How I Defanged My Sweet Tooth Using Selfie Therapy

It should have been easy for me to give up eating sugar, given the facial migraines it always triggered. Ever had a facial migraine? Like someone pressing a not-quite-cooled-off sparkler against your cheeks--from the inside. For hours. But hey, we're talking about sugar here. And if you ever want to discover just how delightful the simple pleasures of sugar can be, just try resolving to go without it for a while.

On the other hand, nothing fuels your resolve to kick the sugar habit like a fresh facial migraine. "Never, ever, ever, ever again! And this time I mean it!" But as the days and weeks passed, something funny always started to happen. The memory of my most recent headache would fade.

I'd even start doubting the connection between the headaches and sugar consumption. I'm not kidding. As silly as it feels to actually put this in writing, that's where my mind would go.

In actuality, the causal relationship became undeniable over many years. I had my first facial migraine ten minutes after eating a hot Krispy Kreme donut after my son, Ryan, and I finished delivering newspapers on his route one morning when he was 11. That pain reliably returned whenever I ate enough sugar, and it happened throughout all the years it took Ryan to grow up, move out, and get married. You'd think all this evidence would be overwhelming. Of course, it is to the logical mind. But that doesn't stop the craving brain from feeling around for the weak spots in the levy.

I discovered that a little sugar might not put me over the threshold. I'd cheat just a bit. After my daughter and son had pretty much cleaned out the bowl of chocolate cookie dough, I'd scrape the last remnants and savor those delectable little shavings. If I felt fine after that, I'd convince myself that I could probably handle a little more. I'd break off a sliver of one of the baked-up cookies. If they were really tasty--which wasn't a rare occurance--I'd come back for another little tidbit. The once-searing pain of my last migraine was tiny enough in my rearview mirror that this all somehow felt okay to do.

Then at some point, my face would tell me I'd gone too far. Right below my right eye, just to the side of my nose, the pain would start coming back. And I knew it would be my companion for the next 20 hours or so.

Every day I help people develop greater self-control. Some want to curtail their spending habits. Others are trying to stop drinking because their next DUI will land them in jail. And there's every sort of issue you can imagine in between. I don't know why it took me so long, but I finally decided I really ought to try using the most powerful therapy tool I teach my clients to help me kick my sugar habit.

Giving "Sweet Tooth" His Say

Four months ago I decided that, from then on, before I ate sugar, I'd first do a "craving selfie". I'd record myself describing my desire to eat whatever treat I found tempting, how I felt emotionally, and what I was experiencing in my body.

It didn't take long before life gave me the chance to record my first selfie. Blame it on the Girl Scouts. They delivered the box of Thin Mints my wife ordered. Okay, don't blame the Girl Scouts, blame it on Jenny. I still have the selfie I recorded on my iPhone that day: April 14, 9:56 p.m. In it, I'm pacing around the kitchen.

"I just feel like I'm so relaxed and I feel so good that... wouldn't it feel even better to have a little Thin mint?! And it seems like, I feel so good, it can't have a consequence of a headache. Because that just doesn't happen to people who feel as good as I feel. We're above consequences and immune to 'em."

I'd recorded the first key element of a selfie therapy video: What I felt like doing and what I felt emotionally. But then, as you can hear on the video, I had pause recording to go help my 11-year-old daughter do a sinus rinse because here nose was all clogged up that night and it was giving her a headache. What do you know, maybe this sinus pain thing runs in the family! After helping her I came back and recorded the other two elements of a craving selfie: what I felt emotionally and what I was feeling in my body:

And I feel light and... intrigued and... free and... in my body I feel a sense of expansiveness."

When I got done recording, I grabbed a Thin Mint and took a bite.

The next afternoon when I was rummaging around in the pantry, I discovered that same Thin Mint with a bite taken out of it. Hmmm, just one bite. Interesting! I couldn't recall ever stopping at half a Thin Mint before. Usually, I would have eaten the entire cookie--of course!--maybe even half the sleeve.

How had I stopped at one bite without even a fight? Had the selfie video somehow dissipated some of the pressure that usually drove me to eat more compulsively once I gave in?

The next selfie I recorded was on a Sunday Morning:

"Jake's making fresh Swedish pancakes and Jenny last week made fresh raspberry jam--LLLLL! I'm about to have a pancake and raspberry jam. It sounds... so... good. And I feel tense in my gut because I know I might get a migraine. Hoo-oosh. Anyway, that's the feeling."

You can tell watching me pace around the kitchen and seeing my face morph as I go from the jaw-clenching "LLLL!" to the "sounds so good" and back to the wide-eyed "Hoo-oosh" that the angel and devil on my shoulders are battling it out. I had decided to eat the pancake with Jam on it, but there was this migraine-fearing part of me that was trying to hold myself back.

