So How Do You Get Rid Of The Conditioning That Makes You Eat?

Here’s an example of how the Lefkoe De-conditioning Process works to
de-condition eating as a very effective way to deal with emotional eating triggers and rewards, based on my notes from a recent client.

This woman compulsively ate whenever she experienced negative feelings, such as general upset or anxiety—a very common emotional eating pattern.

How was this conditioning formed?

As a child anytime she got upset, her mom gave her a cookie or some
other “sweet.” The food provided her a pleasurable distraction from the
anxiety or upset, which conditioned the eating, so that whenever she felt
anxious or upset from then on, she would compulsively eat in order to attain
the pleasurable distraction.

In other words, because eating gave her the pleasurable distraction from the strong negative feelings that she wanted, eating got conditioned to occur whenever she felt the strong negative feelings.

Here’s how I helped her de-condition eating whenever she felt anxious or

When the session began I asked her why it was important to her to stop
her emotional eating. She told me it made her gain weight, which wasn’t
healthy and made her very dissatisfied with the way she looked. Eating when
she didn’t really want to also made her feel out of control and then guilty
after she finished eating.

I had her imagine a situation in which she felt anxious or upset and then
asked her if in this type of situation she could imagine easily not eating
without using a lot of will power. She said she couldn’t imagine not eating. I
ask this question to make sure that we are dealing with a real trigger and also to provide a benchmark experience, because I ask the same question at the end of the LDP, so the client can experience the difference after the de-conditioning process is

Next I asked her: What value do you get from eating when you are
anxious or upset? She answered: I experience pleasure and I am distracted
from my negative emotional state.

I got her to make a crucial distinction: She realized she never really
wanted to eat; she wanted a pleasurable distraction from her negative
feelings. Eating was only a means to the end, not an end in itself.

I then helped her reach two important realizations: (1) The only reason
eating had been desirable was that it produced a pleasurable distraction
that nothing else had at the time. And (2) if she had found other ways to
get a pleasurable distraction when the conditioning first started, she
wouldn’t have needed to eat.

I then helped her realize that, while eating might have been one way to
get what she wanted, it wasn’t necessarily the only way.

Next I showed her that eating when she was experiencing negative
feelings never really gave her what she wanted. In other words, she had a
momentary pleasurable distraction from her upset or anxiety, but the
unpleasant feelings didn’t go away for good. As soon as she finished eating,
they were still there.

I then asked her to imagine a situation when she had eaten in response
to an experience of negative feelings. She took a moment to do this.
Then I asked: Didn’t it seem as if you could see that eating is the best
way to get a pleasurable distraction. In other words, didn’t you discover that it
was “the truth” as a result of seeing it in the world?

She told me she could really see that.

When I asked her to look closer, to describe what “it” looked like, she
realized she couldn’t really “see” that eating was the best way to get a
pleasurable distraction. It was only a conclusion she had reached in her mind
and wasn’t necessarily true.

Finally she realized that the connection between eating and
experiencing negative feelings had been an accidental connection made in
her childhood, and that there was no inherent connection between the

If her mom had taken her to a movie or played a game with her
whenever she had been upset or anxious, then that behavior would have
gotten conditioned and now she would go to a movie or play a game
whenever she experienced negative feelings.

At this point the “trigger”—namely, negative feelings—had been de-
conditioned and would no longer result in her eating compulsively.
In order to deal with negative feelings in the future, she identified
several things she could do to deal with them in the future,
such as exercising, calling a friend, and reading a book. As long as she was
not compelled to eat, these activities would do the job.

To make sure that de-conditioning really had taken place, I asked her
the same question I had asked earlier in the process: Imagine a situation in
which you are experiencing negative feelings. Can you imaging yourself easily
not eating without having to use a lot of will power?

Her answer this time was, “absolutely.”

Before she left I told her I was convinced that the de-conditioning had
been effective, but that the only way to know for sure would be to test her
behavior in life. I asked her to watch her eating and let me know if she was
eating whenever she felt negative feelings.

Two weeks later she told me that despite having had negative feelings
on several occasions, she hadn’t even been tempted to eat in those

After going through a similar process with all of her triggers and
rewards, she stopped overeating and began to lose weight.
And she’s not alone. Other clients have told me about similar results
after several sessions with me.

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