What’s Your Food Size?

August 24, 2012

Imagine that you need a new pair of shoes. You go to the shoe store, look around at the styles on display, and you find one that fits you perfectly. It’s comfortable, looks good on you, and the leather really feels great to the touch. In fact, you like the way it looks and feels so much that you decide to buy the largest size that they have in stock, so you get more shoe for the same price. Great deal, right?

No, it’s insane.

Now think about a similar scenario, but instead of shoes imagine you’re ordering a meal in a casual dining restaurant. You see that the special for the day is a dish that you really loved the last time you had it. That time it was served in a moderately sized, but very satisfying portion. Today, though, the server tells you that they are offering the special in the “value sized” meal.

For the same price you can get twice as much of your favorite meal! You’ve never been one to take home a doggy bag or leave anything on your plate, but you’re really hungry and you love this dish so you’re confident you’ll be able to handle it. Would you consider the offer? Even if you reject it, it doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous as buying big shoes, does it? But it is.

In both cases you assign value to some useless material that will soon make you feel uncomfortable and sorry that you chose it. But one scenario seems crazy and the other one doesn’t. This is a perfect example of how habitual but irrational ways that we think about food affects our behavior, weight, and, ultimately, our health.

Here’s another common mental habit that is closely related to taking large portions: the idea that leaving food on your plate is a moral transgression of some sort and the act of scraping off any edible food into the garbage is sinful.

Think about it like this: you had a good meal. You’re no longer hungry; you may even be stuffed. You have no real desire for the last pieces of whatever is left on your plate, but you feel a compulsion to eat it. By now, your body is processing all of the nutrition it needs from what you’ve already ingested. What do you think it will do with the rest? It goes to waste just as surely as if you put it in the garbage can. The only difference is that it goes through you first.

What happens to that extra food? Whatever calories your body doesn’t need gets converted by your liver into triglycerides which are then stored as fat cells in different areas of your body. That fat storage is s a great adaptation that all mammals have so that they can hibernate during the winter and survive droughts in the summer. Chances are you’re not in danger of starving through those events, so instead of getting you through the crisis, the fat will just stay there until you start taking in fewer calories. Then your body will begin to siphon off some of the energy stored in those strategic reserves and you’ll lose weight.

I’ll describe just one more common example of distorted thinking that, like the other two, is related to portion control. It’s about how we behave at a buffet.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the scene at a catered event where the food is spread out on a self-service buffet table. People sharpen their elbows and crowd around the table as if they haven’t had a decent meal in weeks. Then they pile up their plates, apparently according to how much food is on the table. It’s almost as if each individual estimates the appropriate percentage of food that’s allotted per person and that’s what they take.

Do you see a pattern here? In all of these situations, the amount of food you eat is based on external factors rather than individual requirements. Whether it’s the amount of food available or what’s left over on the plate, the cue to eat does not come from what you need or want, but from what is available.

How do you change that kind of behavior? It starts, as does all behavior change, with how you perceive the situation. Before eating, try to apply what you really do when you go to buy shoes. Before you even step into the shoe store you know your size. You’ve bought shoes often enough as an adult to know what will fit and what won’t. Well, you’ve also eaten enough in your life that it should never surprise you to discover that you’ve eaten too much. You should know your size when it comes to food portions at least as well as you know the size of your shoes or clothes.

Before you put anything on your plate look at it and visualize what volume of protein, starch and vegetables fits your real need to feel satisfied without overeating. Then you take the appropriate amount of each, with a ratio of about twice as much of the vegetables as each of the other two groups. Try to leave enough space between the different foods to be able to see some of the plate to keep from piling it on. That’s your size.

If after you finish that you feel that you can still comfortably eat more, wait about five minutes before putting any more on your plate to give your brain a chance to catch up with your stomach. It takes a while to register that you feel satisfied. When you’ve had enough, enjoy a few bites of dessert and call it a meal. You’ll be quite content.

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Whether you record what you eat every day or not, it’s useful to do an eating self-assessment before deciding what needs to change in your current eating routine. The first step in this process is to apply the five W’s of journalism: What, When, Why, Where and Who. That will help you get a more thorough understanding of your eating patterns so you’ll know where to focus your change goals.

