One of the most common things I hear from my clients is that they want to have freedom around food. Many of us have spent a lifetime in a tug of war with food, eating, weight, and the scale.
Most of the women I talk to desperately want to experience freedom around eating and freedom in their bodies—freedom from food chatter, freedom from judgment, and freedom from shame.
Yet most of us believe that true freedom is eating whatever we want to at the moment. But that’s a narrow view of freedom because it discounts the consequences of all that free eating.
Eating whatever we want for most of us means tuning out what our body needs and only honoring what our brain wants, what our mouth wants, or what our taste buds want.
It typically results in a body that is less free and more restricted. A body that is more restricted in its ability to move around the world in the way that we want to and more restricted when it comes to energy levels.
Eating whatever we want in the moment actually leads us to be less free.
The drive for freedom
The idea that we are not free to eat whatever we want is also a lie. Even if we follow an eating plan that dictates what we can and can’t eat, we are choosing to follow it.
We are allowing or restricting. We are putting the food in our mouths or not. It’s always up to us no matter what outside guidelines we are blaming the feelings of restriction and deprivation on.
The drive for freedom is an intense human desire. We want to feel that we are free to do and decide for ourselves. It’s an innate desire for autonomy and for self-determination.
When we feel our freedom to do and decide for ourselves is being threatened, we rebel.
We begin to think things like, “I’ll show you,” and “You can’t tell me what to do,” even if the person telling you what to do… is you. It’s your toddler brain reacting to your adult brain.
It’s like when someone says, “Don’t push the red button.” What do you want to do more than anything?
What happens when we rebel against food rules
This rebellion has an official term, and in fact, a whole psychological theory dedicated to it. It’s called psychological reactance.
Psychological reactance theory is based on the foundational principle that individuals cherish their freedom, choice, and autonomy.
When we perceive a threat to our freedom to choose, psychological reactance occurs where we seek to restore or reestablish our threatened freedom.
When we think about this in the context of food and eating and weight loss, we may perceive our freedom to eat sugar threatened by a plan that recommends cutting out all sugar.
Many of us seek to restore our freedom by eating as much sugar as possible when the opportunity presents itself. Or, if the plan recommends daily running for exercise, we may purposefully not exercise to restore our freedom.
The boomerang effect
This is referred to as the boomerang effect. We do the thing we’re told not to do just to feel we have restored the freedom we want. This is a deeply ingrained response.
When you really think about it, it seems silly that we would rebel against ourselves (and often against something we believe would be good for us) just because we perceive a threat to our freedom.
Do you notice the boomerang effect happening for you?
Do you see places or instances where you do what you have told yourself you won’t or eat the thing you have committed to cutting out?
What is the perceived threat to your freedom?
Is it real? Is it true? Is your freedom actually being threatened?
Giving yourself unrestricted permission
This is where permission comes into play. The threat we perceive when it comes to weight loss is the freedom to eat what we want, when we want, and how much we want.
When we start following a plan or a program that recommends we eat or don’t eat certain things, our brain perceives that as a threat to our autonomy and our freedom to choose.
But the truth is, no matter what the plan says, no matter what anyone says, no matter what your religion says or what allergies your doctor and your body say you have, you are always free to choose what goes into your mouth and what doesn’t.
Really believing, owning, and embodying this means we grant ourselves permission—unrestricted, unlimited, free and clear permission to eat anything at any time and in any amount.
Most of us think this all-access permission will lead to us eating all the things and that we will be found in a pile of empty wrappers, having eaten ourselves to death.
The opposite is true. We often overeat in response to a perceived freedom threat. We boomerang into a bag of chips or M&Ms because we’re trying to restore that freedom.
If there is no perceived threat, there is no boomerang.
If it is ultimately our choice, we will make more aligned, more conscious choices than if we blindly are rebelling against a threat to our freedom to choose. This has to start with looking at all of the irrational beliefs we have developed and hold on to around food, eating, and weight.
Irrational beliefs about food
Here are some common beliefs I see from my clients that can contribute to the boomerang effect:
- There are good foods and bad foods. The most delicious foods are often in the bad category.
- If I like bad foods, I am bad.
- We can never waste food.
- Food is a reward.
- Hunger is scary.
- Thin is more lovable than fat.
“You’ll have to give your belief system a rough shake, as you would a tree full of apples, so that the rotten beliefs will fall off and die and the tree can grow new healthy fruit.”
Knowing all of your irrational beliefs about food, eating, your body, and weight allows you to start to rework and reframe into new thoughts that align with how you want to show up.
So for example, if you believe that there are good foods and bad foods, that irrational belief will stand in the way of you giving yourself full permission to eat whatever you choose.
We can reframe those beliefs into rational beliefs. If you believe in good and bad foods, the reframed thought may sounds something like:
- There is no such thing as bad or forbidden food.
- Foods can be nutritious or not, but they don’t have good or bad qualities.
- Some foods work well for my body and some don’t.
- No one can tell me what foods I should or shouldn’t eat, only I decide that.
You can see how it will be much easier to give permission to eat whatever we choose when we think in this way.
There is actually an interesting finding of a study I read about psychological reactance in response to persuasive health messaging, such as messages about tobacco use, alcohol consumption, sunscreen use to prevent skin cancer, etc.
The researchers found that when choice-enhancing language was used, especially restorative post-scripts like, “The choice is yours, you are free to decide for yourself,” there was much less perceived freedom threat and therefore less boomerang effect.
There was less rebellion and less need to restore freedom.
Another finding of the study found that participants had less perceived freedom threat and less reactance when they posed two options.
For example, when they said, “You can wear protective clothing or apply sunscreen regularly,” rather than just apply sunscreen regularly, people were more likely to do one or the other. When told to just wear sunscreen, fewer people did so.
This is just one more bit of evidence to prove what I’m always telling you: language matters! Words matter!
The sentences you repeat to yourself are the beliefs that drive your behavior.
Changing those sentences or giving yourself choices changes how you feel, react, and how you show up.
Give yourself permission to experience true freedom
We throw the boomerang, thinking we’re going to hit the person who’s trying to take away our freedom, and it comes back and hits us.
Who suffers when we rebel against ourselves? Who has to live with the consequences? Who feels the pain? We do.
Let me just clear up a misconception here. We think giving ourselves full permission to eat whatever we want will mean that we overeat and only eat garbage. But it’s just not true.
When you give yourself permission, those “forbidden” foods lose their shine. They lose a lot of their pull.
I want you to experiment with this a little bit and engage some of these tactics, so you don’t ever feel the need to throw the boomerang.
Look at and let go of your irrational beliefs. Give yourself full permission to eat whatever you want whenever you want.
You will find that you don’t eat only junk when you have full permission. Instead, you will find that you want to take a little bit better care of yourself.
Recognize that true freedom is having the option to do and eat whatever and making the choice that creates freedom long term.
Freedom in your body, freedom in your brain, freedom in your life. Not just freedom in the moment.
Remind yourself that the choice is yours and that you are free to decide for yourself. That way, there will be no perceived freedom threat, no reactance to restore freedom. No boomerang that’s going to come back and hit you in the head.
Give yourself permission and be free.
This kind of thought work is invaluable on your journey to losing weight for life. If you’re ready to get started, watch my free video on how to lose the first five pounds — and keep going.