I’m reading (well, listening on audiobook to) a really interesting book right now on willpower. It’s called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. I’m learning lots, but something really stuck out to me yesterday.
I was running yesterday while listening to another chapter in the book. The section was about dopamine and the part of the brain that runs on dopamine with regard to anticipation. This is the part of the brain that makes us do something because we think we’ll feel great after we do. This part of the brain doesn’t create actual happiness, it creates the promise of happiness and that promise spurs us to do whatever. The example is the person who shops too much. This part of the brain is the one that creates the association with shopping with the promise of happiness from shopping. She’s excited as she drives to the mall. When she window-shops, she feels that glow. After she buys something and when she drives home, the happiness is gone, she feels let down, possibly remorseful if she spent more than she could afford. The promise of happiness spurred her to act and made her enjoy the prelude to the shopping even though the actual act of purchasing and the aftermath weren’t enjoyable.
It seems to be that food is very much the same. It’s the promise of how good that little cupcake will taste that excites me, drives me to want it. Often, usually, it’s not nearly as good as I think it will be. And certainly, I feel bad afterward because I broke my own promise to myself to eat better and I’ve put off my goal of weight loss further still into the future. I’m overwhelmed though, by that anticipatory excitement of the cupcake, it’s so strong, it’s so hard to resist. The dopamine fueled, physiological promise of happiness can be stronger than the rational thought that the action probably won’t lead to happiness.
What I realized yesterday is how this book is showing me that my weakness around food, that emotional or psychological component of overeating, is actually physiological. It’s hard-wired into my body. It’s a physical response. I’m not a weak-willed person. I’m not a person who just doesn’t care. I’m not a person that lacks the moral ability to make the right choice in the time of temptation. There is a reason, a physical reason that I make the wrong decisions sometimes.
Discovering low-carb eating was such a relief to me ten years ago because I discovered how so much of my hunger and cravings were physiological, not gluttony or immorality. When I cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates, my body doesn’t go nuts with swings of blood sugar and insulin and cravings and I have so much better control over my food choices.
I’m just as amazed to start to realize that the other half of the puzzle, the emotional or psychological need to eat, has physiological roots too. So, it’s really not that I’m weak or of low moral fibre or just not a strong character when I’m caught in the web of temptation, it’s really just how I’m hardwired inside. I have a neurotransmitter structure that makes me more susceptible to lower self-control.
It doesn’t absolve me of the necessity to work at it. And there is no promise it will be easy. I can’t wallow in “it’s unfair”, but just shedding a little more of the burden of “it’s my own fault” makes the hard work a little easier.
Ask yourself – What’s it like for you inside when you are trying to fix a problem that is your fault, that you created? And then ask yourself – What’s it like for you inside when you are trying to fix a problem that isn’t your fault, that someone just gives you and says, please fix this? For me, the first scenario drains all my energy out. It’s hard to get past feeling guilty and at fault to give the problem my full attention. I keep getting side-tracked with remorse or self-doubt. In the second scenario, there is no internal chatter to distract me. The problem is no reflection on me as a person, it’s just something that needs to be fixed, so I can do it with a clear head and without conflicting emotions.
Please share your thoughts and comments. I’d love to hear what you think about this.