Taking Back Control: Declare Independence from Emotional Eating

Next week is July 4th, also known as Independence Day here in the United States. It marks the date that the United States declared independence from British rule. It’s inherently about liberation. “Liberation” refers to being set free from imprisonment, slavery, or oppression. 

Back in 1776, the colonists broke free from the control and influence of a distant power and established their own nation with its own rights and government. So, Independence Day symbolizes the triumph of liberty over oppression and the freedom to determine our own future.

Liberation means being set free. And, you know what? You can also liberate yourself from binge eating, stress eating, or any kind of emotional eating. Liberation is freedom.

If you’re locked in an ongoing battle with food, there’s a reason you’re stuck. One reason is that harsh voice in your head that tells you all the things you’re doing wrong or all that’s wrong about you. Self-criticism is like an internal drill sergeant, keeping you in the war zone. 

Declaring independence from emotional eating means creating a different relationship with yourself. There's a strong connection between self-criticism and binge eating. When we constantly criticize ourselves, we start feeling bad. This feeling of inadequacy and guilt can be overwhelming. And, to cope with these uncomfortable emotions, many of us turn to something that provides immediate comfort and escape – food.

Binge eating often isn't really about the food itself; it's about trying to fill an emotional void or numb painful feelings. Or it’s about displacing your frustration in one area of your life onto food.

Then after the binge, the feelings of guilt and shame take over because you may feel you've “failed” at controlling your eating. It's like a vicious cycle – you criticize yourself, you binge to feel better, then you criticize yourself for binging. But it's important to remember that you can break this cycle. Understanding this connection between self-criticism and binge eating is the first step to breaking free.

Binge eating is not about a lack of control or discipline. It’s often a response to persistent self-criticism and negative self-image. When you cultivate self-acceptance and learn new ways of relating to yourself, you free yourself from the cycle of self-criticism and binge eating. It’s time to declare independence from self-criticism and cultivate a healthier relationship with yourself and food.

What is binge eating, anyway?

Some people say they binged when they ate four cookies. Others will report consuming forty cookies as a binge. Whether your consumption of food qualifies as an actual binge or not, if it causes you distress, it needs your attention.

Binge eating is different from overeating, which means eating to excess. The reasons for overeating can be diverse, and are usually unrelated to our emotional states. Take, for example, another American holiday, Thanksgiving, which one of my patients once dubbed “National Binge Day.” Overeating during this celebration is culturally expected and related more to the abundance of food rather than emotional conflict.

Sometimes deprivation or insufficient eating creates extreme hunger. Since it can take time to register when we’re full, we may eat too much. Those “binges” are driven by physical hunger, and the response is usually more benign. You might think, “I ate too much, so I'll eat less tomorrow.”

Binge eating, however, is characterized by consuming large amounts of food in a single sitting, often compulsively and without enjoyment or even truly experiencing the taste. Bingeing serves as a way to deal with internal turmoil, using food as a source of comfort, a distraction, or a means to dull or express painful emotions like pain, anger, or anxiety.

Binge eating is usually followed by regret, guilt, and shame. After a binge, you may think, “What's wrong with me?” It’s more than regret over the food you consumed; it’s a sense of shame, which leads to harsh self-judgment and lowered self-esteem. You don’t just feel bad about what you ate. You feel terrible about yourself.

The role of self-criticism in binge eating

Our thoughts and self-judgments can sometimes be our own worst enemies. This is especially true when it comes to binge eating. After a binge, it's so easy to fall into a pit of self-criticism. “I can't believe I did that,” “What's wrong with me?” or “I'll never be able to control my eating.” Sound familiar?

Self-criticism is damaging to your self-esteem and it makes bingeing worse. When you beat yourself up after bingeing, you're being harsh and mean to yourself. You might end up bingeing just to escape your own mean voice.

It's a vicious cycle: You binge to deal with uncomfortable emotions, then you criticize yourself, which only brings on more of those uncomfortable feelings, leading to… you guessed it, more bingeing.

This is why self-criticism keeps you stuck in that binge-eating cycle. It might feel like you’re pushing yourself to do better, to be stricter or more disciplined, but in reality, it's keeping you stuck.

It's not just the negative self-talk after a binge. These attacks on yourself appear in other areas of your life–at work, in your relationships, or about your appearance. This constant self-judgment generates a lot of pain, and if binge eating is your way of dealing with pain, then you will just loop back to the binge-criticize cycle.

Breaking free from self-criticism involves learning to treat yourself with more kindness and understanding, especially when you slip up. It's definitely not easy, but it's worth it.

