks really good to me and I want to go to there.” That would make you feel that it’s your choice, and since you’re the one in control, you would feel free to choose either on its own merits – not simply as a way to prove something to yourself.

Rather than thinking of any food as Junk or Bad, or thinking to yourself, “…that dessert table holds the Snack of the Devil’s Spawn…must resist,” change how you’re perceiving it. If you have a small piece of cake and you enjoy it, then it’s good in every sense of the word. But if you try to resist, hold back and distract yourself, then like the people in the White Bear studies, you’re eventually liable to give up the fight and give in to a binge. Then, yes, that would feel Bad.


Change Your Filters

February 6, 2013

A while back, I wrote a post called “Feeling Trapped in Hamlet’s Prison.” The point of it was to show that how we perceive something can have a profound effect on how we feel. By recognizing that we have the ability to change our perceptions, we can change how we feel. I’ll elaborate on that in this post and discuss the practical side of how to do it.

Just to briefly review the main idea, the root of the problem that leads to overeating and other unwanted behaviors is the feeling of being controlled in some way. Obligations, responsibilities, expectations, and demands can feel like a threat to your sense of autonomy and control over your own decisions. Letting go of behavioral control, whether it’s through eating, drinking, sex, or anger, is the exaggerated reaction to reassert that control. But what is it about those demands that causes that sense of being controlled?

How we interpret any experience anything is a product of previous experiences in life and our hard-wired tendencies that together determine who we are. The same is true of an experience that makes you feel controlled. The good news about that step in the process is that even though you can’t change what happened, you can change how you interpret it.


This image is from a magazine ad not long ago. When I saw it, it struck me as a perfect illustration of what I tell my patients about filters. Imagine three people walking down the street and they see a wallet on the ground. Even though they all see the same thing, each person has a different response to the experience.

The first one looks at it and feels sympathy for the person who dropped it, thinking, “Poor guy, lost his wallet.” The second person feels a sense of obligation to do something about it, and thinks, “I’ve got to find out who it belongs to so I can get it back to him.” The third person looks at it and thinks, “Hey, cash!”

Putting aside the question of which response is morally preferable, all three can be described as accurate observations of the same experience, yet the responses elicited are very different.

I think of these tendencies that shape our perceptions as our personal filters because they work in much the same way as filters that are used on camera lenses to create certain effects. These filters distort the image being photographed in order to enhance the effect of the image. Sometimes these artistic distortions can be so unique to the photographer that they can become an instantly recognizable signature of the artist. Think of Andy Warhol and his way of processing images that are unmistakably his.

The way that we interpret things can be equally personal and unique to us. It can reflect our own signature perception of the world. While two people may disagree about whether the proverbial glass is half-empty or half-full, both views are accurate reflections of reality. One person may have a tendency to view most things in a more positive or hopeful way, while the other has a more negative, cautious, or skeptical filter and will see the glass through that filter.

The good news, though, is that we’re not stuck with our initial interpretation. There are situations that could cause us to feel controlled or restrained and we may not be able to change the situation itself, but we are able to change how we filter it. The catch is you first have to recognize that you’re doing it.

Here’s an example from a conversation I recently had with a patient. She was feeling very stressed because she was about to graduate from law school and was waiting to hear about a job that she had applied for. She had worked at a prestigious firm the previous summer where they valued her and encouraged her to apply for a job. That fall she did apply and interviewed with the senior partners who told her that she would hear from them within the next few months. It was now almost February, and she had still not heard about the job. She said that she felt like her entire future was on hold and that she had no power over the situation. She did not want to call to find out about her status because she was afraid of how that would be perceived and was advised by everyone she asked to just sit tight.

When we discussed the problem, I asked her why she was willing to wait for them to respond rather than move on to other firms who were hiring. She said that they were a big-name firm, the people there knew her and liked her, and she felt that she would fit in well. I agreed that those were great reasons, and it was understandable that she would want to wait to hear from them. On the other hand, there were many firms in the city that could potentially offer her the same thing. She agreed but felt that she would rather wait a while longer before exploring other options.

“So you’re choosing to wait?” I asked.

“Yes – I really have my heart set on this firm,” she replied.

I told her that certainly sounded like a reasonable approach to the situation, and in spite of the stress this situation was causing her, she must have felt that the trade-off was worthwhile.

“Absolutely!” she said.

“So you agree that it is your choice, and that no one else is pressuring you to make it?”

“I guess that’s true. I wasn’t looking at it that way.”

Suddenly, just by changing how she looked at the situation, she realized that she was not nearly as powerless as she had imagined.

In fact, she saw that by making the choice to wait, she was evaluating them as much as they were evaluating her, which gave her an even greater sense of control. She could always reconsider her decision to wait. If they didn’t communicate with her soon she may have a different view of them and might decide not want to work there after all. After recognizing this, she felt much less like a powerless pawn waiting for someone to determine her fate, and more like the empowered, independent person that she had always seen herself to be.