What: When you try to recall your usual eating patterns, it may be easiest to go through your daily routine, and write down (with brutal honesty, if necessary) the types of meals and snacks that you tend to prefer and are most likely to eat throughout the day. What do you have for breakfast, if at anything at all? What choices do you make and what portion sizes do you take? Do you prefer to prepare your own meals, like cooked or raw salads, or do you go for convenience? If it’s the latter, is it usually frozen meals, diet plan trays, or take-out? Another important ‘What’ question is, what are you doing while you eat? Are you reading, watching TV, working at the computer? Or are you simply focused on the experience of eating whether alone or with others?

When: Once you think about what you usually eat and how much, you can think about your daily pattern of when you get the cues to eat and respond to them. Do you eat at scheduled mealtimes, or do you graze throughout the day? When do you usually eat the first meal of the day? At what point do you stop eating at individual meals? When in the day do you stop eating? Are you a late night snacker? Think about whether your total calorie intake is spread throughout the day, or is it more packed into the one part of the day or another. Is your pattern to eat a lot but infrequently or less and more frequently?

Why: Next, take note of what typically prompts you to eat at each of those opportunities. Of course, I have been talking about emotional eating throughout this book and how feeling controlled tends to trigger an episode of emotional eating. So identifying what the experience is that made you respond by eating is one example of how to answer the Why question. When it’s not a response to an emotional trigger, you can track the timing of your eating. Is it mainly the time of day that makes you think about having a meal, or do you respond mostly to hunger cues? Or do you eat simply because food is in your line of vision and available? (My father, a master of lame dad humor, used to call that his see-food diet.) If your eating has no discernible pattern, then that’s your pattern. Make note of the cues that prompt you to eat when you do.

Where: Now think about where you are at each of those occasions. Are you standing or sitting? Are you at a kitchen or dining room table or at a coffee table or TV tray? Do you eat in the company cafeteria, at your office desk, or in a restaurant – fast-food or other? Do you eat in the car? (Here’s a hint: don’t!)

Who: Do you usually eat with others or by yourself? When you eat around other people do you tend to make better choices and limit how much you eat or are you influenced in one way or another by the choices of others?

This self-assessment is the first step in behavior change. Understanding your eating patterns can help you identify obvious problems. In the next few posts, I’ll go over some of the less obvious patterns that research has shown to increase calorie consumption and where making some changes can be especially helpful. But first I’ll start with some of the more irrational mental habits that may not be obvious but really should be. As you’ll see, you don’t need a researcher to tell you that they add calories, just a little common sense.

There is a concept in economics called diminishing marginal utility. This means that as a person increases consumption of a product there is a decline in the satisfaction or benefit that person gains from consuming each additional unit of the item. Applying this concept to eating may be one of the most useful things you will learn from this entire blog.

We have all had the experience of robotically eating something simply because it is in our line of sight and within arm’s reach. We may have a real desire for a piece or two of whatever it is, but if there is more than that available we are liable to continue eating far more than what it would take to satisfy that desire. Being mindfully aware of the enjoyment or pleasure that we are experiencing from that food is a critical element in preventing overeating.

The best way to illustrate this process is with what I’ll call the Food-Pleasure Curve, illustrated below. Think of each point on the curve as a unit of some food that you like but also recognize is an indulgence and can sometimes be a problem for you to resist. Let’s say it’s Hershey’s Kisses, which are about 25 calories each, and there’s a candy dish in front of you with eight individually wrapped candies in it. Seeing those makes you think about the taste and feel of what one would be like in your mouth, and that creates a desire for it, so you take one from the bowl.

The Food-Pleasure Curve

You unwrap it, pop it in your mouth and experience exactly what you imagined. The taste is very satisfying, it brings back memories of eating them when you were young and you get a fair amount of enjoyment from it. If you would rate it from 1 to 10 on a scale of chocolate pleasure, it would perhaps score a 7. That’s great! That’s what I would call an excellent return on a small investment. You’ve achieved a high degree of anticipated pleasure for a cost of only 25 calories. In fact, you’re so pleased with the outcome of the experience that you decide to have a second one.

You go through the same process and your pleasure from this one goes up from a 7 to, let’s say, a 9. After all, you’ve already experienced it once, which took you from 0 to 7. Now you just want to add to that experience so it’s likely to bring it up a just a few points. Now you’re at 50 calories and at 9 out of 10 on the pleasure scale, which is still what I would call a nice return. You know that your pleasure is not going to go any higher than a 9, but the experience was enjoyable and there are still six more pieces in the candy dish. You’re not quite ready to walk away from it so you eat one more to prolong the experience.

