Savor the Season: When Planning an Indulgence Turns Into a Free Pass to Binge
It’s official. The holiday season is upon us. My Christmas box has been dug out of the storage unit, the stockings are hung by the (electric) fireplace with care, and our Charlie Brown Christmas tree is up and adorned. I am filled with an equal mix of good cheer and total anxiety. I have social obligations planned every night until 2016, my bank account is spread a little too thin and my pants are fitting a little too tight. Yes, the holidays are definitely here.
When I used to diet, so much of my time and energy was spent thinking about food. I was obsessed with what I was eating, how many calories I was taking in and if those calories were the correct ratio of protein/carbs/fat/sugar etc. On a regular day, every food choice seemed like a negotiation.
“If I have the granola bar now, that means I will only have 350 calories left before I hit my daily max, and the dinner I was planning is at least 500! Should I starve until dinner? Have a cup of coffee, which will maybe hold me over? Eat the bar and just have a can of soup for dinner?”
I'd have a variation of this conversation at least 3 times a day. Every day. On a normal day. When the holidays rolled around, these internal negotiations got about 1,000 times worse.
When I was invited to a holiday party, instead of getting excited, I actually got secretly nervous. There would be wine, snacks, and cookies. I would plan accordingly. I'd skate buy on as few calories as I could during the early part of the day. Maybe an apple for breakfast, a protein shake for lunch, that sad can of soup for dinner. I would figure out the math so I could “save up enough calories” to splurge on two glasses of wine (No snacks! No cookies!!!)
Almost as soon as I arrived at the party, I would start obsessing about all of the things available that I *couldn't* have. I would start feeling rebellious and angry. It didn't seem fair that I couldn't participate. It didn't feel fair that I couldn't let go and enjoy myself the way everyone else was. I didn't see anyone else stressing out about calories. Inevitably, after the first glass of wine, my convictions were far less solid.
"Those cookies look really good. I love cookies, and yes my wine glass is empty, (when did that happen?) and of course I would like another glass, after all, this is a party! I came to celebrate, didn't I? I came to have fun, right? I might as well enjoy myself!"
So I would. Except, it wasn't actually enjoyable.
"Indulging" this way actually made me feel out of control, ashamed and guilty. In reality, inhaling 8 cookies in roughly 8 seconds, wasn't pleasurable. More often than not, I gobbled them so quickly that I barely even tasted them at all. Same with the wine. It was almost like I was in some bizarre contest. How much can you consume without registering anything that's coming in? Your prize? Feeling like sh*t tomorrow both physically and emotionally.
So while everyone else was getting dressed up and enjoying holiday cheer, I was anxious, frustrated, and cranky. Bah Humbug!
While, that state of mind was certainly amplified in the face of party upon party during the holiday season, it was the way I lived most of my life. It was exhausting, unsatisfying and crazy making to say the least. This is why I no longer “diet.”
Instead of tracking every morsel that passed my lips, instead of doing math in my head all day long, instead of deeming some foods allowed and others "off-limits," I learned to relax around food. I shifted my focus more on the quality of the food as opposed to the quantity. I started making decisions about what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat based on the physical cues my body was sending me. Novel idea right?
Instead of demonizing certain foods, I made room in my life for indulgences. I am a firm believer that a life where I can't go out and enjoy some guacamole and margaritas is not a life that I want to be living. So I created space for the treats that make my life delicious. But I plan for them.
This now looks like me planning drinks with friends a week in advance and giving myself permission to enjoy the chips and guac without shame or guilt. It no longer looks like me tearing apart my cabinets at 1:00am and wolfing down an entire bag of Tostitos with a full container of Sabra hummus while watching reruns of 30 Rock in bed.
Planning indulges is something that I live by. It's something that I talk to my clients about all the time. We talk a lot about the “80/20 rule”, which means making a conscious, empowered decision to indulge, but only sometimes. And when you do indulge, you enjoy your treat fully. In theory, it makes a lot of sense, and should work well.
This year as the holidays rolled around, I noticed something. I would have a party marked on my calendar and I would know that was a day I would be "indulging." I chose it, in advance. I wasn't using food as a crutch in an emergency, I was allowing myself space to fully enjoy some of life’s simple pleasures. It felt like a conscious, empowered decision. Until I got to the party.
