Friday, May 28, 2010

Gold Stars

"Dessert" is used in academic circles as a noun form of "deserve" in addition to meaning a sweet ending to a meal. A lot of people who are losing weight focus on the notion of dessert, meaning they believe that they deserve a reward as a result of their efforts. It's my feeling that any notion of dessert is what got me to where I am now, at least in part.

In the past, it wasn't uncommon for me to say things to my husband to the effect of, "I deserve (whatever)." In particular, I would say this in regard to certain foods that I wanted. If I had a hard day, I'd say I "deserved" some ice cream to comfort me. If I was sick or tired, I'd say I "deserved" to eat something that would bring me comfort. When I had a cold, in particular, I'd crave potato chips because they were salty and carby. That made them both easy to taste with dulled senses and easy to digest with an upset stomach. If I worked hard, I "deserved" a pizza because I was too tired to cook.

One of the many things which I've tried to change about my approach to food and to life in general is to remove the notion of dessert (as in deserving) something in response to carrying out a particular behavior which should be done simply as a result of being a responsible adult. If I pay a bill, I don't get a reward. If I do the laundry, I don't get a reward. If I eat properly, I don't get a reward. Food-related behaviors which contribute to an overall lifestyle of moderation and healthfulness are not things which should require a reward for me. I should carry out these behaviors for the value of the natural consequences, not for some sort of "bonus".

I haven't "rewarded" myself throughout the 11 months I've been losing weight and at times, I have felt a bit at loose ends. Early on in the process of changing how I dealt with food, I often felt a profound sense that something pleasurable and useful (psychologically, as in a coping mechanism) had been stripped away and I had been left with nothing to carry me through. I'm guessing this is a classic addictive response.

At this point, the sense that something is missing has faded greatly. In fact, using food as a reward is something which I have managed to eliminate from conscious thought. I don't think of food as a reward, though I do still occasionally crave it for comfort or when I'm bored (and have to fight the impulse, though not nearly as often as I once did) and that may be unconsciously linked to the idea of food as a reward. My fear in using "rewards" for behavior which leads to weight loss is that I'd be merely substituting one reward (food) for another (shoes, clothes, make-up, concert tickets, etc.).

I think that perhaps my inability to see eating properly and exercising as simply part of an adult existence indicated that I was still stuck in some childhood stage of development in which I felt I should get a gold star of some sort for "being good". Note that I attribute this being mired in a childish stage to myself only. I can't speak for the psychological inner workings of anyone else and do not attribute the same underlying ideas to others.

For some people who are trying to change their life habits in the hopes of losing weight, if the food isn't the gold star, then something else should be. The problem I have with this in regards to me personally is that I think that there is a danger at the end of the weight loss process when there are no more structured goals and no justifications for rewards. If you (and by "you", I actually mean "me") never frame lifestyle habits that provide you with the health and physique you desire as mere obligations of living the type of life you wish to live, then you risk falling back into old habits when the rewards end.

For some people, they have found a way of rewarding themselves without looking like they are rewarding themselves. All of those people who make dieting and exercising their raison d'etre and obsessively focus on what they did and did not eat and what they did and did not do in terms of activity? They are rewarding themselves with their obsessive cataloging, counting, or ticking off mental goal sheets in regards to the number of minutes they exercise, vegetables they eat, or weights they lift. Their system of reward is more abstract, but it still ties their food and exercise habits to dessert, though in this case it is mental gold stars instead of manicures or iPods. It's like getting your kids to clean their rooms in response to praise as a reward instead of a new toy.

My goal has been to do the equivalent of getting the kid to clean the room because a nice clean room is more pleasant to spend time in. In essence, I want to do what I do because the body I end up in will be easier to live in and with. I have no way of knowing if this will be successful in the long run. It has been so far, and that's enough for now.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insights. Gulp.

I've been using the number on the scale as a dessert, as my reward. As a way to tell myself, "See, my effort is worth it. The hard work and sacrifice is paying off." I didn't realize I've been doing this until I read this post today. Ouch. What a painful realization.

My weight has stayed the same, with small fluctuations, for the past 3 weeks. I'm doing everything *right*. Ugh. I have this idea that I SHOULD be losing lbs. I've *earned* that much. Double ugh. None of these beliefs bring me peace of mind. It is like the magical thinking of a small child, as in: I've been good, so nothing bad should happen to me. Then I end up feeling bad about myself, even though I am taking better care of myself. O the bitter irony.

This feels like some form of cruel madness. A kind of internalized crazy-making. Here I am, exposing myself to weight loss blogs of people who are totally obsessed with weighing their bodies and taking down numbers and setting goals (NOT talking about your blog!)...with their self loathing when the goals go unmet...and their self-congrats when the goals are achieved.

There are bizarre undertones of religious zeal in the behaviors and words.

