It can be difficult to pin down what defines the “self” when we examine consciousness. People often use metaphorical alter-egos and multiple selves to explain their behavior.
“You don’t know him how I know him. He shows me a completely different side.”
“I’m sorry. I am not myself today.”
“Have you met my drunk alter-ego? Dark Ian? Maybe you’ll meet him tonight.”
Mark Manson once said that our authentic self is our “best future self.” I appreciate the opportunity to strive for an authentic self who surpasses today’s Ian.
But my other selves earn a far less charitable interpretation. For example, I often consider my stress-eating alter-ego – Captain Fatass.
He even has a theme song.
All hands on deck for Captain Fatass…
He sails the stormy calorie sea…
Get out of the way of Captain Fatass…
He hates himself more than he hates me…
Back in 2015, I visited family in Michigan for Thanksgiving. I cut and seasoned sweet potatoes as I took in the aroma of baked green beans. Saliva pooled in my mouth. Suddenly, my cousin let me in on a joke.
“The meal isn’t over when you are full. No. The meal is over when you hate yourself.”
Boy, do I hate myself when my indulgences slide into binges.
But I don’t hate myself. No.
Ian is a diligent, healthy eater who consumes moderate portions and focuses on eating a whole-food, plant-based diet (at least when he cooks at home). Captain Fatass, on the other hand, swoops in and drags Ian to the sushi buffet, orders a pizza-fried-chicken combo for delivery, and wanders aimlessly between bakeries mindlessly stuffing muffins, cookies, and scones down the hatch.
But when Ian wakes up the next day, his belly rounder and his scale worse for wear, the Captain is gone – dissolved into the ether without a trace.
The Captain is the opportunistic type. Most pirates are. He knows when I am at my lowest points. He knows when I feel sad, lonely, depressed, or tired. He anticipates my gnawing Sunday anxiety on Sunday as I consider a difficult week ahead. (I do love my job, but Sunday blues still abound).
Sometimes I feel physically sapped after hiking a mountain with Flat Cap – my jelly legs wobbling, leaving me vulnerable to the Captain’s swift clipper ship. Other times I succumb to boredom and listlessness with no plan or intention for the day. As a result, I fall for the Captain’s first suggestion.
“Let’s get an ice cream bar. Or three. Who cares? The scale is down anyways. You’re doing so well. Do you really wanna be a twiggy soy boy? I thought you liked your muscles.”
“I do like muscles, damn it!”
And before I can reconsider, I’ve downed two ice cream sandwiches en route to the bakery for a chocolate muffin.
I know this sounds ridiculous. Some would wag a finger right about now.
“The captain is not real. You want to control your eating? How about you…I don’t know…just don’t eat junk food? Wow! Simple! Idiot.”
Why does this simple advice prove so difficult in practice? Perhaps the complex relationships between the outside world and our inner dialogue handicap our planning self and empower the experiencing self.
Or as Mark Manson once suggested, perhaps self-control is a myth. Rather, it is our emotional regulation that strongly influences our behavior. Sometimes emotions and food intertwine to a dangerous degree.
When I consider how to handle Captain Fatass, two options surface – starve the Captain into submission or appease the Captain with a moderate trickle of booty.
If I adopt abstention, I imagine incredible long-term positive health effects. While such deprivation of junk may prove difficult in the first month, my taste buds would soon wean themselves from hyper-palatable sweets and adjust to more wholesome fresh fruit and salads. By then my healthy eating would become virtually unstoppable.
But problems arise in Korean food environments. I have friends, and sometimes those friends want to eat foods that I’d otherwise avoid (like fried chicken, steak, or all-you-can-eat barbecues). While I am not keen on how these meals make me feel, I am also acutely aware when I awkwardly sit and watching others eat while I test my willpower and bide my time. I am also aware of the loneliness that results from eschewing meals out with friends altogether. Sometimes I find it better to indulge in a small amount of unhealthy food to reap the profound benefits of social connection.
However, I have the privilege of a healthy weight. If I was morbidly obese, perhaps taking Tupperware to a restaurant trumps heart attacks and trashed joints.
Moreover, the food environment in Korea tempts and tickles me wherever I walk. Bakeries, fried chicken restaurants, and pizzerias waft aromas sidewalk-ward. Resistance will sap my willpower when I am not careful. As a result, when I feel tired and rundown, I may descend into caloric sin. Moreover, cumulative deprivation can spur more than just a small indulgence, crossing a tipping point into a full-blown binge. The captain guffaws as he boards my ship in triumph.
So perhaps I would benefit from appreciating consistent capfuls of indulgence. It would solve the problem of social gatherings. I would feel no compunction to refuse particular foods that my friends and co-workers enjoy. However, regular moderate indulgence also rests on the slippery slope to normalcy. If I enjoy moderate portions of unhealthy food on a daily basis, can I consider my diet healthy? Or is it moderately unhealthy? At what point does compromise lead to a revaluation of my diet?
Moreover, regular moderate indulgences do nothing to curb cravings when my willpower and energy are low. In fact, an all-too-permissive attitude towards food can spiral out of control even faster than someone trying to abstain. At least an abstainer can set rigid guidelines of identity (“I’m not the kind of person who eats these foods.”) It is akin to a heavy smoker agreeing to only smoke two cigarettes per day as a way to “curb cravings.” Sure, when self-control is high (i.e. he doesn’t feel tired, worn down, angry, bored, etc.) then the plan is simple. But it only takes one bad day, one moment of weakness, to allow a minor indulgence to backdoor into relapse.
A friend of mine suggested a mixed approach. Perhaps a strict “detox” period of one month could reset my tastes while occasional moderate indulgences thereafter would keep heavy cravings at bay.
Maybe this is the way. I do know that since I’ve tried to connect more with my friends, I’ve felt less inclined to go on autopilot ice cream and bakery binges.
I think Captain Fatass represents a deeply held fear – the fear of losing control with respect to food. For now, these lapses in control are sporadic – coming in isolated moments of loneliness, fatigue, or boredom. But what if these endless cravings become more frequent? What if they become a lifestyle?
I don’t want to suffer the same fate as my grandfather, who died overweight and diabetic. I dream of a long and productive life, and making peace with the Captain can facilitate that dream.
For now, I know that if I stay engaged (in work, friendship, or leisurely pursuits), then the Captain’s gluttonous siren calls grow mute. Perhaps the best course of action is to tune out cravings altogether.
Finally, I must forgive myself when I stumble. Occasional food sins only become a problem when they proliferate into a habit. And as long as I dust myself off each time I fall and stroll down a sustainable path, then the aggregate of successful eating days should sustain me for many years to come.
Maybe someday Captain Fatass will be a mere ship passing in the night.