Once I was at the party, with the table of full of treats and a full bar at my finger- tips, I noticed a familiar feeling coming up. I felt like a woman possessed. I felt the uncontrollable urge to consume, consume, consume. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t need to feel bad. I planned for it, so it must be okay.
Except it wasn't. It wasn't an indulgence. At all. It was giving myself a free pass to binge. And that didn't feel empowered at all. Because, while I was guzzling cocktails and inhaling appetizers, I was completely tuned out from the experience.
I was so distracted by being "allowed" to enjoy anything I wanted, that I totally forgot to enjoy any of it!
I didn't take it any of the aromas. I didn't notice the different textures and flavors. I didn't savor a thing. I gobbled, I scarfed, I barely chewed. Hell, I barely breathed!
It was like I was eating for survival. Like someone was about to come in and take all of this food away forever and I didn't know where my next meal was coming from, so I had better take in as much as I possibly could now. I realized that's how I had been eating any time I "indulged." I would completely check out, and consume without connecting to my body or my heart at all. Trust me, eating like your life depends on it, isn't very indulgent.
I thought about other ways, outside of food that feel like a splurge, a special treat, and indulgence. Taking a bath, getting a massage, relaxing on the beach, getting my nails done. I wouldn't want to rush through any of those things. I've never gone to get a massage and said, "Okay, let's get this done as quickly as possible. I don't want to feel any of it, I barely want to remember it when it's over, I want to feel physically uncomfortable walking out of here, and regret all of my life choices."
If I'm being really honest, sometimes a planned indulgence still feels like something I'm not supposed to have. I hate the term “cheat day” because the word “cheating” implies that you are doing something wrong or bad. But even with the different semantics, there is still something that feels off about really enjoying food for me.
I believed, at the very core of my being, that I wasn't allowed to have certain things because they were "bad for me," or would "make me fat" for nearly 25 years. It's hard to drop that story. It's hard to actually allow myself to savor something delicious without a little voice going off somewhere inside me reminding me that "This is bad, you don't get to have this most of the time, you only get it today, this is your 20% of the time so get as much as you can."
While I do believe that restricting and depriving yourself is never a good thing, giving yourself permission to binge (even if it's only 20% of the time) can feel just as destructive.
So where does that leave me for the next few weeks? I'm looking at my calendar and in the next two weeks there are dinners scheduled, tree-trimmings, having lunch with a friend from out of town, Christmas Eve dinner with my mom's family, Christmas breakfast with my step-dad's family, Christmas dinner with my dad's family. Drinks with my friends in New York, game night with my friends from high school, dinner with my boyfriend's dad, New Year's Eve.
It's overwhelming. It's way more than 20%. Do I throw my hands up and agree to forget about everything that I believe about honoring and caring for my body until January? Do I give myself permission to check out and binge for the next couple of weeks? Do I go back to making rules for myself? I can have whatever I want at dinner if all I eat during the day is salad? Only one glass of wine? No cookies?
Or, do I actually give myself permission to indulge, for real. To take my time. To breathe. To pay attention. To savor everything. To notice if the cookie is chewy, or if it crumbles. To see what flavors I can taste. To take in how delicious it smells. To continue to listen to my body’s cues even as I am indulging. To pause for a moment, and ask if I really want another before I instinctively grab for one. To know that it's there, that I am allowed, but maybe, if I actually let myself enjoy the first one fully, I won't feel as compelled to keep reaching for more.
If I happen to look down and notice that somehow, my wine glass is empty, and I don't know how it happened, (which happens to me a lot,) perhaps I can take that as a sign that the conversation I was having was more interesting than the Pinot Noir. And, if that is the case, perhaps I don't need a second glass after all. Maybe the biggest indulgence is letting myself be fully present with the people I love most. The people that I don't get to see 80% of the year. Maybe this year, if I actually pay attention, I might realize that the best treats aren't the ones on the table, they are the people around the table.
(This is me with my kooky clan last Christmas. They are sweeter than all the cookies in the world!)