Symbolic Substitutes
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There’s a fundamental paradox in human nature that you may have noticed by now: a part of us wants inner peace, and another part of us actively fights against it. We want to eat right, but we also want to break all the food rules. We want love, but we love to look for it in all the wrong places. Each of us instinctively intuits our prior wholeness, the spiritual source that lies hidden within. Like it or not, we’re born with an evolutionary impulse that drives us towards the fulfillment of our greatest potential. If you’ve ever felt a calling, an inner urge to be something more, it is the evolutionary impulse sparking you towards your destiny. But how can we get there when another part of us is fighting against the things we supposedly want most?

Let’s answer this age-old question by first considering how our human software seems designed to run us, and see if we can do a simple software update to make life a little easier.

Because of this basic dichotomy of life on planet Earth, because we have a part of us urging us towards wholeness and another part wanting some down and dirty time in the gutter, the result is that oftentimes, we seek health and harmony in ways that actually prevent it. In other words, when we want something that’s a bit too difficult to attain, we’re hardwired to reach for the closest approximation, a “symbolic substitute.”

A symbolic substitute is the best stand-in for the thing we really want.


So for example, if we lack personal power, we might go after money and influence as a substitute for this quality. If we lack stability and roots, we might build a lavish home to feel some security. And if we feel a lack of meaning or excitement in life, or if we don’t have the love we want, we can turn to food as the best available substitute.

But please don’t look at this as something terribly broken about our humanity. It’s actually a brilliant strategy of the mind to reach for substitutes when we can’t acquire what we really want. Why not reach for food when we’re feeling lonely, or search through the refrigerator when life is a little dull? Substitutes can serve a useful purpose in our day-to-day existence. We need to feel the goodies, to have some relief from life’s toils and challenges. We’ve got to have some pleasure to continue onwards. And yet, symbolic substitutes can surely work against us when we hold to them exclusively as a means for true fulfillment.

It’s easy to fall asleep at the wheel of life and forget that food isn’t the “true love” that we’re seeking. It gives us the momentary surge of intimacy and fulfillment, but around the corner from a symbolic substitute that we overuse is guilt, shame, and even self-abuse.

A part of us knows that our deeper desire is not being met.


Symbolic substitutes are often experienced as intense desires, something we believe we must have for peace of mind. For example, we may desire particular people, possessions, or experiences. Such desires are often born out of the belief that only something “outside” can complete us. In other words, the mind projects our innate sense of wholeness outward. It says: “If I am un-whole and separated, then my missing pieces must be somewhere out there.” So we embark on a mission to recapture our missing pieces in other people, places, possessions, food, and anything that gives us the temporary experience of wholeness.
Of course, the desire for a symbolic substitute carries a hidden promise. If it’s fame we want, the hidden promise might be “When I am famous, then people will finally admire and see who I really am.” Or if we desire an ideal body, it might be “When I’m thin, then people will love me and my life will truly begin.” These false hopes and promises are seldom in our conscious awareness. However, they tend to reveal themselves once we actually achieve what we desire. So for the people who finally do become famous, they may feel even more alone and misunderstood, and for the people who do lose weight, they may find themselves to be no more happy or in love with life. Just thinner.

When we let go of the intensive use of our favorite symbolic substitutes, something interesting happens.

We feel pain. Or uncomfortable feelings. Or sadness. Or a deep longing. People who give up alcohol, tobacco, or sugar often go through withdrawal symptoms, painful physical manifestations of the emotional suffering we experience inside. The relief we believed we were receiving reveals itself only as a shadow, and the pain lying beneath is finally exposed. The good news is that these withdrawal symptoms must make their way through the body to release the biological craving. This allows the heart to experience the discomfort it secretly held, and to let go of it once and for all.

So, if you ever feel you’re fighting against yourself when it comes to food, consider calling a cease-fire. Embrace both sides of yourself. Meaning, sometimes, it’s fine to go for the food when what we really want is love and intimacy and excitement. We need our symbolic substitutes. They serve us well. Forgive yourself. Acknowledge your fragile humanity. Relax, eat, and enjoy. But accept the other side of you as well. Listen more deeply to what your heart and soul truly crave. Own your desires, your dreams, the inmost parts of you that need a little airtime. Push the pause button on the eating experience every now and then, and listen into the silence. You’ll hear something very compelling. It’s your Life. And it’s calling you.

