The Art of Not Taking Home the Grand Prize

Sep 02, 2019

You know how on game shows, there may be 3 people vying for an awesome grand prize, such as a car or $10,000 round the world trip? But the people who come in second and third place often don’t just get shown the door. They get a consolation prize. 

I think the term “consolation prize” is cute and funny. It consoles you. “I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted, but here have this instead!” 

It’s actually a very kind move of the game shows, I think, to acknowledge the disappointment of a contestant who got all excited but then let down (in front of millions of people, to boot). It shows generosity and compassion.  

What if we gave ourselves consolation prizes when things didn’t go our way? Would that have a positive effect?

If might, if it helped us acknowledge and validate our own disappointment or distress. That’s a step up from denying our true feelings like, “nah, I shouldn’t be bothered by this.” It also could be helpful in fostering our cognitive flexibility - our ability to switch thinking from one thing to another. Rather than be stuck in a blue mood for days or weeks, hung up on the one “dream house” we wanted to buy - that someone else snatched -  we’d cope more easily. We could acknowledge, “yep, that’s a bummer, but I do have sweet concert tickets for this weekend, and I’ll resume house hunting next week.” I think it's healthy to do something to help cheer yourself up when you can't have exactly what you want, when you want it.  

I see consolation prize mentality cause people trouble, however, when the consolation prize they are giving themselves is always food. Usually it’s subconscious, not something we recognize. People don’t think or say out loud, “I can’t have a nap, and I’m so dang tired, so I’ll have a cupcake!” “I just want some peace and quiet and alone time - but all four kids are home during the day right now. So I’ll find a bag of chips.” Food is so convenient, and it's everywhere. Using food as a consolation prize can be come a several-times-a-day thing. 

It’s not obvious like that when we’re doing it. Day to day living often doesn’t involve tuning in and specifying what we are needing and wanting, we just have periods of being disgruntled or “wanty”. And grabbing something to eat is often a habitual, convenient and private thing we can do that seems to have a shot of improving the situation. No one (other than a nutrition coach) would stop you to ask "Why you were eating if you weren't hungry? Was there something else you wanted?"  

Nope. People don't really notice if we eat all the time. 

Many of my clients experience overeating or non-hungry-eating episodes when they actually needed or wanted something else but were denied. Like sleep, quiet time, or a break from being responsible. And it stinks, but that’s reality, that we sometimes don’t get what we really want or need, at least in the moment. Hence, if you notice your troublesome eating times are when you are tired, overwhelmed by people, or have been running nonstop errands, this might be part of the pattern. You haven’t been getting what you want, and you still can’t have it now, so you find a consolation prize (and eat it).

If you recognize yourself doing this, giving yourself food consolation prizes, pat yourself on the back for having the awareness. Then, before you grab your next edible consolation prize, look for something different. Maybe a few minutes outside to sit in the sun would be nice. Maybe a Tylenol would help your headache, or an upbeat song on your headphones would help bring you around a bit. Or promising yourself a nap as soon as you get home. It okay to feel disappointed, frustrated, or tired still, but other things in life can still be enjoyed even while you have those emotions. 

The scariest part of this pattern is that when we frequently eat to fulfil our needs for things other than food, when the thing we really need actually becomes available, we still might turn to food out of habit. We can get to the break in our workday, or the quiet hour after the kids are in bed, or the time when we finally have someone to listen to us... and sadly, reach for food instead of taking the rest, enjoying the quiet, or sharing our thoughts with a friendly ear. 

The best possible outcome of catching yourself about to eat a consolation prize, is when you realize that you CAN still have the thing you want - and taking the opportunity to get it.  You definitely don’t need to settle for a consolation prize out of habit if the first prize, the things you need most, is right there for the taking. 

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