Have you ever known something was bad for you, but felt compelled to go for it anyway? Maybe you had an overpowering craving for a food, and you knew it wouldn’t make you feel very good, but you just couldn’t resist the temptation. If you’ve been there – and so many of us have, at some point in our lives – please don’t beat yourself up. You simply experienced the power of a symbolic substitute, a psychological process that’s part of our complex and beautiful human nature. In this inspirational new video from IPEtv, Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, explains where these powerful urges come from, and how you can redirect their energy toward fulfilling your most cherished dreams.
In the comments below, please let us know your thoughts. We love hearing from you and we read and respond to every comment!
Here is a transcript of this week’s video:
Hi, I’m Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating.
There’s a fundamental paradox in human nature that you may have noticed: 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 rules. We want love, but we love to look for it in all the wrong places. Each of us instinctively intuits our true nature as whole, unbroken beings. We’re born with an evolutionary impulse that drives us towards the fulfillment of our greatest potential. 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 we’re reaching for our highest potential in the midst of a world full of imperfection, and because we are full of conflicting needs and desires, we often end up seeking health and harmony in ways that actually prevent it. And 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 have some relief from life’s hurts and challenges. We’ve got to have some pleasure to continue onwards. And yet, symbolic substitutes can work against us when we start to think of them 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.
When we let go of our favorite symbolic substitutes, something interesting happens. We feel pain. Or sadness. Or a deep longing. People who give up alcohol, tobacco, or sugar often go through emotional withdrawal symptoms as well as physical manifestations of this suffering. 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 as the heart is able to feel and experience the discomfort it secretly held, the body is able to release the biological craving.
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. 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. 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. 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.