Table of Contents
- Awareness (Aha! The lightbulb moment)
- Identify the HIDDEN triggers
- Is it always about the past?
- Become a time traveler
- How to be more compassionate
Are you sick and tired of struggling with food and weight? Do you constantly criticize yourself? Maybe you constantly judge your body, your eating habits, and your life choices. If so, you're not alone. Many people are stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk that leads to emotional eating, which then leads to more self-criticism.
The good news is that it’s possible to break this cycle. The key is turning self-criticism into something much more productive and helpful: self-compassion. By cultivating an attitude free of judgment towards ourselves, we can break free from guilt and shame around food and weight issues, or anything else that causes negativity.
In this blog, I will show you how turning self-criticism into self-compassion is a crucial part of creating a happier life.
Awareness (Aha! The lightbulb moment)
The first step to challenging your self-critical ideas is becoming consciously aware of where your self-critical thoughts, feelings, and beliefs originated.
Iliana constantly referred to herself as “stupid” and “such an idiot” whenever she talked about her life. She prefaced a lot of statements with comments such as, “I’m sure this is totally stupid, but…”
Iliana was actually bright, thoughtful, and insightful. As a child, her older brothers were always telling her how stupid she was, and putting her down. Her parents never objected or intervened, and Iliana interpreted their silence with agreement.
From her perspective as a child, her family clearly thought she was stupid, so it must be the truth. Iliana started being mean to herself, believing that she wasn’t smart, and issuing disclaimers whenever she shared an opinion or an insight.
For Iliana, realizing that she’d internalized the perspective of her older brothers was eye-opening. We explored what she would say to someone else who was teased and bullied by her older brothers and developed negative beliefs about herself. Iliana declared that she’d have compassion for that person and want to reassure them of their likability and lovability.
Developing that kind of insight is an essential part of creating self-compassion. It involves awareness of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that drive our sense of self, and then challenging them. Insight allows us to understand ourselves more fully and to make more conscious choices in our lives.
Tip: Practice self-reflection: take time to reflect on your experiences and how they have shaped you, without judgment.
Identify the HIDDEN triggers
Our beliefs about ourselves are driven by our unconscious mind. This means that we are not always aware of why we think the things we think or why we do the things we do.
We simply repeat patterns that are self-defeating, or hold ideas about ourselves that are familiar but untrue. As with Iliana, we can trace these patterns back to our earliest experiences and relationships. Sometimes our families cast us in roles we never auditioned for, such as the role of the problem child, the stupid one, the underachiever, or other such family myths.
Also, our earliest relationships form the basis for so much of our current dynamics. Fear of intimacy can be rooted in early experiences of rejection or abandonment. Once we have insight about where these ideas and behaviors came from, we can develop healthier patterns of relating to others.
Developing insight is not always easy, since it requires the willingness to explore difficult and often painful emotions. It’s challenging to face the parts of ourselves that we’ve been trying to avoid or deny. It’s also hard to recognize that our current difficulties are rooted in earlier experiences that we may not remember or fully understand.
Tip: Reflect about the past. Consider what past experiences have influenced the way you view yourself.
Is it always about the past?
Cara started therapy adamantly that she didn’t want to talk about the past. She said, “I talked about my family for ten years with my last therapist. Nothing ever changed. I still struggle with bingeing.”
Talking about the past in the context of events that happened long ago will not help. To create change, it’s important to look at how the past influences our current lives. The past haunts our present and impacts our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with food.
In Cara’s case, she was an only child of parents who were in the film industry and were often on location, leaving her with nannies. Cara felt lonely and rejected. She took up baking, and during those lonely times without her parents, she comforted herself with baked goods.
As an adult, she had a series of relationships with unavailable men who didn’t make her a priority. When she felt sad, she ate for comfort. Cara believed that if only she had lost weight, these men would want to be with her. Unbeknownst to herself, she had duplicated the original relationship with her parents. Whereas once she longed for absent parents and hoped they would choose her, now she longed to be chosen by emotionally unavailable men.
Recognizing how she was repeating her past allowed Cara to feel compassion for herself. We began healing the wounds of the past. Instead of being drawn to unavailable men, she started dating men who were available and interested in her. She stopped bingeing and recently got engaged to a great guy.