That isn't like me. I don't know why I allowed myself to get caught up in that strange, cultural dance. At first I was able to stand back and observe from a dispassionate standpoint. But somewhere along the way I got sucked into the hoopla. Hmmm.

I simply want to learn to live in peace with food. To enjoy taking care of myself, including my body.

Time to review what I am doing with my life...

Thanks again for an amazing post.


screaming fatgirl said...

It's the most natural thing for all of us to want some sort of reward for doing something which is outside of our default. I wouldn't hold any system of weight loss against anyone and am in no position to judge (not that I'm inclined to do so). Each person has to do what works for them. That being said, my goals for myself include a lot more "re-framing" of the position of food in my life because I want to be in a position which is sustainable without too much emotional suffering. I know I'll always have to count calories and log my food intake because I lack a sense of how much to eat, but other than that, I don't want to become so mired in the process that losing the rewards of the process when I'm at my desired weight won't be another big change (because that could cause the sort of stress and confusion that'd make me gain it back again).

I guess I don't want this to seem like "sacrifice" (even when it really felt like it when I first started and still does on occasion). I want it to feel like "normal" life (because that is what I want). It is very hard, and I can so empathize with what you're saying. I can't tell you how many times in the past 6 months I've wanted to run to the scale for validation and stopped myself because of the long-term consequences of doing so for me emotionally (again, I speak for me and no one else).

It really pains me when I read people like yourself who are trying so hard and not seeing results and feel frustrated. I identify with that pain, though not perhaps with the relative frequency of it. Even though I don't weigh myself much at all (3x in nearly a year), I still fret on my progress at times and have a sense of "more should be happening because I'm doing everything I should." I think I just face it less often because I don't have the scale mocking me with unchanged results. Frankly, I can't face the disappointment. Perhaps I don't weigh myself not because it doesn't represent just desserts to me, but because I so fear what may feel like active punishment. It's like studying hard for a test and failing grade if I weigh myself after doing everything "right". Perhaps I'm just a "coward" about it - fear of failing is worse for me than the value of the reward.

I also read the blogs of people who are obsessive, (and I did know you weren't talking about me as I'm pretty atypical in that I have a "normalized" behavioral approach) and I try to be supportive of people where I can, but sometimes I feel like they're on a road which requires too much effort to travel forever. Again, this is something I feel based on personal experience when I lost weight in college by exercising two hours a day and eating in a particularly restrictive fashion. I remember how worried I became if for any reason I couldn't exercise because I felt compelled to do it or I'd regain the weight. It wasn't good for me.

I think it's hard not to find a system which seems to be working for others and to follow it, particularly when so many of us have tried and failed again and again. Someone has to have the magic formula, right? Well, what I think is that the formulas we follow are off-shoots of a mishmash of approaches that were recommended by doctors, studies, and those who profit from weight loss plans and products. We do what we're told more often than not or cobble together plans based on things like being told that people who weigh themselves everyday maintain their weight (a fact, but not something which necessarily relates to successful weight loss). It's all so confusing that it's hard not to jump on the bandwagons which are full of the most successful losers.

Thanks for your comments, Rebecca. They are always thoughtful and kind. Good luck with your introspective process. I hope I haven't spun your head around in some way which complicates your life!

Sarah said...

Agreed. It's about learning to live with food. Not obsessing over it, not rewarding yourself for behavior that a great deal of the population has a pretty good handle on. (Although lots of skinny people have food issues).

I don't know much about your history, but you have given this a great deal of thought and to me seems like you are on the right path. Your own path!

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Sarah, and thanks for coming by!

I do think plenty of people have food issues. Period. It's a natural consequence of having a biology built on acquiring food resources with difficulty (and therefore encouraging eating as much as possible when possible) and living in a society with abundant food *and* a ton of food cues and media messages encouraging consumption. The astonishing thing is that not every person in developed societies has an eating disorder, not that so many appear to have them already.

Anonymous said...

"I hope I haven't spun your head around in some way which complicates your life!"

Sometimes "complicates" is good, if it gets my attention for instance. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Your desire to protect yourself from any information that will be counterproductive to your ultimate goal can not be judged as anything other than brilliant!

I have probably gained hundreds of pounds as a result of weighing myself compulsively! Up expectedly, disappointed in myself=binge. Up UNexpectedly, furious at the unfairness of it all=binge. Down expectedly=YAY, can celebrate. Down Unexpectedly=DOUBLE YAY, got away with something, if I do more of the same, maybe I'll continue to go down even though I don't "deserve" to.
When I achieved the "completely out of control"status, in Sept. of 2011, my first goal, even before dealing with the eating part, as to stop weighing myself for a week at a time. It was much more difficult for me to do that, then it was to stick to my allotted calories. Seems like I was more addicted to the scale than to food!
I know I have said this before but I am SO impressed with your insight regarding the triggers in your life and your ability to avoid exposing yourself to them.