Eat because you are hungry = good. Eat because you are depressed = bad. Drink alcohol at a party with lots of people = good. Drink alcohol at home by yourself because you feel lonely = bad. The subjectivity with which we are forced to judge our reasons for consumption can lead to denial and an inability to see hazardous behavior. Viewing consumption as ok or not based on socially reinforced ideas creates black and white thinking. You’re either on the wagon, or you’re not, and society dictates what that even means. Judging our motivations for eating, drinking, consuming cannabis, etc. activates a cognitive shortcut that puts that consumption in the “good” or “bad” bucket in our brains. It’s a quick process and once we recognize our behavior as “good” or “bad”, we activate the associated emotions (pride, guilt) and move on. What this process does NOT allow, is for us to objectively look at patterns of behavior in the context of our lives and needs. In fact, we can get so used to this cycle, that we create circumstances to reinforce it. A week of dieting followed by a weekend binge. Drinking in moderation at the holiday party and the next night downing a bottle of wine at home, solo. We know how to deal with these scenarios. Society has conditioned us our entire lives. For many people, managing these cycles of pride and shame are easier than the idea of digging deeper, and the shadow of judgment looms large.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT, addresses these patterns by helping people uncover how their thoughts, emotions and actions are connected. It also guides people through the process of understanding when these connections are faulty. If someone is struggling with the hazardous behavior of binge eating, CBT would help them, through exercises, understand the thoughts that created the emotions that drive the behavior. It could be that the person has a thought that they were “bad” when it came to food that day. The emotion that they feel is guilt, shame and hopelessness, which leads to a behavior of binging to deal with those emotions. However, as valuable as CBT is, it does not guide the client to challenge why they judged their behavior as falling off the wagon in the first place. If this instance originated from eating 2 pieces of chocolate cake for breakfast because of nerves about a big presentation that day, CBT would explore the relationship between the emotion of shame and the eventual outcome of a binge. What remains is the assumption that one should not eat two pieces of chocolate cake for breakfast, let alone due to work anxiety. Even journals promoted as tools to change behavior by recognizing our motivations (e.g. “couldn’t sleep, ate a piece of pizza) still operate from the assumptions about when and under what circumstances it is ok to eat/consume sinful things. And while these approaches might tout themselves as based in “mindfulness”, I have a slightly different approach.
The art of mindful consumption is, in my view, “awareness without judgment”. What does that mean? It means, let’s throw away all of the lessons we learned about when and under what circumstances is it ok to consume food, alcohol, cannabis, whatever our drug of choice. Indeed, it means we have to reevaluate the convenient cognitive shortcuts that tell us it is ok to drink, but not until after 5, and that we can eat pizza, but only if we workout that day. Awareness without judgment allows us to notice and become familiar with our coping mechanisms, our unmet needs and how consumption acts like a tool in our toolbox. Hammers are not inherently good or bad, it depends on how you use them. Food, drugs, none of these things are good or bad on their own. Now, some of you may be saying, “Yes, Amanda, I get it. BUT, aren’t these ‘bad’ behaviors labeled as such because they lead to hazardous use and bigger problems?” Yes and no. Some reasons for consumption can be indicative of larger and acute issues that need immediate attention. But, that does not mean they need to be judged. If someone is drinking to avoid suicidal thoughts. That is an issue that likely requires immediate attention, but does not require judgment. If someone drinks a bottle of wine by themselves every night because they are lonely, attention should be paid to the source of the loneliness and the potential harms from overconsumption of alcohol, but why judge the motivation behind the behavior? The point is, there is a ton of benefit that can come from awareness of our motivations for consumption, but losing the judgment.
Here is my challenge to you. The next time you catch yourself on the cognitive shortcut train, and you start putting your second glass of wine or fifth cookie in the naughty pile, put on the brakes. Say to yourself, “I am consuming this for X reason, and no judgment”. If you are trying to change a behavior, keep track of your motivation for consumption, but nothing else. “2pm, had a glass of wine because I was bored.” Boom, done. This approach will help you identify patterns (like drinking when you are bored) and allow you to sometimes substitute another behavior for drinking when you feel bored. This is in line with the concept of harm reduction, which we will explore in part 2 of this article, with a focus on rethinking various types of cannabis use with the art of mindful consumption as a guide.