In the end, I ate one of the pancakes--okay, one-and-a-half. Instead of raspberry jam, I slathered it with butter. That raspberry jam loving part of me--that measly little 99%--he got his say (on the selfie) but he didn't get his way. Somehow, surprisingly, that seemed to be enough.

I shouldn't have been so surprised by how helpful it was to record these selfies. I'd seen full-on addicted clients use this technique to help them avoid going back to drugs and pornography. But I was watching and cheering on those dramas from the sideline. It was something else to personally experience the power of selfie therapy.

On Mother's Day, Jenny broke off a piece of one of her fancy chocolates (not the cheap waxy kind!) and set it down in front of me. In the thumbnail of that selfie on my phone, there I am in our backyard, sitting at the picnic table.

"I want to eat that truffle and I, uh... It's mint." [My daughter's voice in the background: "It's not mint."] "And it's mother's Day--a special occasion. And it feels like life would be so much better with just a little bit of smooth chocolate on my tongue. This spaghetti is great, but it feels like that bite of truffle would just put me over the top!"

Playing that selfie again now, I can hear my mother-in-law talking to my wife in the background. I'm not sure what she and my father-in-law thought of me videotaping expressions of longing about a piece of chocolate. But hey, it's so ubiquitous these days for people to be taking selfies, they probably didn't give it a second thought.

I left the truffle on the table and eventually my 9-year-old son, Sam, snatched it up and gobbled it down. As he grinned at me, I thought, "those were the days."

Discovering What Really Makes Sweet Tooth Tick

A few days later Jenny asked if I wanted to come into the gluten free bakery with her to get treats for a family gathering. Back in my tug-of-war days, I usually would have turned her down. And If I'd gone in, I would've done my best to brace myself against fully "taking in the scene" of all those colorful, delectable treats and letting myself fully enjoy the experience. It would have seemed too risky. But Sweet Tooth, that side of me who loves sugar, who'd been speaking up more and more lately on the selfies, he spoke up at that moment and let me know he wanted to go into the bakery with Jenny and savor the whole experience. How much fun could that be, I wondered, since I wouldn't be actually eating any of the treats? Would I just be torturing myself?

Well, this was a real test: That day I was I considering giving Sweet Tooth his way, not just giving him his say like I had been on the selfies. But going into the bakery is different from buying a treat and eating it. Even though it seemed like I might be rationalizing dangerous behavior, I decided I could compromise that far.

I walked in and inhaled that smell of fresh baked goods. Wow, evocative--almost titillating. I even delighted, for some reason, at the flour-smudged apron of the baker who was carrying a tray of fresh cinnamon rolls up to put behind the glass. It warmed my heart for some reason. There were samples of brownies and sugar cookies on top of the counter. And behind the glass, cupcakes of every color of the rainbow, including Key Lime Pie themed ones with tiny lime wedges glistening on top of little mounds of pale green frosting. And all the treats Jenny was looking over and pointing out to the clerk one-by-one. I tried, but I felt like somehow I couldn't quite take it all in. Before I knew it Jenny had decided she had enough to share with everyone who would be coming over the next day. She paid the clerk and we walked out to our car.

I was surprised by what spilled out of me: "I know I've been trying to defang Sweet Tooth, but I hope I never dampen him. He's that side of me that relishes life. Loves color and variety. Basks in the company of family and loved ones. I think he was hatched when my mom used to take me to Albertson's supermarket as a kid and tell me I could choose any treat I wanted in the entire bakery. One by one on those trips, I tried out maple bars, sugar cookies slathered with frosting, and sprinkle donuts--what, they taste just like regular donuts but leave a waxy film in your mouth? I never tried out the huge pickles or the hard boiled eggs in a jar, but I absolutely loved the salty, sweet flavor and powdery texture of Mexican wedding cookies. That pop of the tiny pecan pieces--mmm. Until that moment nothing like that had ever made its way into the mouth of this young boy living in Bountiful, Utah."

Wow, I thought as she drove and I spilled my guts, what a delightful experience I had with Jenny in that bakery. And what meaningful memories I'm able to share with her. It had been just a few months since my mom had passed away, and it sure was fun to reminisce about that precious time I'd spent with her roaming the grocery shopping, relishing every bite of my choice of the day.

Since compromising with Sweet Tooth that day and discovering how enriching it was to do so, it hasn't been much of a struggle to not eat sugar. I no longer think of sweets as something I can't enjoy. They're just something I don't eat. I've discovered that I can still savor most of the enjoyment they've always given me.

I still don't get exactly how and why this process works so well, but it has for lots of the folks who've tried it out. We can listen to that part of us who really wants those things that don't serve us. She can tell us what feelings go with those wants and what's going on inside physically. And once that part of us gets her say, she seems less intent on getting her way. Turns out when we're more considerate of our craving self, our craving self might just become kinder in return.


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