If you struggle with eating too much sugar or a sugar addiction, or if you simply want to transition into a low sugar diet, you may need to set some internal boundaries around how much sugar you eat. To do that, you need to gently, kindly and consistently tell yourself no, something that can bring up feelings of resistance (“I don’t want to”) and even anger (“I shouldn’t have to do this!”)
Here’s where it gets tricky: because we have an ingrained need for autonomy, we may resist our attempts to set a boundary – even if it’s something nourishing and in our best interest.
The wisdom of resistance
If you feel resistance when you try to eat less sugar, I invite you to take a deep breath. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Interestingly, your resistance may have a valid point: if you’re using pain to ask ourselves to change your sugar habits, it’s wise that you resist it! Painful methods of change include shame, guilt, self-blame, over control (“white knuckling it,”) criticizing yourself, and more.
Excessive shame and guilt make change harder because they create feelings of judgment and separation. On a brain level, excess shame and separation move the brain from growth to self protection. They impede the very growth you seek. This separation also creates stress in the body, making it harder to honor your intentions to eat less sugar.
There’s more. Shame, guilt, and criticism bring up resistance because they deeply wound your heart. You move to protect yourself from further wounding by resisting the very changes that you’re attempting to make. Your moving to a state of permissiveness – to indulge your impulses and desires for sugar – is your attempt to protect yourself from the pain of self blame, shame and criticism.
What a relief to see that this resistance has an intelligence to it: you’re not “sabotaging yourself,” you’re trying to care for yourself.
Why going by “whatever you feel like doing” can be so frustrating
But having no boundaries with sugar doesn’t work either. Moving from too much restrictiveness to permissiveness sets you up for failure, as the attitude of “feeling like it” comes and goes. You may find yourself going back and forth – where you move from bingeing on sugar to restricting it. Without a sense of structure you may feel unsupported, lost, unmoored, and ungrounded.
The truth is this: just because you have an intention to eat less sugar doesn’t mean you’re always going to feel like doing it. I certainly don’t. We’re human beings: we get tired, our moods fluctuate, we get frustrated, we wish we didn’t have to do it, and we get caught in strong emotions. Of course.
Fortunately, there’s a way to support your growth out of painful sugar bingeing without using punishment based, painful methods that create stress. There are also ways to soften the natural resistance that arises in telling yourself no.
Finding your middle ground
Impulse control – whether with sugar or any other impulsive behavior – is not found through permissiveness or restriction. It’s found through what my teacher, developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, calls integrative functioning.
Integrative functioning is the ability to be with opposing feelings, thoughts and points of view at the same time. For example, when you feel the urge to binge on sugar, do you also feel the urge not to? When you feel tired and aren’t feeling motivated to exercise, do you also feel the opposite urge – the urge to lovingly care for yourself by moving your body?
The key to integration is to mix it up: we mix our feelings (all the impulses of “I don’t want to, I’m tired, I don’t feel like it”) with their opposite, which is often a form of caring: I want to care for my body, I want to honor my intentions, I care about my health. It is through mixing these two feelings that you find the ability to both feel the feelings of resistance and honor your deeper intention, your caring.
Finding your temper
Dr. Neufeuld calls this process tempering. We don’t eliminate (“I shouldn’t feel this way.”) We add to. We temper strong feelings and impulses with their opposite. It’s on the one hand this, … and on the other hand that. Integrative functioning is also known as “and” thinking vs. black and white or “all or nothing” thinking. I’ll offer two examples of tempering/integrative functioning to make this concrete:
- I’m feeling tired and I care about my body and want to move it.
- I feel like bingeing on sugar and I also care about myself – I don’t want to binge and hurt myself.
It is through tempering that you soothe your impulses, find your middle way and soften the see saw of permissiveness and restriction with sugar.
Why growth brings up conflict
Integration is a heck of a lot more uncomfortable than restriction or permission, because in integrating two opposing thoughts or feelings, we experience the tension and dissonance of, “I want to/I don’t want to.” This is highly uncomfortable. But herein lies another paradox, for it’s how we grow. As Dr. Neufeld says, “we grow through conflict.”
When we practice integrative thinking, we’re rewiring and maturing the brain. It’s actually something much, much deeper than habit change: it’s maturation, something that crosses over into all areas of our lives. So when you’re integrating non-food impulses – like wanting to compulsively check your phone or email and pausing, sitting with the tension – it carries over to your challenges with sugar, and vice versa.
Finding your deeper yes
In order to mix our feelings, we need to access our emotional brain, and access our hearts. We need to feel our deeper longings, “the deeper pull of what we love.” D.H. Lawrence describes it this way: “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.”
How do we get down to the deepest self? We surrender. We surrender what our ego or personality (or our impulse) desires to the values and burning passions of our heart. We also surrender by opening to our longing.
So to heal a sugar habit, you need a soft, open heart. You need to be open and receptive to your heart’s call, to the pull of how you most want to be in the world. That’s why all habit change starts first with longing, with a deep desire, with a prayer: “Breathe new life in me.”
The mercy of integrative functioning
In my own life, I’ve found that practicing integrative functioning is a form of mercy. Unlike “cutting out,” where there’s only room for certain feelings or needs, there’s breathing room for the full range of our humanity. In integrating, I have room for all my feelings, and all of me – including my feelings of resistance, anger and frustration. I don’t have to “cut out” parts of me to feel loveable, whole or okay.
What freedom: to know that you can accept all your feelings and act on your values. It doesn’t have to be either/or. (In fact, this idea of accepting feelings and honoring values is the idea behind ACT, acceptance and commitment theory.)
There’s something deeply powerful about acknowledging our feelings. Once I acknowledge, “I don’t feel like it,” and allow those feelings to be there, I feel moved to find the second thought…”and a part of me does feel like it.” It softens the resistance in a whoosh of self compassion.
The power of finding your deeper yes
It’s powerful and healing to learn that we don’t have to feel like doing something to do it. Neither do we have to crack a whip against our hearts, to use brute force to make ourselves “toe the line.” We can care for our feelings and honor our intentions to eat less sugar.
Integrative functioning is how you use your will to grow out of sugar compulsion. It’s a will that’s not tied to thoughts and feelings that come and go, or to our scattered, monkey minds, but to our conscious mind and heart: the values that arise from the depths of our soul.
It’s how we stop fighting with ourselves and embrace every part of us – all our needs, all our feelings, all our mixed emotions. From this place of acceptance – I embrace all of me – we find the courage to change and grow.
This growth can take different forms. It’s not so much what you’re doing with sugar as how you’re relating to it. As poet David Whyte writes, “The world was made to be free in.” Sometimes freedom is eating a cookie; sometimes it’s saying no. For everything there is a season.
What makes both free is how you listen and respond to your inner longings. What makes both free is honoring your deeper yes – is it a time to celebrate; do I need to let go and enjoy the sweet treat? Or do I need to add some structure and soften my habit of sugar overindulgence? – and not just the impulse.