Ever wonder why you eat that second piece of cake, or empty the Oreo’s package even though part of you says you shouldn’t?
Your "inner Child" can have a lot to do with it.
An ice cream crisis
Picture this. You’re walking through the mall after a long and tiring shopping trip and are almost at the exit when you catch sight of a Haagen-Dazs sign. "Mmmm..." you think to yourself, "an ice cream would be just the thing right now wouldn’t it?" On automatic pilot, you make your way over to the counter…
"But no!" you tell yourself. "You’re not having ice cream. It’s not good for you. You haven’t even had dinner yet. You can have a healthy snack at home instead. Besides, you don’t deserve ice cream. You’ve let yourself get fat and you need to lose weight. So walk away. Walk away now."
And so you turn and walk away – for about two seconds. Then the mental screaming kicks in: “But I want it! I need it! I have to have it! I want that ice cream and I want it NOW!”
No argument stops you from getting to the counter this time. And it’s a triple-scoop mocha-almond fudge sundae with all the toppings for you.
A bloated stomach and 1000 calories later, you start to wonder if there could have been a better way to handle the situation. Telling yourself the ice cream was bad for you didn’t work, but giving in to your unhealthy demands has left you in pretty bad shape – in more ways than one.
Two decision-makers: your Parent, your Child
If you step back a moment and think about the dialogue you have with yourself when you’re in situations such as the hypothetical Haagen-Dazs scenario we've just explored, you might notice something interesting. Doesn’t it sound just like an argument between a dominating parent and an irrational child?
In fact, according to Eric Berne’s theory of personality that’s exactly what’s going on. Berne’s theory, commonly known as Transactional Analysis (TA), sees personality as made up of a Parent, a Child, and an Adult, each having control of a person’s feelings, thoughts and actions in response to different situations. This idea that in each of us there is a Child, a Parent, and an Adult directing our thoughts, feelings and actions can help us understand why we react to things, including food, the way we do.
For example, in a situation where a food decision has to be made, people who have trouble controlling their weight will often let their Parent or Child make the decision for them, instead of allowing their Adult to be in control.
Tantrums and traumas
Your Child state is essentially a return to your childhood. The thoughts and feelings that you experience in this state are often playful, imaginative, and spontaneous. But they can also be immature, resistant, and willful. Decisions in this state are usually driven by feelings rather than thoughts, and by wants rather than consequences.
When you're presented with a choice between a huge ice cream or none at all, and you let your inner Child make the decision, he or she will almost always opt for the ice cream.
Even if your inner Parent argues back and says “you can’t have it, it’s bad for you," your more vocal inner Child may find it easy to just dismiss this parental “you can’t, you shouldn’t” and the result is often a 1000-calorie mega-sundae with all the toppings, or something similar. Although the Child may have won the battle and had the ice cream, childlike feelings of guilt and remorse often follow.
Why you shouldn’t listen to Mama
When it comes to food, then, it may seem that your inner Parent is the best part of you to make the decisions – after all, they’re the most likely to say “have a healthy snack, not an ice cream.” But is listening to your inner Parent really the best option?
Your inner Parent mimics the thinking and behaviors of your real parents and other parental figures who exerted (or exert) control in your life. When your inner Parent makes the decision, you may indeed walk away from the sundae, but you’re also likely to be left with the painful and unhelpful aftermath. The criticism and self-reprimands it usually takes from your inner Parent to get you to walk away can be damaging, particularly if your inner Parent is over-critical and negative. Listening to a voice that says you’re fat and unworthy is not a smart move for achieving your weight-control goals!
Walking away from the sundae without any reason other than your Parent “said so” isn’t foolproof either. Eventually your inner Child will rebel against the controlling Parent and start making childlike food decisions anyway.
If your real parents were over-indulgent, you'll probably have the opposite problem; your inner Parent will encourage you to overeat.
Letting the Adult in on the conversation
So if your inner Child can’t see past his or her immediate wants, and your inner Parent is either too demanding or too indulgent, what part of you can make a good food decision?
Enter your Adult. The Adult is the great "mediator and wise one". According to Berne, this aspect of self develops for the purpose of maintaining a check and balance between Parent and Child. Your Adult is not influenced by the past – not by what your parents or parental figures would have said, and not by what your childhood experiences were. Your Adult state responds to the here and now.
So, when your Parent is saying “you can’t have it” and your Child is saying “but I want it” your adult can mediate between those voices of the past and say something like:
“I can have it, that’s my choice, but think about it first. What do I really want? I feel like I want to eat ice cream now, but I also know that I want to control my weight and be healthy. Can I compromise? Can I do something other than give in or walk away defeated?”
This ice cream is on you
Ultimately, listening to your inner Adult when it comes to food is about owning your own decisions. Your Parent is no longer making them for you, but neither is your Child left to indulge his or her every whim. Although it’s important to listen to your inner Child and your inner Parent sometimes, when it comes to making food decisions, your inner Adult is the one to get things in their proper perspective, think through the options, and have the final say.
So, having quieted your squabbling inner Parent and Child, let’s head back to the Haagen-Dazs scenario where you're waiting at the counter. What does you inner Adult have to say? Ah ha! She's just reminded you that you did go for an extra-long swim this morning, you have been walking around the mall for four hours, and you’re well within your calorie goals for the week. So, through your Adult eyes, you realize that you probably can have some ice cream for a treat – although a huge sundae will be overdoing it.
So what’s it going to be? The decision is all yours.