We can all be profoundly disciplined in our eating choices and habits — for a time. But all this discipline is often offset by periodic bouts of a lack of control.
Through my experience as someone who has struggled with compulsive overeating and restricting for years, and through helping others with similar problems, I’ve discovered the five main ways we sabotage our good intentions when it comes to taking care of ourselves — and how to stop.
1. Develop awareness.
When I realize I’m falling back into old habits, it’s easy to believe that it came out of nowhere. Imagine you’re walking down a familiar street, and one day you fall into a manhole that wasn’t there before. Emotional eating and other unhealthy habits can feel like unexpected sabotage.
But all you need to do is see the manhole before you fall into it. It was there the whole time. Identify and name your triggers. When I work too much or don’t take care of myself, I know I’m setting myself up for a junk food binge. It took me a while to see that what used to seem like a completely random craving for cookie dough was born of a week of punishing schedules with no "me time."
2. Take responsibility.
Once you realize you’ve failed, it’s easy to try to blame someone else. To continue the analogy, it’s saying, “Who the hell forgot to put a cover on this manhole?” Once I understood I needed a less rigorous work schedule, I hired some help. The plan was to create space in my day to take a yoga class, go for a walk, or go to the rock climbing gym.
Somehow, inevitably, some emergency would pop up. Someone would call in sick or a serious client issue would come up that only I could handle. It didn’t matter what it was — it was that it actually felt as though forces outside my control were thwarting me.
Even under extraordinary circumstances, we’re sabotaging ourselves by giving our power away. Our only hope for real change comes from within. If we let circumstances determine our choices, we have no hope for creating a different reality.
3. Identify the emotional payoff of your bad habits.
I realized I was terrified of not being needed. Even though a big part of me really wanted to have time to take care of myself, another, deeper part of me equated being needed with having value. I didn’t know who I’d be if my business ran smoothly without me
Once I recognized what emotional need was fulfilled by running myself ragged, I could identify what it took from me, which I then replenished by bingeing on junk food. Food was serving as a cheap, convenient substitute for self-care. I could work myself into the ground and then feel slightly better by eating, rather than putting in the effort required to connect with someone, move my body, or eat a nutritious meal.
Now, you see the hole in the road. You try to walk around it, but you still fall in. What many people don’t recognize is that failure is a necessary and predictable step toward lasting change.
What if instead of beating yourself up, you celebrated your progress? Making it to this fourth benchmark means you have awareness, you’ve stopped blaming, you know the emotional payoff, and now you’re failing — with awareness. It’s incredibly frustrating to know and want to be different but still find yourselfrepeat old patterns.
The most important ingredient for lasting change is moral effort. When all your programming, your chemistry is screaming for you to go down Road A, moral effort helps you choose Road B.
5. Give up the idea of a “perfect” future.
It’s seductive to think we can get to a place where we are healed, fixed, and operating from some imagined version of our perfect selves. That’s setting yourself up for disappointment and relapse.
Instead, I have become comfortable with my inner saboteur, my inner addict, my inner sloth. You have to become comfortable with the part of yourself that pulls you away from who you want to be. Instead of trying to get rid of her, I acknowledge her. When she acts out, that signals that something is off in my life.
Maybe I’ve slipped into overworking. Maybe I’ve gone too long without a snack break or some playtime. Maybe I haven’t made time to call a friend and connect with someone I care about. She’s never going to go away. Make peace with her.
Sometimes, this requires you to reframe your goals and motivations. Instead of having a rigid exercise schedule and program (that I could never sustain anyway), I ask my body how it wants to move today. Sometimes it’s a hard aerobic sprint, but often it’s a walk in the woods, a yoga class, or a nap. Instead of having an attachment to an exercise routine, I focus on movement.
Similarly, I no longer classify foods as good or bad. That sets off a binge-and-restrict cycle. So, I won’t say no to a brownie for breakfast, but I do ask myself why I wasn’t in the mood for my regular smoothie. Maybe I was up too late the night before. Maybe I’m dealing with a lot emotionally. Maybe it’s that time of the month. That’s the time to get curious, not prescriptive.
Realize this is a marathon, not a sprint. Aim for progress, not perfection. Be gentle with yourself when you falter, and note the progress in how quickly you get back on track. The more I let go, the easier it is to stay on the right path.
Love yourself for being perfectly imperfect, and I guarantee your life will change.