Stop Emotional Eating Without a Deep Dive Into Your Past

Ending emotional eating doesn't necessarily require years of psychotherapy.

Posted Jul 05, 2020

I was brought up in a family of 17 psychotherapists.  My Mom, my dad, my sister, my step-mom, my step-dad, my cousin, my aunts, uncles, great uncles, etc. were all therapists.  Literally, when something broke in the household everyone knew how to ask it how it felt but nobody knew how to fix it! 

So it's no wonder that when I found myself suffering with a serious eating problem, I made the assumption I must be trying to fill a hole in my heart, and spent the next 30 years seeking the answer in soul-searching psychotherapy, support groups, and countless other ways to try and nurture my inner wounded child back to health.  After all, when you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?

But for me personally, as well as the hundreds of clients, and tens of thousands of readers I've helped to stop emotional eating, I've found that while soul-searching is a very useful and helpful endeavor, a bigger part of the answer has been in understanding behavioral principles which have nothing to do with whether your mama didn't love you enough at mealtime, your papa didn't say enough nice things about you, or you feel guilty about something you did when you were six years old.  

One behavioral principle I've found to make a really big difference both for clients and myself is a solid understanding of something called a "discrimination neurosis."  Today I'd like to explain what this is, and show you how you can use this understanding to preserve your willpower when it comes to food. 

In order to illustrate, I'll need to reference a series of studies I recall from graduate school where experimenters induced stress responses in animals by presenting unsolvable situations.  I'll tell you up front these studies weren't very nice to the animals, and I'm not sure they would (or should) pass ethical standards today.  Nevertheless, they were done and the results are very illuminating.  

In one such study researchers showed pigeons a picture of a circle and a square simultaneously.  If they pecked the circle they got a food pellet reward, but if they pecked the square, a mild shock was administered.  As you might expect, the pigeons successfully learned to peck the circle and avoid the square.  

But next, the researchers made the circle look a little more "square-like" by pushing out little "corners" in it, and the square look a little more "circle-like" by rounding its corners.  The pigeons were still, for the most part, able to choose the circles, get their rewards, and avoid the shocks.

But as the experimenters continued in successive rounds, each time they made the circle a little more square-like, and the square a little more circle-like.  And each time the pigeons were progressively less successful: The more difficult it was to discriminate circles from squares, the more shocks received and the fewer food rewards. 

In the final round, experimenters presented two stimuli which were exactly alike.  No longer was either one distinctly identifiable as a circle or a square.  Can you guess what the pigeons pecked when it was literally impossible to discriminate?  They pecked themselves!   No longer able to tell which path led to reward vs. punishment, the pigeons turned their frustration and stress upon themselves.   Since then, the emergence of self-destructive behavior in the face of the inability to discriminate has been replicated with other animals.  (It sometimes results in randomly aggressive behavior too)

Now, why did I tell you about these "crazy pigeon" studies?

Because in our culture, people routinely inflict discrimination neurosis upon themselves with food, and it wears down their willpower and makes it very difficult to eat healthy.  For example, in an effort to comply with the standard cultural "wisdom" to "eat well 90% of the time and indulge yourself 10% of the time", you might think it would be a good idea to avoid chocolate 90% of the time and indulge 10%.  In theory, this is a great idea, after all, "everything in moderation" is time immemorial advice, isn't it?

But in practice, it creates a discrimination neurosis every time you're in front of a chocolate bar at the coffee shop, because you have to ask yourself "Is today part of the 90% or the 10%?"  And how, in fact, will you know?"  There'd be no clear way to discriminate solely based on the 90/10 guideline, and I believe this is part of what leads so many people to difficulty making good food choices, and more importantly to experience frustrating, negative self talk after eating.  It may be that all that negative self talk is just our version of pigeons pecking themselves due to the inability to discriminate, not the result of a poor upbringing or lack of sufficient love as a child.  

The standard advice for dealing with this would be to become more mindful, present, and intuitive with your chocolate decisions.  Are you eating to fill an emotional need?  Are you running to chocolate to escape?  Are you really present and enjoying the chocolate while you eat it?

Alas, while well-intended (and certainly good to strive towards) these goals too are very ambiguous, subjective concepts with no easy and clear decisions.

The result of the 90/10 guideline is a "crazy pigeon trap" where you can't easily discriminate healthy vs. unhealthy behavior.  (Or, at minimum, where you'll require a lot of brainpower to do so!)  The result is a stressful and self-critical mindset which wears down your willpower and leads to worse food decisions in the long run.

Instead, I advise people to create dietary rules with solid lines which make the "circles" vs. the "squares" exquisitely clear.  For example, if I have a client who wants to learn how to moderate chocolate by eating it only 10% of the time, I'll ask "Which 10%?  And how much would you like to have each time?"  This leads to a discussion of perhaps having 4 oz. of dark chocolate on the last three days of the calendar month, or perhaps once every ten days, etc.  By articulating these boundaries in detail up front we make it clear what path to take to solve the problem, and avert the discrimination neurosis.  No longer do they have to stand frozen in indecision while staring at the chocolate bar in Starbucks, followed by harsh self-talk after indulging.  Instead, they simply consult their calendar to determine whether they're standing in front of a circle or a square and proceed.

The bottom line?  Decide what role you want particular foods and/or food behaviors to play in your life and then draw the boundaries in black and white.  "I'll only ever eat while watching TV on Saturday and Sunday", "I always put my fork down between bites", "I only ever eat chocolate on the last three days of the calendar month", "I always drink 16 ounces of spring water before checking my email the first time for the day", "I never eat in the car", etc.   (I'm not saying you should adopt any of these rules in particular for yourself, I'm just illustrating with a variety of examples of clear rules that successfully avert discrimination neurosis)

I made a video about all this a few years ago which I've embedded below.  Or, click here for more practical tips and tricks on how to stop binge eating.