Amelia’s Story

Amelia, a brilliant software engineer known for her innovative solutions, was well-known in her field. Despite her professional success, Amelia was fighting a battle with binge eating and self-criticism.

Amelia usually turned to food for comfort during times of high stress. Long hours at work, complex coding problems, and tight deadlines often left her feeling overwhelmed. When she finally stopped working it was usually nighttime. She was stressed, upset, and anxious, and she found solace in eating, usually consuming large quantities of food, much more than she needed or even enjoyed.

Every binge episode was followed by intense self-criticism. She'd think, “Why can't I control myself? I'm smart enough to design complex software but can't control my own eating habits. I’m such a fraud. It’s disgusting”

We looked at how Amelia’s harsh self-judgment perpetuated this binge-eating cycle. I asked Amelia to think about a colleague or friend who was struggling with work pressure and who might binge on ice cream for relief. I asked her to imagine saying, “You’re such a fraud. It’s disgusting.”

Recognizing this was a significant moment for Amelia. She realized that her self-criticism, instead of motivating her to change, was actually intensifying her stress, which she managed with food.

She slowly replaced self-criticism with self-compassion. Instead of berating herself for bingeing, she began comforting herself with words instead of turning to food. She told herself, “Everyone has bad days. This doesn't define my worth or my abilities.”

Amelia learned to enjoy food without guilt and stopped eating to manage her state of being overwhelmed. Her journey wasn't easy, and it wasn't linear. There were sometimes days when she found herself falling back into old habits.

But with time, Amelia became better at understanding her emotions and showing herself kindness, breaking away from the self-critical thoughts that once led her to binge. Her story reminds us of the power of self-compassion in creating change.

The psychology of binge eating

Most of us know what to eat or not eat. We know what’s healthy, and we know when we should stop eating. That knowledge has very little to do with our behavior. Keep in mind that with binge eating disorder, which is the most common type of eating disorder, it’s not logical–it’s psychological.

Binge eating is not about self-control or discipline. It’s not about willpower. It’s not actually even about food. Binge eating is a way of coping with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

When we experience difficult feelings like sadness, anxiety, anger, loneliness, or boredom, we may turn to food. Bingeing can temporarily comfort or numb these feelings, providing a sense of relief.

Binge eating often serves as a method of displacement, which means we redirect feelings and thoughts from one area of our lives to another. For example, when we're grappling with intense emotions like anger or a sense of lack of control, rather than confronting and expressing these emotions directly, we displace them onto food.

For example, Alex was upset that his father refused to acknowledge him or recognize his accomplishments. No matter how well Alex did in his career or his personal life, it seemed his father found a way to ignore or minimize his efforts. Alex felt powerless to make his father proud. He was frustrated that he spent a lifetime being overlooked.

Rather than recognize those feelings about his father, Alex was always frustrated with himself. He attacked himself for having no control when it came to tortilla chips and got mad at himself for gaining weight. Like Alex, many of us focus on our perceived inability to control our eating habits, berating ourselves for our lack of discipline and willpower rather than confronting the true source of our frustration.

The harsh self-judgment following a binge often intensifies our upset emotions, making it more likely to use food for comfort. This vicious cycle of bingeing and self-criticism can keep us trapped.

Breaking free from binge eating involves learning to manage emotions in a healthier way. This might include developing a better understanding of our emotional triggers, cultivating more self-compassion, and finding alternative coping mechanisms for painful, upsetting emotions.

Binge eating disorder is more than an eating disorder; it's a disorder of emotion regulation and self-perception. Liberation means addressing these underlying issues.

How we learn to be self-critical

The roots of self-criticism go back to early experiences in life. Growing up in an environment that emphasized achievement and where criticism was the main response makes us especially susceptible to developing a harsh attitude toward ourselves. Over time, we internalize these standards and criticisms and begin constantly judging ourselves harshly.

Self-criticism can be a major contributor to a range of psychological difficulties. When we continuously criticize ourselves, we start believing that we're fundamentally flawed or inadequate. This leads to feelings of worthlessness and intensifies feelings of anxiety or depression.

Then, to meet unrealistically high self-standards, we may resort to perfectionism, which creates stress and burnout. Often, the way we cope with the harsh self-judgment and the resulting painful emotions is by turning to food for escape, comfort, and self-soothing.

Self-criticism can impede our ability to deal with life's challenges. Instead of acknowledging mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth, a self-critical person may see mistakes as proof of their perceived inadequacy. Understanding and addressing self-criticism is a crucial aspect of creating a greater sense of well-being and changing our relationship with food.

Bella’s Story

Bella was a high-achieving professional who felt as if binge eating was taking over her life and ruining it. She constantly berated herself for her lack of self-control around food and judged herself harshly, seeing binge eating as a personal failure. She was desperate to create change.

