The Willpower Trap

Ever wonder if you have enough willpower to stop stress eating and lose the weight you want?

5 decades ago, there was a famous study, fondly called the “marshmallow study.”

Preschool kids were asked to sit in front of a marshmallow, and not eat it for a full 15 minutes.

The kids who were successful at accomplishing this task were studied over the next 2 decades and shown to do better in almost every area of life than kids who grabbed the marshmallow and ate it right away.

For instance, kids who delayed gratification:

  • scored hundreds of points higher on standardized tests in school
    had stronger relationships
  • were promoted more often, and
  • were happier.

Unfortunately, to this day, this study is misinterpreted. Most people draw the wrong conclusion, by assuming that the only reason (among all the possible reasons) that some kids were better at delaying gratification is that they had more “willpower.” That they were somehow stronger, in some way, to be able to withstand the temptation. Period.

This is the same simplistic conclusion that we make when we think about why we don’t change our own bad habits. When we fall off the wagon and overeat, we blame it on a lack of willpower. When we succeed, we also attribute it to our persistence and commitment to the goal. Either way, we blame or give credit to one single factor – the almighty willpower.

This is tragically wrong…

It’s wrong because it’s incomplete, and it’s tragic because it gives us no wiggle room when things don’t go as we would like. When you believe your ability to make good choices depends only on willpower, you will eventually stop trying. It’s not something you can get more of, really…and the more you use it, the more you use it up and the more likely you are to quit.

This pattern keeps you in a depressing cycle starting with massive commitment to change, and followed by eroding motivation and relapse into old habits.

That’s the willpower trap.

Fortunately, a follow up study, showed that what seems like will, may be more about skill. The kids who were successful developed skills to manage the challenge. Some even developed clever strategies, like distracting themselves or creating a game out of it, until the researchers returned.

In fact, it was shown in this later study that when kids were taught skills, 50% more were successful. No willpower necessary.

One of the biggest barriers to success is NOT lack of willpower, but the belief that willpower is the key to change.

Psychological Eating

How much of your eating is physiological and how much is psychological eating?

How you feel in any given moment depends upon how you are managing your emotional states. It is human nature to want to feel good.

That is one reason why so many people use food to manage emotions, and change the way they feel.

When something happens that triggers a negative emotion, then psychological eating comes into play. If you aren’t hungry, and you ask yourself why you are eating, most often the answer will be “to change the way I feel.” Continue reading

Comfort Eating

We might as well face it, comfort eating is at an all-time high. Our lives get more and more hectic all the time. It seems like ever since 9/11, there has been a lot written about comforting ourselves and calming our fears.

One of the biggest reasons people overeat is for self-soothing.

When stress and uncertainty increase, we turn to what we know, especially if it has associations of a simpler and safer time in our lives.

Continue reading

Is Your Eating On Automatic Pilot?

Because eating is essential to life, it’s not surprising that it is part of a well-regulated system in our bodies and minds. We feel hungry, seek out and consume food, and experience a sense of satiety. Then the cycle is repeated over and over again.

This system runs automatically, but it is influenced by many factors. For instance, research shows that we eat more in groups, but we don’t spend time thinking about eating more in groups, or even being aware that we do it. Continue reading

Is Stress Eating Your Answer To Everything?

The other day I sat in an airport in Raleigh, NC. It was 10 a.m. and I was exhausted.

I had gotten up early to pack. My best friend wanted to have 1 last chance to go to breakfast before I left.

It had been a whirlwind trip, visiting friends and my old stomping grounds where I lived, worked and went to school for nearly 8 years.

Lots of memories there.

Did I say I was tired?

I ordered a bagel – not because I was hungry, but because I was tired. Normally, I can resist this type of conditioning and find something better to do than eat, but at the airport, there weren’t too many options.
Continue reading

Stress Eating Is NOT The Problem

I can’t tell you how many posts I have read with statements like “I am gaining weight because I am stress eating!”

Many people seem to have an awareness that something is driving them to eat, and it’s easy to focus on that as the problem.

Stress eating itself is NOT the problem. It is whatever is driving you to turn to a drug, like food in the first place. When you are done eating the cookies, what drove you to the cookies in the first place is still there. Continue reading

Stress Eating: Is It An Addiction?

Is Stress Eating An Addiction?

All addictive processes represent an effort to control feelings.

Even more than that, they represent an effort to keep life itself under control.

Addicts are hooked on things being one certain way (the way they “should” be), and are unable to just let things “be” to take their natural course.

Addiction is a response to resisting life’s natural course, and consistently wanting things to be better, or at least different than they are now. In that way, addiction represents a spiritual and emotional hunger, cutting us off from others who might be able to help. Continue reading

Saying No To Stress Eating

One night many years ago, my boyfriend called and wanted me to meet him at a bar down the street from where I lived.

It was around 10 p.m., 20 degrees outside, and I was in my pajamas and curlers (yes, curlers!)

The last thing I wanted to do was go out to a bar, so of course, I said “sure.”

Heaven forbid, I didn’t want to make him mad or hurt his feelings. I was too invested in being “nice” and agreeable in avoiding conflict. After all, I wanted him to propose to me, and so half my life was spent saying “yes” to things I didn’t want.

Thank God I got over that!

And double thanks that he never proposed to me. I might have thought that my warped strategy worked. Continue reading

Stress Eating and Your Weight

Most people who engage in stress eating are highly concerned about their appearance and weight. For some people, their world is dominated by thoughts of food and weight issues. Most stress eaters want to lose weight and are anxious about gaining weight.

Obsessive concerns about food and weight are not uncommon. One client that I worked with weighed herself at least 10 times per day. Others don’t weigh themselves at all, always fearing the worst.

Shame about your appearance can interfere with day-to-day life. Some people will avoid social situations, and many avoid letting others (or even themselves) see what they look like. Avoiding others tends to increase the stress and consequently, the stress eating even more. Continue reading

Stress Eating, Money and Weight

Someone asked for the transcript of the video on stress eating, money and weight. Here you go –

Stress eating, money and weight issues have a lot in common – 1st – they  run on scarcity – the stress, fear and anxiety of not having enough.

Many people are walking around with this sort of poverty mentality, even if they DO have “enough” – it never feels like enough, so you keep striving for more and it keeps you in anxiety stress mode most of the time. Continue reading