Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The problem with my rewards system

There are several problems, actually.

First off, the rewards system I am referring to is the thing I was tracking in a "Rewards" tab at the top of this page (now removed, but you can see December 2011's record *here*). I was trying to indulge myself with something other than sugary foods in the hope that doing so would build a new perspective, a new habit, and ongoing motivation for rejecting junk food. On days that I skipped desserts, I bought myself a small reward, like some makeup or an inexpensive book. On days that I ate sweets, I wouldn't purchase anything.

I thought this was a good idea because I've heard this suggestion many times in the context of getting over binge eating: you have to learn to treat and reward yourself with something other than food. Food can't be your main source of fun, entertainment, or pleasure anymore, so look for new options. And I also thought my system was smart because I was rewarding myself for meeting a process/action goal (getting through the day without sweets) that would lead to the achievement of 2 important outcome goals (weight loss and the termination of binge eating disorder).

Even though some thought had gone into this system and there was good intent behind it, I no longer think it's a great idea. In fact, I think it might work against me. Here are the problems I see with it now:

It reflects the (mis)understanding that buying something nice for myself will get me to stop craving massive amounts of sugary food. But when the urge to binge hits, books and sweaters and eyeliner aren't going to do anything to take that urge away. There is much useful discussion in "Brain Over Binge" about this--why well-intentioned advice to take a bubble bath or call a friend or buy yourself a bouquet of flowers when you feel like binging doesn't help lots of people. Those things aren't what the animal brain wants, so they don't satisfy the urge. The urge to binge will remain so long as you fight it, run from it, identify with it, and/or obey it.

It causes me to internally label each day and myself as either "good" or "bad" based on what I ate. It also makes me see sweets in an oversimplified way. Whether I ate a couple of homemade cookies or an entire box of trans-fatty snack cakes, I failed to act properly because I used sugar.

It encourages binge eating because of "I blew the day" and "I want to make use of this day" thinking. This is related to the point above. Since I viewed each day as PASS/FAIL, I wanted my FAIL days to "count" in the sense that I wanted to pack in the pleasure before the clean slate of tomorrow arrived. Why stop with the handful of m&m's when my "grade" is going to be the same whether I eat a little or totally binge?

The worst binge I had this month (and incidentally, the last binge I had before reading "Brain Over Binge") was on a day in which I had 3 Oreos first thing in the morning and was so exasperated with myself for "blowing the day" right away that I thought screw it. Today's a write off. I'm having whatever the hell I want now, and I'll try again tomorrow. That was my decision...30 minutes after getting out of bed. To make a not-so-smart morning into a totally reckless day. I wrote about it and received this great comment from someone called rk23:

I'm working on that "I've already screwed up, may as well continue" mindset as well. I keep trying to tell myself that no food is off-limits entirely, so I don't *need* to 'make the most of' today and begin anything anew tomorrow. Whatever food is tempting me will still be available some other time. I don't need to eat it all now. But that's tough. I know that for me saying "I'll start (again) tomorrow" is always a bad thing. Tomorrow comes and I don't want to start then either. I have to conceptualize today and tomorrow and every day as just my life, with no sense of stopping or starting or resolving to change. And even though I've learned to manage some feelings with self-talk, I'm finding that the way out of a binge cycle for me is just to *stop* talking to myself and do the best I can here and now without regard for what I might've done yesterday or what I don't want to do tomorrow.

After I read "Brain Over Binge", rk23's comment made even more sense to me. (Thank you rk23, whoever you are!)

So I'm suspending this little rewards system until further notice. My intention now is to CELEBRATE each loss of five pounds with a purchase of some sort, and I'll probably share those purchases on the blog. When it comes to day-to-day motivation for meeting process/action goals, I'll just have to be satisfied with the immediate reward for exercising, not binging, etc., which is feeling more energetic, clear-headed, and hopeful about the future.


  1. Hi there! I´m so happy I found your blog because I feel your pain. I added myself to your reader:)
    I also tend to reward myself with food. No matter how expensive piece of clothing I purchase it won´t do the trick for me. I don´t get the people who say their best reward is to hit the gym. I hate going to the gym. It represents me hours and hours of hard work that I´ve got in fron of me in order to get rid of all the excess weight I´m carryig. I exercise only to burn calories which I count very carefully. On the other hand, if I slip into binge eating I may as well toss 5000 calories down my throat without calculating.
    I also strongly agree with the "I've already screwed up, may as well continue" If I slip even once I give up and may as well eat the rest of the week whatever I urge. And since I know I will be on a strick diet next week, I may as well eat as much as I can "for the storage". How sick is that. Especially when the next week comes, nothing has changed.

    1. Hi Em! It's so nice to hear that other people understand the craziness in my head. And it's scary how many calories I can pack away in a binge too...I'd hate to calculate how many miles of walking or whatever it takes to burn it off.

      I saw you were a new follower on my Dashboard and shot you a message through Google Friend Connect before I had the chance to read your comment here, and before I saw your profile and the link to your blog. So you can ignore that message!