Have you ever tried calling a cease-fire? What was your experience?

My warmest regards,
Marc David
Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating
© Institute For The Psychology of Eating, All Rights Reserved, 2014

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  • Purneema

    awesome…….thank you for sharing this

    • Lindsay Young

      Lindsay here at IPE.

      You’re welcome – we’re always happy to share!

  • Marjorie Herman

    Dear Marc,
    I am not a psychologist, but have been on your e-list for some time. I find this article to be particularly satisfying right now, and wanted to let you know. Your encouragement to forego the “either-or” approach to this issue has been a real inspiration to me, as I strive for continuing wholeness in my life.

    Deep gratitude,
    Margie Herman

    • Hi Marjorie –

      Thank you for the kind words. There’s no need, of course, to be a psychologist to follow this work or seek wholeness in life. Keep at it. I’m so pleased to hear that these articles are speaking truth for you.

      Warm Regards,

      Marc David

  • Michele Melloni

    Great article Marc!

    Sometime last year I discovered coffee. I mean, the good stuff. Mold-free, clean, water washed beans from Central America. I grind my own beans one minute before brewing them in my laboratory-like syphon coffee maker. How I got to this point is a whole other story. I never used to be a big fan of coffee, but when I learned about its health benefits, I decided to give it another shot… the right way. Coffee started to give me a special kind of boost. Not only did it give me energy, but it formed a kind of protective shield around me. It helped me feel a lot more confident, alert, happy and I enjoyed drinking it with real gusto! I even started to feel like it was the reason why all of a sudden my tips as a part-time restaurant server began to increase. I had a glow about me and this coffee didn’t even give me the jitters. I literally couldn’t find any side effects at all, so I began to drink 2 to 3 cups per day with breakfast, lunch and dinner. This went fine for months until I started to notice that my mind was racing ahead of my body.

    I began to sense that underneath my “high”, my body was trying to send me signals to slow down a little and pay attention to some repair and tune-ups that it needed to occur. Of course I ignored the signals, because of my tendency to push the limits, and soon came down with a cold. My lungs became very congested and it interfered with my yoga practice. I started to feel out of balance and my breathing was all out of sync. It was creating a very acidic environment in my belly and I became more and more dehydrated. Mentally and emotionally I was fine, but physically it was a different story. I didn’t know what to do. I had begun to love this new me. I felt more popular, friendlier, and protected. I had this “friend”… This ally that helped bring out a side of me that seemed more outgoing and in control than before. The problem was that it came at a price. I knew that eventually, this excess would get the better of me and I started to wonder why I was so against being the “me” that was free of stimulants, the natural me, the me before coffee.

    Previously, life may have felt a little flat. It required more energy than I always had to welcome the restaurant customers and present them the specials by memory. I was more vulnerable and shy. Energetically, I wasn’t at my best and my focus wasn’t as sharp. What I did have going for me though, which I remembered vividly, was that I was more in tune with my body, with my breath, with the natural rhythm of everyday life.

    Looking back, this symbolic substitute was just a longing for a feeling of success, of edge. And it allowed me to experience that feeling in a non-natural way. Although it heightened my awareness, those little brown toasted beans became an unhealthy obsession. All I could think about was my next fix. The experience reminded me of that movie with Bradley Cooper, “Limitless”.

    So I decided to cease-fire and reclaim my natural rhythm, and my physical health.I stopped coffee cold turkey for a few months. It was hard and the withdrawal was painful, but I became free from an addiction. I tried to come up with better ways to achieve that which I was truly longing for, charisma and personal success, skipping the symbolic substitute and going straight to the source. Now that I am aware of what I have been longing for, even though I discovered it by using a symbolic substitute, I am better able to focus on getting what I want. I meditate more, continue practicing my yoga, read books on self development, do inner work, and focus on my breathing.

    Today I enjoy some green tea and the occasional cup of coffee. Life never felt better!!