At this point you’ve had three candies and you’ve already maxed out at 9 on the pleasure scale, but you want just one more as a way of letting go and putting it aside. So you have one more for the road. Although it doesn’t increase your enjoyment, it also does nothing to diminish it, so the curve stays flat.

The bowl still has a handful of chocolates in it, though, and they’re still right there within easy reach; but you feel that you’ve already satisfied your initial desire to experience what you anticipated when you first saw the candies, and you’ve consumed 100 calories, so you decide to stop.

You distract yourself for a few minutes; you walk around a bit, and maybe do a little work. But on some level you’re still thinking about the chocolates in that dish. You finally convince yourself that you’re just going to have one more. So you eat it, but immediately feel a twinge of regret.

Now here is the important part: that small feeling of regret just cancelled out some of the pleasure you had initially experienced. This is where the marginal utility begins to diminish. It’s true that the fifth one tasted exactly the same as the first, which you fully enjoyed; however, you’ve already satisfied that initial desire, and in terms of your emotional state, you were kind of disappointed in yourself for not controlling that impulse to have more.

At this point, however, you also feel that you’ve already lost this round in your bout with self-control, and you think, why keep fighting it? So you have another, and adding that one to how you’re already feeling about yourself, you say “Oh, what the hell!” and, abandoning all restraint, you have the last few in the bowl. Now, in addition to the emotional letdown, you begin to feel a little physically disgusted. Your sense of self-loathing and weakness, to say nothing of queasiness, wipes out any enjoyment you got out of the first few chocolates. To add insult to injury, you’ve just taken in an extra 200 calories and have nothing to show for it.

We have all had this experience, even those who do not consider themselves emotional eaters. It’s not a sign of a disorder; it’s a sign of being human. The question is, what can you learn from it?

The part of this that is very human is our natural and mostly adaptive tendency to tune out our routine behaviors which allows us to focus on other, more complex mental processes. That’s what allows us to multitask; when we do that we’re really focusing on only one thing at a time, but we can accomplish other more routine tasks at the same time because they don’t require the same degree of cognitive effort.

The problem is that this “efficiency” comes at a cost. The lack of attention leads to errors, not because we’re using poor judgment, but because we’re not applying judgment at all! The process I described with the Hershey’s Kisses is actually an exaggerated version of reality. It’s typically not the way we consciously process the decisions we make, but it reflects what happens on the level just below conscious awareness.

The way to change this is to be mindfully aware of the following thoughts: your desire for something to eat, whether the item you are considering will satisfy that desire, how much it would take to do so, and at what point do you reach the maximum level of satisfaction that you’re likely to get without doing anything to diminish the pleasure you got out of it. Keeping the Food-Pleasure Curve in mind as a mental image can be very helpful in accomplishing that goal.

If you feel that you have a good understanding of how I explained autonomous control, then this part may or may not be useful to you. If that’s the case, feel free to skip it. At the risk of overexplaining it, this schematic serves my need to clarify things visually. That’s how I learn best, so I like to use visual images to explain things as well.

This is a graphical depiction of the important role that a balanced sense of autonomous control plays in behavior, and how that can be set off-balance by a shift to the extreme on either side. As the term implies, true autonomous control combines autonomy, or independent action, with control, or responsibility and structure. Going to an extreme on either side of the scale can throw everything off-balance which is psychologically unsustainable.

When that does happen, the imbalance tends to be restored by going to the extreme on the other side. Too much structure begins to feel like externally-imposed control, which is counteracted by defiant or oppositional behavior. Since the counter-reaction, rather than the outcome, is the primary motivation, this behavior is often acted out on impulse rather than by weighing costs and benefits.

It would also follow that lacking a sense of control and structure would be equally destabilizing by creating a feeling of internal chaos, and could lead to restoring balance in the other direction by becoming overly structured or self-restrictive. This may explain what motivates certain behaviors such as anorexia or other types of extreme dieting.

The ideal approach is to maintain balanced moderation by having a sense of authority and self-direction, but also by taking into account a sense of responsibility: to others, to your work, to society, and so on. That responsibility can take the form of conforming to external expectations, like getting up to go to work in the morning, obeying the law, adhering to a schedule when necessary, or offering a compromise when your legitimate autonomous needs conflict with those of someone else.

When there are moderate and reasonable limits on your freedom, then you are able maintain an emotionally even keel. This allows you to pursue goals autonomously, guided by your own needs and by how those are met by the behavior, rather than impulsively acting in opposition to your perception that someone else is trying to control you.