Become a time traveler
As you can see, our early experiences and relationships can have a profound impact on how we see ourselves and how we relate to others. These past interactions shape our sense of self, our self-esteem, and influence our relationship choices.
Similarly, kids who experience trauma or neglect blame themselves for the trauma or neglect, or come to believe that they are not worthy of love or care. Or, a child who grows up with parents who constantly compare them to others can develop a sense of inadequacy. These beliefs can become deeply ingrained and contribute to a pattern of self-criticism that persists into adulthood.
Nobody is born hating themselves or being self-critical. We learn to relate to ourselves in this harsh way. For example, children who grow up with critical or emotionally unavailable parents, or families where there’s a basic mis-attunement, learn to be self-critical as a way of coping with feelings of rejection or abandonment.
They come to believe that they are not good enough or that they must be perfect in order to be loved. These beliefs get internalized and carried into adulthood, leading to a persistent pattern of self-criticism.
Self-criticism can take many forms, including self-judgment, negative self-talk, and a tendency to focus on real or perceived flaws and shortcomings.
Often, that critical voice is very loud, and we end up turning to food or bingeing just to escape the loud inner critic in our minds. Once you identify how you came to treat yourself so poorly, the next step is to actively cultivate self-compassion.
How to be more compassionate
Building self-awareness means becoming more conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When we’re in challenging situations, we often have automatic thoughts or reactions that are based on past experiences.
For example, Iliana often believed that other people thought she was stupid. Nobody told her that since her brothers teased her in childhood, but she was certain that everyone perceived her this way. This is a form of a defensive mechanism called “mind-reading” that most of us engage in without realizing it. Consider the following:
- They probably think…
- I can tell they’re judging me…
- She doesn’t like me…
- I know they’re upset with me…
If you’ve ever had similar thoughts, that’s mind-reading: Remember, you are not psychic and you don’t actually know what someone is thinking unless they articulate their words. Maybe they’re not thinking the worst of you. Maybe they’re thinking the best, or somewhere in between.
Talk to yourself as you would a friend:
The next time you find yourself being hard on yourself, imagine what you’d say to a friend or a loved one. Recently, Blake ate an entire pizza and got really upset. “I’m disgusting,” Blake said. “I have no willpower or control. I can’t believe how I keep doing this to myself.”
I asked Blake what they’d say to a friend or loved one who had eaten a whole pizza. Blake immediately answered, “I’d tell my friend to be curious about why they ate the pizza. I’d tell them that there had to be a reason, and they should use it as an opportunity to understand themselves better. And I’d tell them it’s only pizza. It’s not like they did something really horrible.”
Blake easily found compassion toward this friend but struggled to be equally compassionate toward themselves. Often, we can be harsh, critical, and hateful toward ourselves, yet we’d react completely differently toward someone else in a similar situation.
If you wouldn’t say something to a friend, child, or loved one, don’t say it to yourself. Treat yourself as you’d treat anyone you care about.
Self-compassion means treating ourselves with the same kindness, care, and understanding that we would offer others who are going through a tough time. This means responding with empathy, understanding, and a non-judgmental attitude.
Take care with your language:
Beth gazed into the mirror and remarked to her reflection, “You're disgusting.” When I requested she rephrases it using “I” language, such as “I'm disgusting,” she couldn’t do it. She found it too harsh. This is because when we use the pronoun “you” to talk to ourselves, it usually means our inner critic has taken control of our thoughts.
Any negative self-talk such as “You're not good enough,” “You're going to fail,” or “They don't like you” is an indication that our inner critic is speaking. This voice can make us feel bad, leading us to resort to eating as a means of escaping our inner critic.
Instead, we need to support ourselves by asking questions such as “What's going on with me?” or “What do I need right now?” and by speaking positively to ourselves, such as saying “I'm capable,” “I've got this,” or “I like me.”
Tip: Practice speaking to yourself only in that first-person “I” voice, and be sure to use a soothing, understanding tone.
Get out of your comfort zone:
A popular meme is, “Nothing ever changes inside your comfort zone.” That’s why it’s important to learn to tolerate discomfort. We do this by identifying difficult emotions without judging them and learning to respond to ourselves in a new way.
