Breaking the “Should” Habit Around Eating

Mindful eating is about more than simply enjoying your meal. Here's how to recognize your inner critic and make nonjudgmental food choices.

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Most people assume that the goal of mindful eating is to enjoy each bite of food. This assumption can lead you far away from the true intent of mindful eating. The purpose of mindful eating is to become present when eating, nonjudgmentally, and to use your observations to guide your food and eating choices in a way that is compassionate for you and all living beings.

It is a lovely wish to have only pleasant, delicious meals, but returning to the here and now, how would that even be possible? The desire to enjoy every bite you eat is unrealistic. Worse, it is potentially very destructive, because the enjoyment you get from eating is a complex experience that can’t be limited only to taste. Choosing to eat only foods that tantalized your tongue would likely cause you to miss the delight that comes from choosing foods that nourish the body and help it function well.

Feeling shame is a scary, lonely, and harmful experience that mindfulness and mindful eating can help you free yourself from.

When people tell themselves what they “should” experience or do, they can obscure choice, making it hard to find enjoyment. The “should” habit is the tendency to make judgments about what you “should” feel or do. For example, I “should” enjoy my meals more. I “should” stop eating. I “should” start eating. I “should” do one-hundred million things. The “should” habit is exhausting. What’s worse, the “should” habit is draining away your motivation. All the “shoulds” you tell yourself are creating a mental and emotional web of shame that will trap you into being self-critical. “Should” also promotes the feeling of isolation, or thinking you are “the ONLY one” who isn’t doing whatever it is you “should” be doing. The “should” habit can be an unconscious way of blaming yourself. The outcome of all these “shoulds” may lead you to experience shame, which is a belief that at your core, you are unworthy of love and support. Feeling shame is a scary, lonely and harmful experience that mindfulness and mindful eating can help you free yourself from.

How to Break the “Should” Habit

  1. Pause and acknowledge your habit. Once you notice you’re practicing the “should” habit, pause for a moment and acknowledge that the familiar habit of trying to motivate yourself with “should” has returned.
  2. Dig into your motivation. Ask yourself if using the word “should” is motivating or draining in this situation. If, for example, using the word “should” helps you clarify a need, desire or action, terrific! Take the next steps to meet your needs. However, if you find using the word “should” depletes your motivation and erodes your confidence, then add a level of self-compassion into this awareness.
  3. Be kind to yourself. An example of self-compassion might sound like, “Telling myself what I ‘should do’ isn’t helping. I have a choice and not beating myself up with a bunch of “shoulds” is a choice that will help this situation.”

Recognizing the “should” habit will help gently retrain the mind to become aware of the many choices that are available when eating.

This article was adapted from “Breaking the Should Habit,” in Food for Thought, a publication for The Center for Mindful Eating.

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  • Caroline Baerten
  • July 27, 2017