I call this a dynamic equilibrium model of autonomous control. Dynamic equilibrium is a term used primarily in the natural sciences, but has also been used in the social sciences. The idea is that a system is maintained in a relatively steady and balanced state (homeostasis) while the elements that maintain the balance are in flux and they react to each other to maintain equilibrium. That is, they move in tandem mirroring each other so that if one moves to the extreme, the other does too to maintain constancy. It’s a zero-sum game.

When the counter-balancing elements involve emotions and behavior, and they shift to the extremes, you can see the kind of problems that may result (in the boxes at the bottom of the graphic). That brings us back to our topic and illustrates how emotional eating fits in.

Of course, understanding the theory and successfully applying it to your behavior are two separate things. The four-step approach that I outlined here is necessary for overcoming emotional eating, but may not be sufficient in conquering overeating. A long-standing pattern of emotional eating may become so habitual that even without the external control stressors triggering the behavior, simple habit can keep it going. In future posts I will focus on the mental habits that over time tend to groove a rut in your eating behavior and how to get a handle on pulling yourself out of them.

“Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening.”

Alexander Woollcott, critic and member of the Algonquin Round Table

As you can see from the story in the previous post, of Rebel’s response to Domination, binge eating is an act of defiance, not of weakness. This is a fundamental point that must be understood in order to overcome emotional eating.

The diet culture encourages us to believe that there are good foods and bad foods. Roughly speaking, good foods are those that are bland and unsatisfying, and bad foods are sinfully self-indulgent and delicious.

There are two ways in which the meaning that one attaches to food impacts the urge to overeat for emotional reasons. One is the experience of feeling controlled by a powerful source, namely, the pressure one feels to lose weight by avoiding “bad” foods. Is anyone really forcing you to diet?

The other is the degree to which you feel that the defiance against that perceived pressure has some power; namely, the “hell-with-you-I’ll-eat-whatever-I-want” response. An act of defiance is only effective if the behavior is really prohibited. It’s not very subversive to say, “I’ll show you – I’ll eat my vegetables and ignore the dessert! What do you think about that?”

If emotional eating is an act of defiance against control, it is only effective if that control and the way you respond to it have real meaning. The key here is that the strength of the power food has over you depends on your perception of it. As long as you consider certain foods as “bad,” the pressure to avoid them is great and eating them will continue to feel like an effective expression of defiance. However, if you view food as having no intrinsic good or bad qualities, but instead are things you either do or don’t want to eat, you effectively neutralize the power that it has both as a source of control and as a response to it.

Understanding emotional eating in this way is very different from seeing food as an overpowering force against which you must expend a limited resource of energy to resist, a strategy that can succeed only with consistent determination and self-restraint. Eventually, according to this limited resource view, as this energy to resist becomes depleted, your desire will get the better of you and, exhausted from the battle, you’ll surrender.

The reality is, the desire for these blacklisted foods is not something you always have to fight against. Even though you enjoy them, you’re not always in the mood for them. However, when you believe you may never legitimately eat these foods, you always wish you can. That’s where the sense of constant craving comes from: the belief that they are always forbidden.

If you can overcome this sense of prohibition, then you can  assess your desire for that treat on its own merits. As with anything, too much of a good thing can ruin the experience. So it’s best to know what you want to eat, whether you want it at that moment, and, if so, at what point you’ve gratified that desire. That would be the time to stop. If you do that you can walk away guilt-free, satisfied, and, since it doesn’t take that much to indulge a taste for something, with a minimal amount of calories consumed. Win-win-win.

Let’s say you’re in the break room at work and someone has left a box of doughnuts for anyone to have. If eating doughnuts doesn’t feel like an act of rebellion, you have the luxury to simply decide whether or not you want one.  Since you know that you can have one whenever you want it, and that the world is not going to suddenly run out of chocolate-glazed doughnuts, the fact that opportunity knocks is no longer a relevant factor in your decision to eat. The only issue to decide is whether you’re in the mood to get the most enjoyment from it. Otherwise, skip it and wait until you are. And if you do have a real desire for the doughnut, only have enough to satisfy that desire. Why spoil a good experience by overdoing it?

By changing your view of food’s power you accomplish for yourself what Toto did for Dorothy when he pulled the curtain aside to expose the Wizard of Oz. The Great and Powerful Pastry is not so scary anymore. You defuse the power that food had over you and take back the control. Once those foods are neutralized and powerless, then it actually feels kind of silly to rebel against them. What’s the point?

