Good Girls and Rebels

By Geneen Roth

I was standing near the buffet at a party recently with two women I'd never met.  One eyed the garlic mashed potatoes and said, “Oh God, it looks so good! But I promised myself I'd stay on a low-carb diet for at least three weeks, and this is only day two.”  The other woman said, “I told myself I would lose weight this year, and I haven't lost a pound.  Diets never work for me, though.  The second anyone tells me what to eat or when, I feel like rebelling and devouring an entire cake.”  They both looked at me.  “What about you?” the first woman said.

Uh-oh, I thought.  The minute I tell strangers what I do, especially strangers gathered around a table of food, conversation comes to a screeching halt, forks freeze in midair, and everyone suddenly thinks they have to be on their best behavior.  I become the death of the party.

So this time, I tried another strategy.  I told my new friends I'd done a lot of research and discovered that most women who are concerned about their weight fall into one of two eating types: Permitters and Restrictors.  I also said they were perfect examples of each type.  Instead of fleeing, they asked me to tell them more.

About half of us, I told them – the Restrictors – do very well on diets (at least for a while).  We find rules, tips, and lists comforting.  When calories counted most, Restrictors knew how many were in a small apple, a baked potato, a Krispy Kreme donut.  When the au courante measurement became the glycemic index, we knew how many grams of fat, protein, and carbohydrate were in a serving of string beans, a hamburger the size of your palm, a pat of butter.  Restrictors like regulations because they provide a sense of control over the uncertainty and unpredictability of being alive.

Permitters, on the other hand, abhor rules.  We find them oppressive and suffocating.  Although we know we could stand to lose a pound or 50, we're suspicious of programs and food lists.  Permitters are the type of emotional eaters who say, “Gee, I can't understand how I gained 10 pounds in the past two months.  I thought I was doing so well.”  Whereas Restrictors maintain hyper vigilance about food, Permitters prefer denial.  Our (usually unconscious) logic:  If I'm not aware of it, it can't hurt me. If I give up trying, I won't be disappointed when I fail. Like Restrictors, Permitters crave safety, but unlike Restrictors, we see no point in trying to control the uncontrollable; we prefer to join the party and have a good time.

During the 17 years I dieted and binged, Restrictor was my middle name.  I loved the latest diet fads, adored the feeling of being good, trying hard, doing what I was told, because it filled me with hope that everything would turn out well.  Although I didn't realize it then I was certain that since the size of my body seemed to be the cause of my suffering, I could control what was wrong in my life by controlling my weight.

It didn't work, or course.  Eventually, the deprivation of dieting would become intolerable for me and I'd begin binging on whatever I hadn't allowed myself to eat.  Then I'd feel out of control and tell myself that my pain was because of my weight, and I'd diet again.  Ahh, the life of a Restrictor.

A friend I'll call Linda, a Permitter, has only been on a diet once in her life – and says it was “like living in hell.”  When we go out to eat, she doesn't think for a second about the amount of fat or carbs in her order.  Although she's 30 pounds over weight, her motto is “Carpe diem, darling.”  She tells me she wants to lose weight, that her thighs are rubbing together, but then it's time for another meal – another chance to seize the day, and the cupcake.  Still, she suffers (in secret) as much as any Restrictor over the size of her body, and doesn't know what to do, since she believes it's hopeless to follow a program or a diet.

After I'd told the women at the party about the two types of eaters, the Restrictor said, “You described me exactly! So tell me exactly what to do about it!”  Then she caught herself and we had a good laugh.  She'd said what any Restrictor would say:  “Great! Now give me the rules to follow so that I can fix it!”  The Permitter's response was less enthusiastic.  She looked at me suspiciously, crossed her arms and grudgingly said, “Well, I suppose you have me pegged as well, but don't tell me what to do because I'll only rebel!”  I smiled, because her reaction was utterly typical of give-me-a rule-and-I'll break it Permitters.  Since we were still near the food table, and I was ready to dig into those mashed potatoes, I game them the condensed version of my message:  “Listen to your body.  Trust what it tells you.  You won't go wrong.  Now let's put some food on our plates and talk about something else!”

