Over the past few weeks, my dieter, Jennifer, has been working hard on all of her initial skills, like reading her Advantages List every morning (and often right before dinner, too), eating everything sitting down, slowly, and mindfully, and giving herself credit. She has also been working on limiting junk food to just one portion per day, after dinner, and adding more fruits and vegetables to her diet.
In session this week, Jennifer told me that she is going on vacation with her family next week and one of their traditions is to get ice cream in the afternoon and walk around while they eat it. Jennifer really loves to do this with her family, but she was concerned because it would mean eating standing up. Jennifer and I discussed this and we agreed that, while she was on her trip, it was perfectly fine to eat ice cream standing up before dinner as long as she planned to do so in advance. I pointed out to Jennifer that wanting in the moment to eat something standing up and telling herself, “It’s okay to have just this one thing standing up, it won’t matter,” is very different from deciding in advance when and where specifically she would eat something standing up. In the first case, it would mean exercising her giving-in muscle and listening to sabotaging thoughts. In the second case, it wouldn’t be exercising her giving-in muscle at all because it would just be part of her plan.
Similarly, it’s fine for Jennifer to plan to have junk food before dinner while on vacation because she’ll be deciding to do so in advance. Again, this won’t be a case of Jennifer seeing a junk food that she really wants to eat and spontaneously deciding to have it before dinner, which would definitely strengthen her giving-in muscle. Rather, it will be a deliberate and thought-out exception to her rule.
Jennifer also decided that, once she was back from her trip, she would go right back to not having junk food before dinner and wouldn’t let exceptions filter into her everyday life. If Jennifer started eating junk food before dinner on a normal day, it would become so much harder to resist (as it was when she first started working on this skill) and every time she saw junk food she would once again enter into the painful and exhausting struggle of, “Should I have some? No, you know you shouldn’t. But it looks really good. But you don’t have it before dinner. But I had it yesterday before dinner and it was okay, so maybe now it’s okay, too, etc. etc. etc.”
So you can see that, at times, it can be 100% fine to make exceptions to your rules, as long as you decide to do so in advance and don’t give in to momentary sabotaging thoughts. But, like Jennifer, if you do decide to make an exception, it’s important to set parameters (like only having junk food before dinner on vacation) so that you’re not tempted to make an exception (and have to struggle about whether or not to) every time it comes up.