The focus of this step is how to make eating an unnecessary and therefore ineffective act of rebellion by viewing all food as permissible and on the menu every day. As you would in a restaurant, you just order what you really want. That means that since the “diet imperative” is less of a controlling force in your life, the cause of the stress and the reaction to it are both less powerful.

However, it’s not always a sense of control by the Diet Tyrant in your head that drives you to rebel, it’s often the actual tyrant in the office or any other area of your life that you feel is controlling you and makes you want to turn to food.

So it still leaves open the question of how to deal with a controlling force that’s not diet-related, such as a person who is either in a position of power or acts as if they are, so that you feel like your freedom is limited and want to prove – to yourself, anyway – that no one else is the boss of you.

To answer that question ask yourself another one: are you sure that what you’re experiencing as an attempt to control you is really what you think it is? Could there be another way to view it? Remember what Hamlet said, “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

We’ll talk about that in the next step.

You already know that emotional eating, as the term implies, is caused by emotional stress. What you may not know is that it’s not just any emotional stress that can trigger a binge episode; it’s a very specific type of stress that is most likely to cause it.

The first thing to learn, even before you try to identify the stressors that might be causing the emotional eating, is what to look for. There are two important concepts that are essential to understand before you can identify the stressors that drive the eating behavior: homeostasis and autonomy.

Homeostasis is an idea that has been around for about 150 years that explains how the body regulates its internal functions by maintaining a comfortable balance between opposing forces, thereby reducing fluctuations. If you get too hot there are processes to cool you off and if you get too cold the processes reverse and warm you up. That’s how you’re able to maintain a stable temp of 98.6. The same process applies to many of the body’s automatic functions such as regulating hormonal activity, blood pressure, respiration, and so on. Although we can’t yet observe its activity, I believe that the same process helps us regulate our emotions; specifically, for the purposes of our topic, by helping us maintain a consistent sense of control over our lives.

One critical influence on our emotions and a central force in motivation is our sense of autonomy, or the ability to control our own lives. We each have a sense of our personal domain of authority and responsibility, and within that domain we want to call the shots. At the same time, we recognize the need to accept and tolerate a certain degree of control that comes from the outside. In fact, that external control is what we call Structure, and we can appreciate that it can be very helpful in staying organized and being more productive.

However, sometimes Structure becomes a little too pushy (micromanaging boss, controlling parent, bossy spouse, etc.) and it turns into a toxic type of control. Think of it as Structure’s evil twin, Domination, or Dom, for short. They are the extreme ends of a continuum called extrinsic control. When Structure goes too far in making you stay on a very restrictive diet, for example, he limits your sense of autonomy and eventually morphs into Dom. Kind of how Dr. Banner becomes The Hulk.  That’s what you experience as emotional distress and you feel the need to fix it.

This is where the concept of balance or homeostasis is key to understanding the connection between stress and eating. Because on the opposite side of the scale, there’s another continuum; we’ll call it the autonomous control side. The good end of that continuum is Independence. Think of Structure (the red cylinder) co-existing peacefully with Independence (the blue box), as illustrated below. Both sides are serving an important function in maintaining emotional balance by offsetting each other and keeping you feeling stable. This is the normal state of affairs when you’re happy, life and work are going smoothly, and your stress level is low.

Now Independence has a difficult-to-manage (but not evil) twin as well, called Rebel (accent on the first syllable). Rebel comes into the picture when Dom starts to bully you and knocks your equilibrium out of balance. Rebel means well; he’s just trying to help you defend your autonomous control. The problem is he’s impulsive. He’s also not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Rebel’s idea of restoring balance is to become just as extreme as Dom. In a process that parallels what happens on the extrinsic control side of the scale, Independence morphs into Rebel on the autonomous control side of things. (I imagine Vinnie Barbarino from “Welcome Back Kotter,” but feel free to come up with your own image.) So what does Rebel do? He finds a way to prove that no one can push you around like that and demonstrates it by, say, eating a dozen doughnuts. Hah! That’ll show who’s the diet boss!

The problems created by Rebel’s methods to prove who’s boss are less of a concern to him at that point than the fact that he gets you back in balance. Consequences like feeling sick, guilty and out of control, not to mention what the behavior will do to your weight, are problems to worry about later, not now. The good news is, you’re back in balance. The thing he’s slow to pick up on is the bad news: you’re still dealing with Domination’s bullying ways, and now you’re having trouble controlling the well-intended behavior of simple-minded Rebel.