    • Michele,

      What a great food discovery story. Beautifully written too! It’s wonderful how you can trace your coffee history from intrigue and infatuation to obsessive attachment and finally the underlying truth regarding your appetite for life. Good for you!

      As always, I appreciate your contributions to our conversations.

      Warmly,
      Marc David

  • Laura Maria

    Marc, thank you so much for your article. I love how you acknowledge both the inspirational side AND and the down and dirty side of our human being-ness. They’re both there, so let’s set a seat for both of them at the table.

    Also, your term, symbolic substitute, gives me a handle for how to deal with cravings when I know I’m eating to cover up emotional needs. Thank you for that.

    Please keep up your work. It has helped me a lot with my personal relationship with food, and I will continue to keep up with it!

    Warmly,
    Laura Maria

    • Hi Laura Maria,

      It’s so wonderful to hear such spirit and enthusiasm in your words. Thank you for your encouragement. I’m glad that you see the benefit of including both sides of our humanness in this journey, and that the article has provided some useful terms for you in acknowledgement of your process. I have every intention to keep at it. I’m glad you do too.

      Warmly,

      Marc David

  • Jessica Miller

    Hi Mark,
    this is a beautiful article about humane’s psychology regarding food and other things we do and we want on a daily basis. Though I think that a person is not always willing to live according to the laws and rules. there are no perfect rules for a diet and sometimes we want to break them just because we want to enjoy ourselves by eating something really delicious though not healthy. Breaking rules makes us spontaneous and adds more life to our lives.

    • Hi Jessica –

      You’re absolutely right: the whole purpose of the field of health and nutrition is to support our expansive appetites for being truly Alive. Life is meant to be a celebration! The rules, in this case, create guidelines for feeling your very best and your rules may be very different from the thousands of other individuals in the world. You have to discover your own balance …and that’s the only law that really fits in the end anyways.

      Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts to our discussion!

      Warm Regards,

      Marc David

  • Patricia

    Your articles are always “food for thought” (pun intended) and are uplifting, hopeful and positive. I will be pondering this one for a while!
    Thank you.

    • Hi Patricia –

      I’m glad to hear you grasp this work and see it as something worthwhile to “chew on.” Thank you so much for your kind and cheerful words.

      Warmly,

      Marc David

  • Alina Z

    Thank you for inspiring so many people. I have been on this path for 3 years now and while it does take time and it is work-in-progress, I am learning to listen to myself and not be judgmental towards my needs and wants. Instead, I do my best to satisfy them and enjoy the process. Thank you for what you do and I am so happy to be reading your blog and feel especially blessed to have my blog on your list of top 50 raw food blogs. It is truly an honor to be connected to your institute.

    Alina

    • Hi Alina –

      I think it’s wonderful that you’ve given yourself the permission to learn and be present to the process. Choosing to be in a non-judgmental space takes courage and discipline. Life is delicious, so why not treat it so?

      Thank you as well for all that you do in your tribe as well!

      Warm Regards,

      Marc David

  • Gary

    Hi Marc,
    Thank you for a great post. I am so pleased to have have stumbled across your site.

    I have been on this journey myself – trying to find this inner me. The pull and tug towards what I love and don’t love etc. and I totally get your symbolic substitutes. I’m not chasing after lavish houses and loads of wealth but I really understand how you’ve described them as those substitutes. I hadn’t thought of them that way before.

    Also love the coffee story above by Michelle. Thank you Michelle 🙂

    Thanks again Marc. Fantastic site.
    -Gary

    • Hi Gary,

      You’re so welcome. We’re pleased to have you in our discussion here.

      I’m glad you resonated with these stories and perspectives.

      Warm Regards,

      Marc David

  • Nelly

    hey there

    This article rather touched upon other habits that make us reach for symbolic substitutes.