In another setting, I would have gone on to say this:  If you're a Permitter, you already know that starting a program with rules is usually the first step in breaking those rules and going off that program.  So here's another approach:  Forget rules, and begin with awareness.  Just awareness.  Since Permitters use food to numb themselves and thus block out body signals, begin by paying attention a few times a day to concrete physical sensations like hunger and fullness.  Allow yourself to notice the plate of food in front of you and your body's response to it.  It's important that you don't give yourself a hard time.  If you find yourself standing in front of the fridge without knowing how you got there, be gentle with yourself.  Remember that if you give yourself rigid rules to follow, you'll rebel.  So eat according to your physical hunger, and stop when you've had enough.  Begin slowly: You can decide, for instance, that once a day, you'll eat only when you're hungry.  When you've gotten the hang of that add stopping when you've had enough.  The goal is to begin respecting your body by listening to its signals.

If you're a Restrictor, you know when you're hungry and when you're full, but you have to many rules and food facts in your head that it's hard for you to figure out what your body actually wants.  The very idea of sweet potatoes with butter can trigger panic.  You live in your head and eat in your head, so, as with Permitters, it will be very helpful for you to pay attention to what your body wants.  For a Restrictor, part of breaking free from compulsive eating is trusting that your body wants to feel well, to be nourished, and to thrive, and that if you listen to it, it won't betray you.

I've found that it gives people tremendous relief to be able to recognize themselves as either Restrictors or Permitters.  They become more aware of their needs and how to meet them, which helps them to begin the process of breaking free from their compulsive eating.  They feel comforted because they know there are plenty of other people out there like them.  That's especially important for emotional eaters; knowing we're not alone nourishes our hungry hearts.

29 responses to “Good Girls and Rebels

  1. As a restrictor I am in a panic as to what my body really wants to eat. Those voices in my head are telling me this is good for you, this is bad for you— will I ever realize food is food not good, not bad—- just food!
    Also on my last “diet” I lost a good deal of weight about 40 pounds — I was feeling sooooo good– knees didn’t ache– smaller sizes– you know the drill– friends and co workers dishing out compliments galore. Having gained 30 back I feel miserable, ashamed and a great BIG failure. Also got rid of all my fat clothes– I refuse to buy a bigger size wardrobe–am squeezing into my clothes which are too tight and a constant reminder of my failure.
    First day after listening to Geneen – ate when hungry–was grateful for the abundance in my life– felt day aw a success. Yesterday not so– did ok with hunger til evening– when I began thinking of my financial flow( that is lack of enough) my unhappiness in my career and my hopelessness in life— no surprise I turned to food to I’ll me up! Oh oh a lightbulb just went off— filling my stomach will not fill up my pockets!!!!! Woohoo an ah ha moment. Now to just be aware!

  2. In my head, I feel that I need rules to follow in order to lose weight(Restricter), but as soon as I start one,I become a Permitter!! However, I always seem to come back to Geneen Roth!!! Whenever I start a diet and fail, I always get an email from Geneen, or she pops up on Facebook, or she appears on any website that I might be looking at!!! I think God is trying to tell me something… Geneen’s thinking is the way to go. I have tried in the past, but always get off track by one thing or another. However, this time, I think my head is in a different place! So, Geneen, here I go again!! Wish me luck and patience with myself!

  3. My restrictive attitude was fed ten years ago when I was diagnosed with diabetes and then again two years ago when I was put on insulin. I already knew everything there was to know about every macarol/micronutrient, calories, adinfinitim. Now I had to memorize balancing my insulin with the carbs I ate. More restrictions and more restrictions all with the threat of kidney failure, heart disease, blindness and amputated legs just for a start. In the midst of all that my husband died of a brain tumour and I have been bereft. A great signal to eat eat eat which is my survival behaviour. Poor me. I have ordered some of Geneen’s books and am currently doing the hunger/fullness signals. I plan to do the on-line courses later in the year. Do you have any advice for diabetics coping with emotional trauma.
    Wendy Weseen

    This is a great article.. Keep them coming they sustain me.

