For most of my life, I’ve been a compulsive sugar addict. Starting in my early 20s, I spent over 15 years trying to heal my sugar addiction. It’s been a long, winding journey.
What finally helped me heal my relationship with sugar was recognizing that my addiction wasn’t just something physiological – I was also emotionally addicted to it. Sugar was my mother, best friend, comfort, voice, and my power.
In order to heal my sugar addiction, I had to learn how to care for the deep needs and feelings that drove my habit. Ironically, this meant becoming intimate with my sugar addiction – leaning into and listening to it more, not less.
Today I help men and women heal their emotional addiction to sugar. The most common question I hear about sugar is this – how do you say no to sugar without creating a stronger desire for it?
It’s a powerful question! Saying no to sugar can bring up feelings of deprivation or even lead to a painful deprive/binge cycle – where you’re swinging from one extreme to the other, either bingeing on sugar or trying to abstain from it.
It’s a paradox, isn’t it? So how do we say no to something without activating feelings of resistance, deprivation or counterwill (feelings of “I don’t want to and you can’t make me”)?
Here are 5 ways to compassionately set a limit with sugar:
1. Include your resistance. My friend, what if I told you that it’s inevitable that some or all of these feelings – deprivation, resistance, “I don’t want to” – will arise when you say no to sugar? They do for me, and for everyone I’ve ever worked with.
So there’s nothing wrong with you or nothing wrong with feeling this way about sugar. These feelings are normal and not a problem – they’re simply something to care for – not control, overcome or eliminate.
In my experience, what we’re really trying to do when we say no to sugar is eliminate our feelings. We want a way to say no to sugar that doesn’t create any emotional conflict or turmoil. But I’ve found that’s impossible. If you’re human, and if you feel, and if you really like sugar, you’re going to have strong feelings about not eating it.
The solution is to accept this – to not make our tender feelings wrong. At the same time, we don’t have to necessarily obey them. We can honor, esteem, care for and listen to our feelings – while also honoring the deeper pull of our intentions.
2. Care for your vulnerability. I want to honor the vulnerability of this space – of saying no to something that may be difficult. Setting limits in a way that is loving and kind – especially if you haven’t had much practice or modeling of this skill – can bring up fear and anxiety.
You may also feel vulnerable because you’re really, really wanting to change your habits with sugar – you want to make this work – and you want to get it “right.” Of course.
Can you approach yourself softly and tenderly when your heart is in this space?
3. Understand and care for the deep needs underneath the sugar. Trying to white knuckle our desire for sugar doesn’t work – it’s like trying to control the wind. What helps is feeling and leaning into the cravings – feeling them more, not less.
I know this sounds counterintuitive, and yet in my experience, your cravings want to be felt and validated. This openhearted allowing is what softens them.
4. Honor the mixed feelings. If you’re choosing not to eat sugar (or to eat less of it), you may feel as if there’s an inner battle inside – parts of you that want to eat sugar, and parts of you that don’t. This is normal. As developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, it’s normal to have mixed feelings about anything. We may want greater health or weight loss and feel sad (or angry) that honoring these desires means eating less sugar.
Instead of looking at your feelings as either/or – either I’m wanting to eat less sugar, or I’m not; either I feel happy about this or I feel angry about it – let the full mix be there. Let it be an and – honoring the no with sugar while also honoring all your feelings about that limit.
This allowing/acceptance of all your feelings softens the resistance and fight against the “no” with sugar. (The next time that small, sad, young part of you says, “I wish I could eat sugar,” try saying to it, “I agree!” See how letting it feel heard softens the desire to actually eat it.)
Every single part of you wants to be validated, seen, heard and understood. Fully hearing those tender, hurting parts of you (that want to eat the sugar) makes them feel loved – even as you also say no. This openheartedness brings up a willingness to honor the deeper “yes.”
This allowing of feelings is a way of tending your relationship – the relationship you have with all of your many different parts, selves, feelings and needs. So the relationship feels safe, loving, and secure, even when there’s a (loving) limit.
5. Put yourself in a position of power. There’s a big difference between telling yourself, “I can’t eat that donut” and “I’m choosing not to eat the donut.” (You can read a new study on this idea here.) It’s the difference between feeling like a victim – I can’t, I’m powerless, I have no choice – to feeling like a person of free will – I’m choosing what’s best for me – even if I also feel sad about it.
In her book Finding the Deep River Within, psychotherapist Abby Seixas describes it this way: Are you telling yourself you should do something, or you could do something? Try telling yourself “I should stop eating sugar.” Now tell yourself: “I could stop eating sugar.” Do you feel a difference?
In my experience, saying “I choose” or “I could” imply possibility. There’s hope in these statements, a belief, a feeling of, “Yes, I can!” My body feels light and strong. My posture stands straight. My belly feels relaxed.
By contrast, “I should” feels like a duty that I resent and resist. I feel tense and tight in my belly. My need for autonomy flares up and I want to resist – even against things that are very good for me! It brings up a “fight” energy.
“I can’t” feels heavy. My shoulders round and slump. My belly feels hollow. I feel like an empty balloon – deflated. It’s an energy of collapse and hopelessness.
Try it on – how do these statements feel in your body?
Some people find that giving themselves full permission – “If you really, really want it, you can eat the sugar” – gives them a feeling of choice and empowerment. It feels like, “I’m choosing to eat (or not eat) the sugar.”
In this space of openheartedness, acceptance, and empowerment, you’re much more likely to honor your deep yes instead of your habitual reactions (and counter reactions.) You feel more aligned with who you want to be. Eating less sugar – and feeling more empowered – coincide.