Once you make a mistake with food – like emotional eating, eating too many calories, or eating a “bad” food – it can feel like all is lost. You may lose your balance and move into a “what the hell” space. This hopeless space can result in a binge, purge or fast.
When you make a mistake and overeat, there’s a way to soothe the panic, alarm and anxiety so you don’t go to the emotional “all is lost” space. You do this by moving out of perfectionistic, all or nothing thinking and into both/and thinking, also known as integrative functioning. (I learned about integrative functioning from my mentor in developmental science, Dr. Gordon Neufeld.)
Here’s what both/and thinking looks like with food mistakes. If you overeat, binge, or eat too much sugar, you need to feel both the regret of succumbing to your impulses while also remembering that all is not lost. You need to feel both the disappointment – I wish I could’ve done differently – and the hope – I can learn from this. You need to feel the sadness of temporary defeat and the faith and trust that mistakes are simply part of the journey, and often, how we grow.
We primarily learn and grow through mistakes – it’s how the brain works. Befriending mistakes is both powerful and freeing as we recognize they’re not the end of the world that we can imagine them to be. Besides soothing feelings of hopelessness and despair, feeling both feelings – the disappointment and the hope – is what enables us to learn, grow and respond differently next time.
“What I hear a lot is people worry that I’ve done all this work about food and sugar, what if it doesn’t last? How am I going to survive going forward? But, if you remember from other classes, this idea of “walking the maze,” and remember that understanding that this is not about perfection, that everything is an opportunity to learn and grow, then there’s not all this pressure of, “I have to pass or fail.” And there’s not all this pressure of, “Well, if I go back to sugar it means I’ve failed.” I gently invite you to really explore that belief, because it’s one of the most common. I don’t look at healing in that way.
I look at those times when you’re going back to sugar, it simply means that in that moment, your resources to cope without the sugar or food are inadequate for whatever internal experience or external experience you are having in that moment. It’s just a momentary space. It doesn’t define you, or it doesn’t have to define your relationship with sugar.
Ann Dunnewold, a therapist and the author of a parenting book, Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box, has a great metaphor for this. She describes how we tend to have a very black and white view towards “success or progress,” where every time that we’re doing something really good, we look at it as a victory, like filling up a jar with marbles. So, you start filling up the jar with marbles of, “Oh, wow, I was feeling an impulse to binge on sugar and I didn’t.” Okay, you put a marble in the jar. Or maybe you think, “Oh, I had a tough day at work with my boss, and I was really tempted to go to the break room and buy candy bars, but I didn’t.” Put a marble in the jar.
Well, what happens is we build and build those marbles in the jar of our successes, but when we have one mistake, let’s say you have a tough day with your boss today, and you do go to the break room and you eat candy bars. What we tend to do is not take one marble out of the jar – we empty the entire jar and cancel out all our growth and progress. In our minds, we go to this black and white space where we forget all our growth and all our progress. It’s like it doesn’t even exist.
To support ourselves, we can practice what Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls integrative functioning. Integrative functioning is the ability to hold onto two opposing thoughts at the same time. When we mess up, it is really helpful to remember all the times we succeeded, and to not look at it as a finality, and to not look at it as like, “Oops, I’ve upset the whole apple cart.” This is one of the reasons why I encourage you to write down things that you’re doing well, so in that moment when you don’t meet your own expectations, it doesn’t take you to that all-or-nothing place of, “Forget it, I’m a failure, I’ve failed.”
We can also use other people. When we’ve lost that integrative functioning on our own, when we’re not able to see the big picture, when we’re not able to take the mistake in context and remember all the things that are changing and all the things that we’re doing well and all the factors that might have triggered us in that moment that may have made it really hard to honor their intentions, other people can step in to do this for us when we’ve lost the thread on our own. Because, there are going to be times when we lose this integrative functioning.
It happens to all of us, particularly when we’re tired or exhausted or stressed. And so, someone else can offer that gentle reminder of, “I’m going to remind you of your integrative functioning, I’m going to remind you of the mix. This isn’t the only side of the story.” And with that, we still have that discomfort, or maybe that sorrow, or that sadness or regret that we went to the office and we ate the candy bars, but it doesn’t decimate us and send us down into a shame spiral that sucks us in, and leads to a binge.”