  4. This brought tears to my eyes as I sit here on day 12 of the fad HCG at 51 I ride the roller coaster of both sub personalities when I’m good I’m very good and when I’m bad well you know……

  5. Being able to identify myself as a permitter is really helpful. I have been learning over the last four years, that I can begin a cycle of Presence – in which I am present to my body’s signals about hunger and satiety and what I need and that eating in this way increases my ability to be Present to myself and my experience. And the more present I am, the easier it is to listen to my body. I am eternally grateful for your work. It has transformed my life with love.

  6. I recently got into a zone regarding food. My desire for sugar was nil. I refused all Wheat; and without trying,I reduced my weight. Six weeks in, I heard of a process of restricting all sugar (including fruit) for two day and allowing for five. Woohoo…that spoke to me. I did the two day. On the first sugar day, I lost control… I ate candy that had been sitting on my Coffee Table for over a month, and anything else I could find. After the second day, I was bloated, sick and tired. Then, I made a choice, a very conscious choice and went back to what I had been doing, without effort the prior six weeks. I am sooooo grateful that I became aware immediately, and got out of the hole into which I had fallen. I became aware of myself “doing that thing that I do” and decided to walk down another road. Restricting spoke to me, as I had been a participant in this method for many, many years.

  7. I’ve always hated labels…but if the shoe fits, Ta Dah! I’m a permitter. I have been “breaking free” from compusive eating for over 40 years. It was then that I attended my first meeting of Overeaters Anonymous and saw myself clearly. I’ve never been able to eat a pancake, without guilt, since. A life-time of diets, programs, books, and self-made agenda’s have not completely solved the problem. My best success has been since reading almost all of Geneen’s books.

    I totally accept that I AM where I AM supposed to be at all times to learn whatever there is to learn. I love the feeling of being ENOUGH. I continue to struggle. Down 25 pounds in the year 2012, healthier than ever @ 65 years young, I thought the struggle was about over. I weighed after New Years and behold – up 10 pounds! I am not in a panic, but I went back to the plan I used to take off 2 pounds a month, and after 2 weeks I’m having a hard time not being a rebel! I will continue to write, read, and PRAY to surrender and find some peace with this. I want to regain my footing. I want and need to feel okay with this gain. Old tapes are playing and I keep trying to turn them off. Thanks for this article.

  8. I think I have both traits. I like the thought of rules to follow – tell me what to do to get thin and I will do it. But after so many years it hasn’t worked. So, i am currently a permitter. It was good to read this article and again be reminded to pay attention to my body. Why is it so hard?

  9. Becoming aware is linking in to the mindfulness work I’d been wanting to pursue from a spiritual angle, so it’s a win-win! Still have trouble when confronted with a bar of chocolate though. I’m a Permitter…

  10. Becoming aware of my body’s inner signals links in with the mindfulness practice I’d been wanting to start from a spiritual perspective, so it’s a win-win! Still have trouble when confronted with a bar of chocolate though because I’m a Permitter and if I don’t eat it, I might regret it later…

  11. …being a restrictor, I need to read this over and over again. I am so confused right now, love/hate my rules. BUT I do know when I stop, breathe and physically slow down and listen to my body (become aware) I feel connected to my inner soul and momentarily clear.

  12. Another amazing piece! And of course I learned at a retreat that I can wander into both Restrictor and Permitter camps and feel equally at home. On another note, I would just love to know how a woman (let alone two) would not recognize you? What (edible) rock have they been hiding under? Thanks again for always writing about the topics I need with the insight I lack. Ps…An offer of proofreading these articles always stands.

