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Overeating: It’s All In Your Head

Back On Track

I asked Suzie to write at the top of a page: “I MUST recover quickly, as I did last time.” Then, I helped her to list all the reasons why this “must” was false. We came up with 14 of them:

  1. No law carved in stone states that I MUST;
  2. It’s typically human and understandable that I would upset myself about a setback;
  3. I can recover slowly;
  4. It’s just a hassle, not a horror;
  5. I’m not worthless because I screw up;
  6. If I don’t recover quickly, I can learn from my mistakes and eventually do better at recovering;
  7. Recovering slowly means that success takes longer. It doesn’t mean total failure;
  8. One failure doesn’t mean total failure, or that I’ll never succeed;
  9. This just means I had better work harder at it next time;
  10. This assumes that I MUST be thin–but, although I would like to be thin, I don’t HAVE to be;
  11. I can stand slow recoveries, although I don’t like them;
  12. Reality is reality, not what I think it MUST be;
  13. If I pressure myself to always recover quickly, that will tend to make it more difficult to do so;
  14. Being an imperfect human, like all humans, I will sometimes act imperfectly.

I gave Suzie the assignment of reading this list through thoughtfully three times a day for a month. She found this very helpful. She stopped putting pressure on herself to recover quickly from her overeating lapses, and then (paradoxical though it may seem) she had quicker recoveries and fewer relapses.

Sunday’s Blues

On one visit, Suzie reported she had eaten some junk food the previous Sunday but didn’t know why. I asked her to tell me about her day.

“Sunday was a rather unstructured day, as usual. I just sat around lazily having breakfast, looking through the paper, and chatting aimlessly with my mom and sister. Sammy called and a friend called. Soon it was early afternoon. It was getting too late to invite Mazie to go to the beach or ask Cheryl to go shopping. I began to think about work on Monday. Then I started eating.”

Eating junk food was the C. After I had tracked down some of Suzie’s A’s, it soon became clear what her B’s were: “Sunday SHOULD be more exciting. I SHOULD have planned my day earlier. Weekends SHOULDN’T be so short. I MUSTN’T be bored. I SHOULDN’T have to go back to work tomorrow.”

“Yes,” said Suzie. “Now I see why I ate all that junk food on Sunday.” As sometimes happens, just the insight into her demands helped her to uproot them.

Sour Grapes

At another session, Suzie said that she overate because she didn’t really care about dieting. If she got fat, what did it matter?

This is a common reaction when people begin to notice that their “musts” are irrational and unwarranted. They skip to the contrary view, that what they want isn’t important at all. I explained to Suzie that telling herself “it doesn’t matter” is a rationalization, an excuse she gives herself, so that she can pursue a different demand.

“Like what demand,” asked Suzie.

“Like ‘I GOTTA have the food!’ ” I responded.

Behind Suzie’s rationalization (“I don’t care about overeating-being thin is of no importance”) lay these “musts”:

  • I SHOULD have been born thin
  • Life SHOULDN’T be so unfair
  • I SHOULD be able to eat whatever I want (without any consequences I dislike)
  • Controlling my eating SHOULD be easy

Suzie did many Three Minute Exercises on her “musts.” She came to accept herself with her setbacks, to accept that resisting her gustatory cravings was uncomfortable but bearable, and to acknowledge that being thin was an important preference but not an absolute demand. The pounds began to come off, and she was down to her ideal weight within six months. Just recently, three years later, I happened to see her again, and she was happily maintaining her ideal weight.

Overeating: It’s All In Your Head

Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Edelstein, M. (2018). Overeating: It’s All In Your Head. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.