Humans are complicated creatures. Our habits and behaviors can be hard to understand, even for ourselves. Changing those habits is a struggle that many people find difficult. Less than 10% of people are still keeping their New Year’s resolutions by February. Only 3% of people who lose weight on purpose can keep it off for 1 year. It’s so easy for us to fall back into our old familiar habit patterns, even when we know those habits aren’t getting us the results we want in life. Even if we know our habit is directly harmful to us. Again and again, we choose the immediate gratification of our bad habit instead of the goal we say we want.
The first step to overcoming a bad habit is to understand why it’s there in the first place. Why did I choose to eat a bag of chips and a box of Oreos every night, when I wanted so desperately to lose weight and I knew that I was miserable because I was obese? It’s as if I was making a conscious choice to create more frustration for myself. I knew I was going to regret it, but I did it anyway.
The reason is simple. The human brain is hard-wired to seek ease and pleasure, and to avoid pain. That means physical pain, AND emotional pain. So when we’re sitting on the couch at night feeling lonely, or fuming about something that happened at work that day, or stewing over something hurtful that our Mom said to us… all we want is a way to feel better. In that moment.
Tomorrow doesn’t matter. Our goal that will take months or years to accomplish doesn’t matter. We want to feel better right now. So we turn to our favorite distraction. That is what’s called your “buffer”. A buffer is anything that you use to distract yourself from your negative emotions, or to artificially create a positive emotion. That could be food, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, gaming, shopping, gambling, porn, or a hundred other things. Everyone has their favorite. Mine was food so that’s the example I’ll stick with, but you can insert your favorite. The same principles apply.
The buffer helps distract us and drown out the painful emotions we don’t want to feel. The buffer temporarily and artificially creates a positive emotion that we DO want to feel. And it doesn’t matter if the buffer actually compounds the emotional pain once the initial rush is over (I’m not going to feel great about eating the Oreos when I have to get on the scale), our primitive ‘caveman-brain’ only cares about that initial rush. Seek pleasure. Avoid pain. Whatever happens an hour from now doesn’t even register in the moment.
This is why your hand seems to push the cookies into your mouth, seemingly all by itself. Your reasoning brain has checked out, and your inner toddler is squealing with glee. Congratulations, you’ve successfully avoided the discomfort that was plaguing you a few minutes ago. But now come the consequences.
Shame. Regret. Despair. Hopelessness. Self-loathing. “How could I be so weak?” we ask. “I’m a pathetic loser,” we say to ourselves. “I can’t believe I did that again!”
Here starts the vicious spiral. We’ve just thrown our goals into the toilet for a moment’s relief from discomfort, and now we start shaming and punishing ourselves. We would never abuse another human being the way we abuse ourselves. We think that we can berate and bully ourselves into doing better next time. Has that method ever worked for you? Probably not.
Here’s what actually happens: we’ve just finished using our buffer to smother our painful emotions. And the first thing we do once the rush is over is to create more painful emotions. And since we only have one coping skill, we keep repeating the same self-destructive habit over and over again. Even when we know it’s making the situation worse. Even when we know it’s creating our own misery. It makes us feel better for a couple of minutes, and that’s what our caveman-brain is after.
So, what to do? Well, you need 2 things. You need better coping skills, and you need to identify the source of the painful emotions that are triggering you to buffer. Once you identify WHAT emotional need you’re trying to solve with food, you can get to work on dealing with the problem at it’s root cause.
Think of it this way... If you’re in a leaky boat in the middle of the ocean, you have 2 choices. You can use whatever’s handy to bail the water out as fast as you can, or you can take a minute and plug the hole. Bailing the water might make you feel better in the moment, but it’s not going to fix the problem. And you’re not going to get anywhere until you do. But stopping to figure out how to plug the hole requires you to deal with the panicked voice in your head that’s screaming “We’re sinking! Do something!!!” That’s scary. That’s uncomfortable. Your caveman-brain is yelling at you to deal with the immediate threat of the water that’s pouring into the boat. Your reasoning brain knows that’s not going to fix the problem. Your ability to feel the discomfort and fear, to ignore the distraction and deal with the root cause of the problem, will determine your fate.
To be continued…