The action of rewarding ourselves with food can become almost automatic. It is an affordable and instant way to feel momentarily gratified for the frequent small feats in our day-to-day life. But is an instant, momentary and frequent reward really gratifying?
This may not be easy to read or hear, but I challenge you to absorb what is said and think of it during your day. Every time you want to treat yourself, ask:
- Why am I doing it?
- Is it really worth a treat or is it my body just finding reasons to satisfy the bad bacteria?
- And, very importantly, is what you are doing actually rewarding?
First I had to realise that I was subconsciously using food as a reward system. As much as there was a voice saying “do it!”, there was also always a voice, no matter how quiet, saying “but why?”. And before that quiet voice had even finished the question, my thoughts would become overwhelmed by a checklist of all the things that I had accomplished in the day or week. Be it work, exercise, or even just simple acts of kindness. Like a teenager writing their first CV, my mind searched for anything and everything that could be added to the list. Pushing me to conclude that I deserved a treat.
This internal dialogue happened so quickly and became so automatic that I eventually didn’t even notice it happening. The trick was to catch myself in this moment, ignore the phone ringing or the person asking me questions, take a moment to close my eyes and really ask my body if it wanted that custard slice. If I felt like it wasn’t working, I would ask out loud with my hand on my tummy. It’s no magic trick, but it is a great way to get the body and mind to focus a bit more. (Like the way someone with panic attacks could talk themselves out of it by stating simple facts out loud.)
The Reward Doesn’t Have to be Food
It still took a few months before I stopped rewarding myself with any form of consumable. At first, I thought to myself, it’s only the heavy gluten that is bad, so I started a reward system based on chocolate. Then I started thinking about my excessive sugar consumption and moved onto coffee. All terrible ideas, I know, but at the time they all felt like an improvement. And to be honest, I wasn’t checking with my body about the new decisions I was making, and (subconsciously) keeping the changes as shallow as I could. I had already forgotten what it was all about and it was so easy to accidentally slip back into old habits.
Eventually, late one night, hiding in the kitchen spooning honey straight from the jar into my mouth, I realised that I was just swopping one food with another and not really getting anywhere. So I decided to totally change the way I look at rewarding myself. Firstly, I decided that I didn’t have to be gratified for every small achievement. And secondly, that my body deserved to be thanked in a truly rewarding way. The reward didn’t have to be food. Simply making the decision to change made a big difference, compared to before, when I felt like my gut was a supervisor telling me what to do. (As a side note, here is an article, not written by me, that also mentions the power of making the decision. I found it extremely inspiring!)
Change the Habit
Once I was in the habit of properly checking with my body first every time, it all got easier. The more I asked, the less I ate, and the less I ate, the less I craved. Now if I accomplish something really worth rewarding, I treat myself to an afternoon in the sun with a book, or an extra-long yoga session.
It is still hard because others around me will always want to go to a restaurant or bar to celebrate. But I try to be a positive influence and suggest something else, like a scenic train ride or a little walk to a spot with a beautiful view. The worst that has happened is that they say no and I still celebrate in my own way. And the times that someone has joined me, they have always felt good afterward and expressed gratitude. Plus, I was helping them take a step towards self-improvement, even if they didn’t know it yet.