How much is enough?
I was eating my favorite cereal this morning and it was so delicious, the best tasting thing in the whole wide world.
A little voice inside me said,
“I want another bowl after this one.” I paused, noticed how quickly I had been shoveling cereal into my mouth, and asked that little inner voice,
“If I eat more slowly, and enjoy it more, can this bowl be enough?”
It was enough. But without that pause I surely would have gone back, poured another bowl of Oatmeal Squares and gobbled it up, launching my day with overeating and guilt.
That inner voice, which often pipes up when I am eating yummy foods, is my E.B.H., or Emotional Black Hole, or the insatiable part of me which confuses the pleasure of the moment with a volume knob which can be turned up by higher by having more.
We all have our Emotional Black Holes. For some people it’s working, or viewing porn, or drinking coffee, or smoking cigarettes, or drinking alcohol, or going shopping, or using drugs or having sex. (Hopefully not all of these at once or else they are REALLY in for it). For some people its surfing the internet or checking email or even working out at the gym.
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying chocolate chip cookies or buying a new pair of shoes. In balance, the pursuit of pleasure allows us to fully inhabit the experience of being alive. Pleasure provides enjoyment, variety, beauty, spontaneity, escape and wonder.
The problem is when we become compulsive, trying squeeze more out of a pleasant experience by repeating it more often than is good for us.
I’ve noticed that a faulty sense of satiety usually comes from childhood. Parents or caretakers may have withheld affection or may have been consumed by their own depression, addiction or poverty that they failed to ensure the child received pleasures that were safe and developmentally appropriate.
For example, many years ago I worked with a kindergartner who was falling asleep in school. I discovered that he was watching horror movies with his father. He was then too afraid to sleep. The father, who was homeless as well as alcoholic, lived with his own mother and shared a bedroom with his young son. So whatever the father watched in his bedroom at night, the son also watched. When I suggested that horror movies were too frightening for a young child to watch, the father insisted, “But he likes watching them!”
Another parent I worked with gave soda pop to her toddler son in a bottle because he liked it and would cry if he didn’t get it. Her son had rotting teeth and had to undergo painful dental work as a result.
A child’s preference is not a reliable indicator of a developmentally appropriate activity. We have a hot tub at home and the whole family enjoys going for dips. My kids would stay in there forever so it’s my job to keep track of the time and shepherd them out, against their will and in the midst of their hearty complaints and whining, before they get dehydrated. By keeping track of time in order to protect their physical safety I relieve them of the danger of getting too much of a good thing.
Hopefully they will eventually develop an internal sense of pleasure with boundaries and this awareness will help them to negotiate life’s many opportunities for danger as well as delight.
If you, like so many of us did not come from a childhood where our parents saw to our pleasure as well as our protection it is hard to know how much is enough.
Asking this question: For me, right now, how much is enough?–with genuine curiosity rather than self-criticism–can be an important first step to escaping the Emotional Black Hole.