  13. Is it possible to be a combination? I have yet to find what works for me. Many years ago I was in a group that used your books. Loved the group, but the facilitator was from out of the area and the travel became to much. About 3 years ago I read Woman, Food, and God…as soon a I read about hostess snowballs, I knew I was in the correct place. But…

  14. Wow! She really pegged me as a Permitter; it’s good to know that about myself. I do a lot of research and sign up for programs that don’t work out so this explains a lot. When I was younger, I was constantly on a diet, up and down yo-yo and all it did was increase my weight ultimately. Now at age 66, rules are just too much and I find it difficult to take off the 45 pounds (some would say it should be more, but I agree with Zsa Zsa Gabor, who in her seventies said on Johnny Carson years ago, “when my derriere is bigger my face looks better.”

  15. Wow – She really pegged me as a Permitter; it’s good to know that about myself. I do a lot of research and sign up for programs that don’t work out so this explains a lot. When I was younger, I was constantly on a diet, up and down yo-yo and all it did was increase my weight ultimately. Now at age 66, rules are just too much and I find it difficult to take off the 45 pounds (some would say it should be more, but I agree with Zsa Zsa Gabor, who in her seventies said on Johnny Carson years ago, when my derriere is bigger my face looks better.

  16. I used to go to Weight Watchers, so at that time I’d say I was a Restrictor, but now I find myself being more of a Permitter. Did my style change over time, or am I a combination of both? I realize that changing any compulsive eating behavior begins with awareness, but I would find it helpful to identify my underlying “style.”

  17. Hi Geneen,

    Thanks so much for this article! I’m most definitely a Permitter. I hear of people with eating problems wanting to control food because its the only thing they feel that they have power of. I’m JUST the opposite. Food is the only thing I can numb out and just relax with. I’m slowly starting to listen to my body but this is a work in progress. 🙂

  18. It’s funny as I read this I have in the back of my mind the autism vaccine debate that seems to arise a lot of frustration in people, and it’s making me see it in a whole new light… Restrictors vs. Permitters. ‘Eg. ‘vaccines are evil and must be avoided at all costs’ vs. ‘what? you people are crazy vaccines totally don’t cause autism and if they do which they don’t they still get rid of a lot of diseases.’ I’ve been wondering why people don’t open up to the possibility that both sides may have merit and have an investigative discussion such as what is the relationship between autism and vaccines and is there anything we can do about it. When I read this I understood that both sides are in reaction based on their tendencies which seem to react against each other. I can see how these tendencies COULD be complimentary opposites. Like taking the care to eat slowly and pay attention to myself and what I’m eating helps me enjoy the food I love, and being relaxed and flexible allows me to be kind and gentle with myself when I’m being challenged. It seems almost that both aspects are born the help the other out.

  19. Love that you took a different strategy at this party. I’ve been known to clear a room when I rave about my passions and am also trying other ways to help others consider different options. I appreciate your right-on-target perspective, wise words and gentle support. You have really helped me return to eating because of my body’s physical needs, not because of emotions linked to past traumas or messages. This has also freed me to enjoy the foods I do eat. So thank you!

  20. Thank you Geneen, for yet another wonderful article that gets right to the heart. You were the key at the very beginning of my journey twenty yesrs ago, to gain self awareness and end my torturous almost life-long battle with food.I have voraciously read all your books and devoured your newsletters for the past 20+ years across 3 continents and 4 countries, & give daily thanks to the universe for the gift of modern technogy so that I can have your presence in my life. Your work has helped me beyond measure to heal a very dark. gaping hole inside me and bring light. awareness and immeasurable RELIEF to stop the runaway food train about to crash. I will continue to read whatever you write until I leave the planet because you are the one sane voice in a sea of marketing madness this world has become around food. I want you to know how deeply your writing and work has touched me over all these years. It was always a dream of mine to come to a retreat & I was always sorry I lived too far away (born in SouthAfrica, lived in Israel for almost 20 years where I first read your books, then New Zealand and now Melbourne,Australia). You are a radiant beacon of light around food and disfunctional eating and you changed my life so much for the better. You helped me recognise the insanity and gave me pathway to light and good (emotional and physical) health that ended a lifetime of personal anguish and suffering. I am so deeply and eternally grateful for your help.
    With deepest love and an abundance of beautiful bright light,

    Lianne Franco
    Melbourne, Australia

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