Would You Like Fries With That Thought?

June 13, 2013 Updated: June 14, 2013

Who doesn’t pine for a Krispy Kreme donut now and again? Or perhaps a bag of greasy French fries is what makes you go weak in the knees. And one teeny, tiny slider couldn’t hurt now, could it? Ah yes, the joys and heartache of an occasional junk-food foray. 

But what if rather than junk-food lapses, you were engaging instead in a daily diet of “junk-food thinking”? If you can’t imagine liking the effects of unwholesome eating on your body, picture the impact on your mind from a continuous intake of junk-food thinking. The results should similarly scare you.

Yet many people regularly engage in junk-food thinking without realizing it. What’s junk-food thinking? It’s indulging in thoughts you find oddly comforting and familiar but which ultimately make you feel worse about yourself and which you know intellectually are bad. As with junk-food eating, the impulse to engage in junk-food thinking often occurs when you’re experiencing strong emotions. 

Now, because people today are better educated about food and its effects, we tend to make more informed choices about what to put or not put in our bodies. However, the same can’t be said for what we put in our minds. That’s because, unlike food, there’s no objective criteria or clear-cut warning label on our thoughts to identify them as bad for our health. 

It’s one thing to avoid a food because it’s high in calories or fat; it’s another to say that having thoughts such as “you’re a loser” or “no one will love you” is scientifically unhealthy, according to some authoritative standard.

How then do you know if you’re engaging in junk-food thinking? The first indication should be that, like junk-food eating, junk-food thinking generally occurs when you’re most emotional and therefore can’t think rationally about yourself or your situation. Under these conditions, you think in ways you believe will make you feel better, but which ultimately undermine your energy and mood.

Second, junk-food thinking tends to be secretive, invoking feelings of shame because it involves thoughts you wouldn’t want to admit to others. Like junk-food eating, junk-food thinking isn’t something you’re proud of, so you take pains to hide it.

Third, despite how hurtful this thinking is to you, you almost impulsively resort to it because it’s comfortable and familiar and, like junk food itself, may nostalgically—if negatively—reconnect you with experiences from childhood.

Now that you know the signs of junk-food thinking, what can you do to avoid it in the same way you may have learned to overcome out-of-control eating? Below are a few ideas.

Plan to think well. Decide today you’re going to reduce your intake of junk-food thinking. Write down examples of positive thoughts you’d like to engage in and start to notice and record negative thoughts when they arise. 

If you’re not sure if you’re doing junk-food thinking, ask yourself if it meets the criteria above and how you might react if a friend told you he or she thought the same way.

Watch what you think. Begin to observe yourself thinking. I know this is hard to do, but see if you can gently cultivate an observer attitude toward your own mind. Rather than automatically buying into junk-food thoughts, you can catch yourself having them and then—with your observer mind—gently let them go in the same way you’d reach into a cookie jar and then stop yourself.

Surround yourself with positive-thinking friends. Recent research suggests people’s eating habits are strongly influenced by those of their friends. If your peers tend to eat badly and drink badly, it’s no surprise that you’re more likely to as well. In the same way, notice how your friends think. If they tend to be negative, pessimistic, and critical, some of that could rub off on you. 

Do you need to abandon these friends? No, but you can be more aware of their tendencies and find ways to change the conversation or take space away from them if their thinking is dragging you down. You can also try to expand your social circle to include more positive people who are supportive of your goals.

Dr. Wylie Goodman is a licensed, clinical psychologist who works with English speakers worldwide via Skype and in person in her office in New York City. Her practice, East-West Psychotherapy & Coaching, specializes in integrating Buddhist-based approaches to mental wellness with Western methodologies grounded in cognitive-behavioral and existential theories. www.east-westpsychotherapy.com