Setting Limits Means Delaying Gratification

M. Scott Peck, MD, author of The Road Less Traveled,defines delaying gratification as “a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.”

Most children learn the skill of delaying gratification early in life, often by the time they begin school, at age five.Throughout childhood we have many opportunities to learn and practice this skill. We are told to eat our vegetables before we can have dessert. We’ll have to finish our homework and chores before we can watch television. And we have to complete the school term before we can enjoy the carefree days of summer.

By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have learned to consistently delay gratification to some extent. We study and pass exams, go on to college, hold down jobs, manage our finances, pay our bills on time and even raise children. So how is it that we can be disciplined in many areas of our lives and so undisciplined with respect to self-care, primarily eating and exercise? I have seen some of the most successful, disciplined individuals despair over their inability to stop overeating.

To the emotional eater, delaying gratification means enduring deprivation and tolerating uncomfortable cravings and impulses. It reminds us of a chronic experience of lack and limitation we seem to know well. We know the past, and there was not enough of a lot of things. We are not about to give up gratification in the present moment for some possible gratification or goal in the future. The future is sketchy, unknown, and unpredictable. What guarantee is there that delaying our gratification now will lead to fulfillment in the future? Sure, we may lose some weight, but at what price?

Your inability to apply the skill of delaying gratification to all areas of your life is a sign of imbalance. The root of this imbalance appears to be the quality of the nurturance you received as a child. The majority of emotional eaters have one thing in common: their childhoods did not feel predominantly nourishing. Even if their caregivers were kind and well intentioned, most emotional eaters did not receive the kind of dedicated, loving attention required to fully develop the self-care skill of delaying gratification. And if your caregivers had difficulty delaying gratification, it would have been difficult for them to teach you this important skill.

The good news is that you can learn to delay gratification even if you were not lucky enough to have been raised by loving, patient, self-disciplined caregivers or to have been born with a high tolerance for frustration. And you can do this with a timely pause.

When to pause: when you want to eat and you’re not hungry; want to eat and you’re already full; are hungry and want to indulge in unhealthy comfort food rather than making a healthy choice; want to purchase unhealthy comfort food at the grocery store and already have it in your cart; want to impulsively spend money, lash out at someone, use drugs or alcohol, sex, drama, and so on; or want to procrastinate.

What to do: STOP, slow down, take some deep breaths and make the conscious choice to delay gratification for ten minutes.

Say to yourself: “I am willing to be uncomfortable for ten minutes so that I can reach my goals. I can choose not to engage in a behavior that I will be sorry about later. I can put these cookies back on the shelf, not buy these expensive shoes that I don’t really need, stop procrastinating, put my walking shoes on and head out the door, and so on.

Remind yourself: I can endure discomfort for a short while.It’s not root canal or childbirth!

Learning to delay gratification is a process that requires patience and practice. Your impulsive feeling self wears you down and gets you into trouble. Guiding her toward a more disciplined life has immense rewards. Each meal, purchase, or urge to act out or procrastinate is a new opportunity to practice self-discipline.

Acknowledge and praise yourself for any success you have in delaying gratification. Remember to be proud of even the smallest step. The road to recovery is built on many of these tiny steps.

By regularly taking the time to connect with yourself in this way, you are creating a very nurturing inner world. And when your inner world feels consistently loving, safe, and secure, you can delay gratification when you need to, confident that whatever you’re desiring will still be available later.

Which areas of your life would you like to start practicing the skill of delaying gratification? There’s no time like the present to get started.

Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://overeatingrecovery.com.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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