Friday, June 13, 2014

Learning to Say No: Default Settings

There are many questions to which I have automatic answers. It’s when the mouth and vocal cords bypass the brain and the response comes automatically. They're the Times New Roman of the brain - the default setting. “Would you like to hear about a wonderful timeshare opportunity?” “Do you want to get into my van?” “Would you like to hold a puppy?” No, no, yes.

Auto responses are kind of like habits, but so ingrained they’re practically unconscious. And for most of my life, there was a particular query which always got a yes from me: An offer of food.

When food was offered, I always needed to have some. I would say yes first and think about the rest - if I was hungry or even wanted it - later, or not at all. If I didn’t have something when it was offered, I was missing out. It was unthinkable to watch other people enjoy something and not partake myself. Why should they get it if I don’t? Why on earth would I even need to think about saying no to something that looks good?

It turns out those auto responses cost me some pounds and willpower. I recently realized that during my many weight losses and gains, one of the things that those successful times have in common was that I did actually consider an offer of food and stopped being on autopilot.

I learned that it was okay to say no when a treat was offered. I wasn’t going to die, nobody would be insulted or even think about it for longer than a split second, and I myself would forget about it soon after, too. I discovered that saying no was an option, and had a power of its own as well. It meant that I was in control of my body and what I ate.

During the glory days at my lowest weight, when I was rocking a size 8-10 and enjoying being fifty pounds lighter, I realized that I couldn’t think of a single particular time in which I turned down food. There must have been hundreds of instances, because I was in environments where food was plentiful and yet I had lost a lot of weight. In college, it had been used to lure students to events. At work, it had been offered by generous colleagues or management. But I really had forgotten about them, and it was the ultimate proof that saying no to food is okay. (Funny, because later I would also forget about the things I said “yes” to. Hello again, thirty-five pounds.)

This auto response also comes into play when it’s my own brain making the suggestions. In fact, my brain comes up with more delicious ideas than the people in my life do. At 11:30 PM, I’ll remember that there’s some ice cream in the freezer. Or at noon on Sunday, I’ll remember that I’m an adult and perhaps this adult would like to make a huge stack of chocolate-chip pancakes from scratch with strawberries and whipped cream? Bad brain! No!

I need to learn how to control those internal auto-responses too, to grow the part of me that can acknowledge that while ice cream and pancakes are awesome and - good job brain, great suggestion - I don’t need them right now and that’s okay. When I’m not in the best or most health-conscious of places, I make an ice cream sandwich out of chocolate chip pancakes. In comparison, when I’m doing well, I let the thought slide away.

Sometimes I note how the healthy people I know make decisions about food, and most of them don’t have auto answers at all. If offered something, they actually consider it and make a decision, and move on with life. Maybe it turns out that it wasn’t the “right” decision, and they’ll decide that they shouldn’t have eaten that, or maybe they even regret turning it down, but most of the time it’s just the tiniest blip on their radar. Oh well, there will be cookies again.

So now that I’ve found myself on the wrong end of the scale again, I’m working to change my auto response to “no.” I think my true healthy relationship with food would involve considering offers like the people I’ve observed do. However, for now, when I’ve been at auto-yes for most of my life, I’m trying to swing to the other extreme. Then I can hope to find some balance in the middle, in the magical world of moderation. A cognitive place where I’ll allow myself a moment to decide what I want and what I need.

Its mode of transportation.


  1. AnonymousJune 20, 2014

    I've started the cognitive practice of thinking before eating too. It's hard! I'm not dealing with weight loss/gain but still have unhealthy food habits. I've been talking about this with my therapist, which is also helpful. Good luck with this! I've found it takes a lot of extra energy but have already seen an improvement in my positive food choices.

    1. Thank you, I hope it goes well for you too! It does take a lot of energy, but it will get easier, right? Then maybe my future default setting can be "Maybe."