Often, criticizing yourself can be a distraction from uncomfortable feelings. It’s easier for many of us to attack ourselves and be disappointed with ourselves than it is to tolerate the reality that we might be upset with others. The more comfortable you are with being uncomfortable, the less likely you will be to use self-criticism or bingeing as a means of distraction from difficult thoughts and feelings about other areas of your life.
Tip: Recognize that certain prohibited or upsetting thoughts about other people or situations may fuel your self-criticism.
Get rid of the guilt:
Guilt can fuel self-criticism and negative self-talk and can lead to a sense of unworthiness and self-doubt. We feel guilty about things we’re doing (eating all the Girl Scout cookies) or about things we’re not doing (going to the gym).
There are different types of guilt. Depletion guilt refers to a sense that if we do something for ourselves or meet our own needs, we’re taking something away from others, depleting them in some way. Self-guilt is the guilt we feel for being or existing in the world, for having any needs. The sense is that by needing anything—food, nurturing, comfort, security, and love—we’re exposing some deficiency in ourselves. We may even believe that it’s fundamentally wrong to have needs.
When we experience guilt, it’s because we feel as if we’ve fallen short of our own expectations or those of others. This leads to a negative self-image, seeing ourselves as unworthy or inadequate. Then, we become hyper-critical of ourselves, focusing on our flaws and perceived weaknesses and berating ourselves for mistakes.
To break free from the cycle of self-criticism that arises from guilt, it’s essential to practice self-compassion. That means being kind and understanding to yourself, recognizing that nobody is perfect, normalizing guilt and regret, and putting it in perspective.
Flip the script on negative self-talk:
Another helpful approach is to shift the way we think and talk to ourselves. Instead of putting ourselves down and criticizing our flaws and shortcomings, we can focus on the positive aspects of ourselves, such as our strengths and accomplishments. Give yourself credit for the things you’ve done well and the positive qualities you know that you have. By praising yourself, you can cultivate a more positive and affirming view of yourself, as in the following examples:
Critical voice: “I never get anything right. I’m a failure.”
Reframe: “I've made mistakes, and I've also had successes. It's okay to make mistakes, and I can learn from them.”
Critical voice: “I'm not good enough to take this on. I'll never be able to do it right.”
Reframe: “I’ve got the ability to learn new things. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do my best. I’ll keep trying until I get it right.”
Critical voice: “I’m never going to find a partner. I'm just going to be alone forever.”
Reframe: “I've had some bad experiences and some good ones. I'll keep putting myself out there until I find the right person.”
Critical voice: “I'm so stupid, I can't believe I did that.”
Reframe: “I made a mistake, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I'll take responsibility and do better in the future.”
Critical voice: “I'll never be able to stop bingeing.”
Reframe: “It’s challenging to create change, but I’m working to understand why I’m turning to food and learning a new way to respond to myself. I’m going to celebrate my progress along the way.”
By reframing self-criticism, you challenge negative beliefs about yourself and cultivate a more positive and self-affirming mindset.
When we're harsh and critical towards ourselves, we feel shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, and self-doubt. Those feelings are overwhelming and lead to negative coping strategies such as binge eating to escape the inner critic. Self-compassion is a powerful tool to combat the self-criticism that leads to bingeing. By being kind and understanding to ourselves, we feel better, and that has a big impact on our overall well-being.
What is the cycle of negative self-talk and emotional eating?
Many people struggle with negative self-talk, which can lead to emotional eating, and then to more self-criticism. This cycle can be difficult to break, but turning self-criticism into self-compassion can help.
How can I cultivate self-compassion?
The first step to cultivating self-compassion is becoming aware of where your self-critical thoughts and beliefs originated. You can also identify hidden triggers, reflect on past experiences, and recognize how the past impacts your current life.
Do I have to talk about my past to create change?
While it may be difficult to talk about past experiences, it is important to understand how the past influences your current life. By recognizing and healing past wounds, you can create change in your present and future relationships.
What is the importance of insight in creating self-compassion?
Insight involves awareness of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that drive our sense of self, and then challenging them. This understanding allows us to make more conscious choices in our lives.
How can self-reflection help me develop self-compassion?
Practicing self-reflection without judgment can help you reflect on past experiences and how they have shaped you. By gaining insight into the origins of your self-criticism, you can develop a more compassionate attitude towards yourself.
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Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author and radio host specializing in binge eating disorder. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, and co-editor of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show radio program on LA Talk Radio.