Rewiring Your Brain with Self-Compassion and Gratitude

Making peace with food can often feel out of reach.  It’s human nature to want concrete objectives for how to do that, a checklist if you will.  Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.  While I do like to help my clients with a certain amount of (flexible) structure, self-compassion and gratitude are the two most powerful tools you will have to reach that goal. They may sound a bit too abstract but results come as you practice them over and over and over.

I recently came across this article called “How To Rewire Your Brain For Happiness”.  
It talks about Neuroplasticity, or the potential your brain has to create new neural pathways that better meet your needs.  The way you behave is based on the way you think and the way you think is based on how your brain is wired.  The good news is you can change the way your brain is wired therefore changing the way you think and behave. 

A good friend and therapist once told me that the definition of mental health is balance between rigidity and chaos. I’m currently reading “The Mindful Therapist” by Dr. Dan Siegel (which came highly recommended from a trusted colleague and I do the same for other clinicians like myself) and am realizing she was referencing his work.  If our thoughts are rigid or chaotic - all or nothing - then our behaviors will be. Extremes are easy and a convenient way to avoid finding balance, which takes dedicated and consistent work. Fear, worry, anxiety, comparison and judgment feed on extremes. Balance brings peace, faith, love, trust, creativity, inspiration and acceptance. 

The first step to the extremes of rigidity or chaos is judgment.  The first step back to balance is compassion.  While you might believe that the critical voice in your head is keeping you safe, it’s only leading to all or nothing, rigid or chaotic thinking.  Balance means not assigning expectation or judgment to a food (or anything else if you would like to think in the broader scope of overall mental health).  By allowing food (or people or things or situations) just to be what it is, you avoid judgment and therefore critical, extreme thinking and behaviors.  By allowing food (or anything else) to just be what it is (not good or bad), you are in a position to make a decision that is in your best interest rather than a decision based on fear, anxiety, deprivation or restriction.  BECAUSE there are no foods off limits, you can decide what works for you in that moment rather than based on what happened in the past or what may or may not happen in the future.

For example, it is very likely that if you have had a negative experience with a plate of cookies, your brain is wired toward extremes.  You see 2 options: either you can have none or you will eat the entire plate (rigidity or chaos).  As much as you may not believe it, there is a third option – allowing the cookie to just be a cookie and deciding if it is something you would like to have or something you would like to turn down based on how you feel.  This decision is based on acceptance of what’s in front of you, staying present with the decision and making the choice for what is in your best interest rather than what the diet says or needing them all now because you won’t ever be able to have them again or not having any in order to not feel guilty… 

I hope you can see from this example that it’s wise to give yourself unconditional permission to eat.  No rules, no deprivation, no good or bad foods, which are extreme thoughts that lead to extreme behavior.  Instead you can say yes to cookies and trust your body to tell you when to stop or you can so no to cookies because they aren’t what you are hungry for.  

Self-compassion will come in handy.  You don’t need to be perfect.  You can tell your critical voice to take a hike.  You are learning new ways of thinking and behaving around food.  Being patient with yourself while showing yourself lots of love is going to be your best asset.  When you catch yourself assigning judgment to food or yourself, bring yourself back to balance by showing yourself some kindness in the way you speak to yourself about yourself.  

Gratitude is closely related to compassion and can be your second tool.  As with anything else in life, focusing on what you have instead of what you don’t will mean living with an attitude of abundance instead of scarcity.  When you choose to look for the good and show gratitude for it, it might mean you find more things to be grateful for.  Whether it’s your perception or reality, the result for either will be greater happiness and peace.  Showing gratitude for food and it’s ability to sustain, nourish and fuel your body will likely change your whole attitude toward it.  If you fear it, avoid it or call it names, there isn’t any possibility of having a healthy relationship with it. It probably won't make you feel well physically either.  Eating a nourishing meal that is satisfying is one of life’s pleasures.  When you leave the table, that meal will fuel you to live a full life.  In my estimation, that's a lot to be grateful for!

If making peace with food is your goal, it may take some time to rewire your subconscious judgments or learned reactions.  The good news is you will have lots of opportunities to practice and practice makes progress.  I have seen self-compassion and gratitude do what nothing else could. The way you look at the problem has the power to actually change the problem itself.  While this solution may sound simple, as you practice self-compassion and gratitude I am sure you will find greater happiness and peace - results you can't argue with. 

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD