LICORICE AND ANXIETY: SIN BOLDLY
You know how we all have a weak spot in our diet; that thing we cannot seem to control when the impulse arises. Years ago mine was black licorice. On weekends I’d often buy a box of my favorite and eat the whole thing in one sitting. Merely thinking seriously about overeating licorice would trigger a kind of pre-indulgence tension and anxiety.
You know that feeling when you get the first inkling to do something that you know is not really great for you? I also found that during the actual eating, which was quite pleasurable in itself, there would be that same background anxiety and it would grow worse the more I ate. I’d become increasingly uncomfortable emotionally and the voice of guilt and shame would grow louder and louder. By the time I’d finished the box my anxiety would shift into hoping I would not ever do this again or at least I’d only eat half a box. Throughout the entire process from first urge to last bite anxiety and guilt gnawed away my peace.
Then one evening I decided to run an experiment. I decided I would eat, overeat actually, an entire box of licorice and while indulging I would maintain a quality of self-talk that was highly respectful, even admiring and self-congratulatory. While I knew I would harm myself to some small degree physiologically I vowed to protect, yes, even enhance my self-esteem.
Late one Saturday night I found myself sitting at the table munching one piece of licorice after another, at times 3, 4 or 5 pieces at once. I could feel my body contracting and my mind generating such thoughts as: “I don’t understand why you are doing this. You know what this does to you. This is stupid. You are going to regret this.” Etc. etc.
I continued to chew and swallow licorice noticing how much my body enjoyed the flavor and texture. I deliberately relaxed myself, sat with a posture of relaxed dignity, smiled inwardly and began speaking kindly to myself “Charley Cropley, I love you. You are a fine man. I admire the way you give yourself to the path of right action. You have overcome scores of habits far more difficult than this one and I am fully confident you will succeed with this. In fact you are succeeding in this very moment.”
“While in this moment I am eating licorice, I will not swallow one ounce of guilt or other negativity. In fact I intend to grow healthier and happier through this very activity. I intend to break free of this craving precisely by loving myself so strongly that I am impelled to leave licorice for something better.”
I continued like this speaking to myself anything I could that would make me feel good. Often I would talk to myself out loud to keep my thoughts from drifting back into old patterns. At one point I unexpectedly found that I no longer had the desire to eat any more licorice. The urge had left me and I was actually eager to put the box away. It occurred to me to not—continue eating not because I could not resist the yearning, but because I was being so nourished by the quality of my own inner voice in circumstances where it was normally inaudible to me. I had not anticipated this. So here I was deliberately choosing to do something “bad” for me when I didn’t even feel drawn to do it. My inner critic was perplexed. “Whaaat? I don’t get it” he said, “You really are stupid; This is even stupider than you usually are. You are flat out deliberately doing exactly what you know is bad for you. I’m scared. Why don’t you quit while you can? Why needlessly feed this compulsion? It will grow and you’ll regret it.” Blah, blah, blah.
As I noticed these thoughts and persisted in choosing words of self-admiration I found that my anxiety and guilt had completely vanished. Somehow I had broken a fang or claw of this monster so that it could no longer hold me and force me to do its bidding. Previously I knew of no way to stop. I felt out of control, compelled by irresistible urges that scared me… badly. However in this moment, for the first time I felt a genuine confidence that was actually surprising to me. I was in control and I knew it. I knew I could and would win this battle and any like it. It didn’t matter what the substance was. I was more powerful.
What joy this brings me!
I could have never predicted that this relatively simple act of attention and compassion would carry such healing. That it could liberate me from so much suffering.
This experience inspired me to learn how to treat myself with greater intelligence and kindness, not just in times of crisis but at all times. Daily, I am amazed at this sweet power, capable of freeing us from the demons that drag us into a living hell of sickness and anxiety. I have fallen deeply in love with this new voice that I recognize to be none other than my own.
OCTOBER 6, 2015