    Wow. This is like music to my ears. At the moment i seem to be going thru “relationship withdrawls.” I am able to cope with the stresses of life because the work that i did getting sober were life changing for me. Now when my relationship had an unexpected unavoidble life lesson. I am able to rise to the occasion whilst being forced to watch as my loved one crashes and burns in the face of hardship. Where I feel it is important to focus on how I feel right now, he is now more interested in having a good time, drinking and sucombing to the seduction of drugs. To me, having a good time when there are important life decisions to be made only delays the inevitable, so why wait? Why drag it out. Rip the bandaid off and feel something. Feelings are what make us human. If were always trying to shy away from how we really feel, how can we ever really be ourselves? how does that make us human at all? I suppose its easier to live on autopilot. All i know is, longing for a life that has passed is not going to help me in my future.

    Reading this article has reasured me that the way im dealing with my current life lesson is going to be benificial to me in the long run. Thank you so much for your inspiration and clarity. I feel I will think about this article alot in the days to come.

  • Nelly –

    Wow, thank you for offering this glimpse into your world! What an amazing journey you’ve been on. I want to congratulate you on making the choice to live life in a more supportive, healthful and nourishing way. It must be so difficult to watch others choose destruction instead.

    Feelings are powerful medicine. I’m so glad that this article could provide some confirmation and hope for you in some way.

    Best wishes to you on your healing journey,
    Marc David

  • Janelle

    What an eloquent portrayal of our need to fulfill our internal desires! My own journey of 10+ years with Anorexia/Bulimia was a true representation of my desire to have my own sense of power back. As a young athlete I was abused for 3 years by my coach and internalized much of that experience as, “even when you do what you love and what you’re good at, it all comes with a painful price!” This ignited an deep and almost subconscious need to reclaim the power over my own body. Ironically, if I could have put words to my own self-inflicted torture it would have been, “no one can hurt me more than I can hurt myself”. Thankfully throughout my recovery I was able to understand my subconscious drive and realize that I didn’t want to inflict more pain on myself, but rather start to feel that I could ingest and digest life and my experiences. It was only until I had this realization, that I could move forward into a long journey of recovery. I am able to find my power now through living a full life and making a constant effort to listen to my internal (gut) dialogue and responding to it with compassion and fairness.
    Maybe not so random that i became a nutrition coach and fitness competitor. 🙂 I once had a holistic doctor in shock, as he was baffled at how I could compete as a figure competitor and not be triggered back into disordered eating. That was the day I realized it no longer had a grip on me, but rather I had a good grip on being the athlete I loved being before all of the trauma.
    Anyway, my Italian genes certainly come through around food. Food is love! So for me, I give myself the freedom of eating to find substitute at times, but I do it with awareness of what is actually going on and how I will feel after. Sometimes it’s worth it…but most times I can find or create what it is I really need in that moment.
    Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Hi Janelle,
      Wow! What a journey you’ve been on – thank you so much for sharing it here. I deeply believe that we are called into this work because we have a powerful story to tell, and our stories have such an amazing ability to help uplift others. Food is love, life is love – I’m so glad you’re in the world living the life you want to live. Very inspiring! Good for you.

      My best wishes,
      Marc David

  • So much truth here, Marc. I am SO excited that my daughter gets to be part of your program this fall. The world needs a cease fire. Only then can we truly ‘hear’ the quiet whispers of ourselves, our body, our spirit.

  • Hi Karen,
    We’re so excited about the 2013 certification, too– it’s going to be a great training. Thank you for connecting, and so glad your daughter is in the training!

    Warmly,
    Marc

  • Matt

    I love your statements at the end of this piece. I have been going through similar issues, trying to sort out my diet so that I can function day to day without resorting to coffee or muffins. When I try to answer questions like why I don’t play musical instruments any more all I see is a void that needs healing. This article spoke to me. Thank you.

    • Hi Matt,
      I’m so glad to here this spoke to you.
      Best wishes to you in healing the void. Music is always a great tool for healing.

      Marc

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About The Author
Marc David
Founder

Marc David is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary, teacher and consultant in Nutritional Psychology, and the author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom and The Slow Down Diet. His work has been featured on CNN, NBC and numerous media outlets. His books have been translated into over 10 languages, and his approach appeals to a wide audience of eaters who are looking for fresh, inspiring and innovative messages about food, body and soul. He lectures internationally, and has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. Marc is also the co-founder of the Institute for Conscious Sexuality and Relationship.