When you think about this little parable, you can see that it makes no sense to just focus on reigning in Rebel by, say, going on a diet. He wouldn’t even be around if wasn’t for Dom; besides it would just make Dom want to clamp down even harder on the control. Instead, the focus needs to be on getting Dom to turn back into mild-mannered (if perhaps a bit rigid) Structure. I’ll describe how to do that in Part 2.

On May 25th (Friday of Memorial Day weekend) I’m scheduled to give a presentation about the behavioral self-regulation model I’ve been discussing in this blog as an alternative to the ego-depletion model. It will be at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science that will be meeting this year in Chicago. For those of you who can be there, I look forward to discussing it personally with you. For the vast remainder, I’ll give you a preview here. The presentation is actually a poster session, which means I’ll be standing next to a display and talking about it with anyone who is interested, but this is how I would probably pitch it if I was presenting a paper rather than a more informal poster:

Over the past century, the concept of homeostasis, which refers to how a system regulates itself to maintain a stable internal condition, has been in and out of favor as the basis for a theory of motivation. The purpose of this presentation is to propose a theoretical model that explains the mechanism for problems of behavioral regulation such as emotional eating, gambling, shopping, and other impulse control disorders. These behaviors are generally considered problems of self-control failure.

The model I am proposing is based on the idea that homeostasis is a primary controlling force in motivation and behavioral regulation. It suggests that self-control “failure” is not a breakdown of control due to a depletion of willpower, but is rather a proactive, strategic attempt to regain a feeling of autonomous control. This model is derived from my clinical experience in treating patients with emotional eating, and it is empirically supported by research that has come primarily from the laboratory of Roy Baumeister at Florida State University. It differs significantly, however, from the interpretation that has been put forward by Baumeister and colleagues, and is now widely accepted as the model that explains self-control. It is variously referred to as the depletion model, strength model, or resource model of self-control.

Homeostasis is a term coined in 1929 by the American physiologist Walter Cannon to describe the feedback mechanism that biological systems employ to maintain a stable and balanced internal environment. This mechanism, which was first described by the 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard, is used in all biological systems  to regulate physiological processes such as temperature and blood pressure.

Currently, homeostasis is out of favor as an explanation for human motivation and has been for the past several decades. Its current status may date back to 1986, when the prominent social psychologist Bernard Weiner, in his book, An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion, proposed a set of rules which he felt any theory of motivation must follow. His very first principle was that “a theory of motivation must be based on a concept other than homeostasis.” His reasoning was that “humans often strive to induce states of disequilibrium” such as horror movies or roller coasters. In other words, homeostasis requires the maintenance of balance and such behavior would disrupt that balance. Therefore, the fact that people often seek out such experiences is inconsistent with a theory of motivation that is based on homeostasis.

In stating this, Weiner makes the assumption that when people engage in such emotionally stimulating activity, they are starting out in a state of emotional neutrality and comfort. I believe this assumption is unwarranted. While it is true that horror movies and roller coasters would certainly disrupt a person’s otherwise peaceful and neutral internal emotional environment, there is no reason to assume that this was their internal condition before engaging in these activities. The excitement these experiences generate may be a way of compensating for a feeling of boredom or a desire to escape from routine. By temporarily going to the opposite extreme, one may actually be restoring balance rather than upsetting it.

In their Self-Determination Theory of motivation, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan state that a primary motivational force is the basic psychological need for internal or autonomous control. When we perceive that there is too much external control over our behavior, our motivation to perform declines. If we accept that this is a basic psychological need, then we would be motivated to make up for it when it feels depleted, just as we do for any basic need. That would be done by temporarily overcompensating with an excessive degree of internal control.

How does this apply to understanding and improving self-control? According to the depletion model, self-control or willpower is like a muscle that has a limited capacity and gets depleted with use. This is supported by ample research evidence showing that each time people have to exercise self-restraint, their ability to do so gets worse. As the self-restraint “muscle” tires, we are more likely to lose self-control in our behavior.

However, if we apply our understanding of homeostasis to this process, what appears to be a depletion of strength may actually be a depletion of autonomy and control. The more you have to restrain an impulse to act, the less you feel a sense of independent control. To compensate for that there is an increased motivation to “act out” (as we clinicians like to say). There is a proactive need to give up and surrender to the impulse – not out of weakness, but out of a drive to regain autonomous control.