Progress Not Perfection

For the last few weeks, my client, Jenna, has been working hard on overcoming emotional eating. For Jenna, eating every time she gets stressed/angry/anxious/sad is a deeply ingrained habit. She remembers instances from over 40 years ago and even earlier when she would emotionally eat after having a rough day at school, or after having an argument with her mom. Jenna initially expressed skepticism that she would be able to break this decades-long habit, but I reminded her many times that the brain— at any age— is capable of change! It is always possible to form new neural pathways, and for old ones to atrophy from lack of use.

I taught Jenna a metaphor I had learned: Habits are like a river and the water flows a certain way. To change a habit (like eating every time she gets in a fight with her mom), Jenna can’t just put a dam in the river, because eventually the water will overflow it. Instead, she must build alternate channels for the river to flow through. Since we were taking away eating as a coping mechanism for feeling angry after a disagreement, we had to talk about other coping mechanisms we could put in its place (i.e., other channels for the water to flow through). Jenna and I made a list of alternative strategies to try, including calling her sister, doing 5 or 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation with an app on her phone, going for a walk, and listening to her favorite soothing song.

In session this week, Jenna came in feeling demoralized. She told me that over the past week she got in a fight with her mom and, per usual, felt very woman eating chipsangry afterwards. She told me she really tried to fight off the urge to eat. She did a 5-minute meditation on her phone, and she took a 20-minute walk (during which she tried to call her sister, but her sister didn’t answer). About 45 minutes later, she was still ruminating on the fight, still feeling mad, and ended up going into her kitchen and eating some chips. Jenna said she was feeling so mad because she really tried to fight the urge to eat, but it ultimately got the better of her.

I told Jenna that I was having the opposite reaction. I was feeling incredibly proud of her! “When in the past have you ever been able to stave off the urge to eat for a full 45 minutes?” I asked her. Jenna thought about it and realized that the answer was likely never. She had always immediately turned to food when she felt that way. I pointed out to Jenna that this was a clear sign of progress – she had proven to herself that food doesn’t have to be her first response. She was able to hold out for 45 minutes this time. Maybe next time it would be an hour, and the time after that an hour and 15 minutes. Eventually, she would be able to wait so long that the emotions would lessen and the desire to eat would subside. When framed this way, Jenna realized that her experience was actually positive in a lot of ways. Instead of feeling demoralized, she should be feeling encouraged, because it proved that she was capable of progress.

Like Jenna, when you are working on overcoming deeply ingrained habits, it’s critical to pay attention to progress, not perfection. Any step forward is something to be celebrated and recognized for what it is: Evidence that you can make progress toward your goal.

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