She said, “I keep telling myself, this is ridiculous. You need to get a grip on yourself. You’ve got to stop. You’re totally out of control.”

Bella had grown up in a household that placed an enormous emphasis on achievement. Her parents were hardworking, successful people who expected their children to perform at their level. While their intentions might have been to prepare Bella for a competitive world, the outcome was that she felt that her worth was tied to her achievements. When she didn't meet the high standards set for her, she was met with criticism instead of understanding or support.

This environment led Bella to internalize these standards, and she became her harshest critic. Over time, this self-criticism manifested itself in her  relationship with food. Food became a source of comfort in moments of perceived failure and a target for her self-directed anger and disappointment.

She began to understand the connection between self-criticism, high internal standards, and binge eating disorder. When she challenged her self-critical thoughts, developed more self-compassion, and found healthier coping mechanisms, she stopped using food for comfort and distraction. Bella had to separate her worth from her achievements and understand that making mistakes didn't make her a failure.

Bella learned to treat herself with more kindness and understanding, which in turn had a significant impact on her relationship with food. Bella was able to break the cycle of self-criticism and binge eating, and feel good about herself.

Techniques to Overcome Self-Criticism

Uncover the Roots of Self-Criticism: Understanding the origins of self-criticism is crucial. We need to recognize how early life experiences, relationships, and events led to the development of self-critical thoughts. Identifying and processing these triggers can help you heal and create lasting change.

Recognize and Challenge Negative Self-Talk: Increasing awareness of your internal dialogue is key. When self-critical thoughts arise, instead of accepting them as truth, challenge them. Ask yourself if you would say such things to a close friend. If not, it's a sign you're being too harsh on yourself.

Practice Self-Compassion: This involves treating yourself with the same kindness, understanding, and patience that you would extend to others. It's about acknowledging your mistakes and failures without judgment and understanding that they are a part of the human experience. We’re all perfectly imperfect, so give yourself room to be human.

Use Displacement Constructively: Instead of directing feelings of anger or frustration at yourself, find healthier targets or outlets for your emotions. This might be doing a physical activity or a creative pursuit or joining a group with a mission to promote social justice or animal rights so that you can express any form   of anger in a healthy way instead of turning it on yourself.

Developing self-compassion and positive self-talk

It’s painful enough when others utter hurtful remarks, but it's even more damaging when you're the one directing unkind words toward yourself. Shifting this internal conversation is incredibly helpful. Marcia Hutchinson, an expert on body image, says, “If you talked to your friends the way you talk to your body, you'd have no friends left.”

To liberate yourself from binge eating, make sure to talk to yourself in the same manner you'd chat with a friend. If it's something you wouldn't say to a friend, child, or loved one, then don’t say it to yourself.

The next time you feel an urge to polish off a pint of ice cream or tear open a family-sized bag of chips, approach the situation with curiosity. Instead of berating yourself, ask, “Why do I want to eat this? What's happening with me?”

Give yourself the same reassurance and support you'd give to a friend. If this seems impossible, here are some strategies to transform that inner critic into a friend.

The Self-Talk Trifecta: Me, Myself & I

Remember how Bella said, “I keep telling myself, this is ridiculous. You need to get a grip on yourself. You’ve got to stop. You’re totally out of control and disgusting.”

Consider your own internal dialogue. It might sound something like this:

• You're not good enough.

• You'll never lose weight eating like this

• You're an absolute failure.

Using “you” as a pronoun when referring to yourself implies you're speaking in the second person, which usually means your inner critic is steering your thoughts.

This inner critic is horrible—it brings you down, and guess what? You could be eating as a means to escape your own cruel voice. When I asked Bella to switch her narrative to “I am totally out of control and disgusting,” she wavered. She said it felt overly harsh. And she was absolutely correct.

The way we talk to ourselves says a lot about us and how we see ourselves. Our self-talk consists of three main parts: the ‘Self', the ‘Critic', and the ‘Soother/Supporter'.

Imagine the ‘Self' as the part of you that has needs, wants, and emotions. So when you say something like, “I was feeling so happy” or “I was really angry,” that's your ‘Self' expressing how you're feeling.

The ‘Critic’ is the part that always points out when you've done something wrong, or could have done something better. It never misses a chance to criticize you. And usually, it's the voice that talks to you in the second person, like “You messed that up.” Consider if that voice is familiar.

Last is the ‘Soother/Supporter.' This part is like your personal cheerleader, always there to soothe, comfort, and reassure you. Often we use that voice for others but struggle when it comes to using it for ourselves. 

In an ideal world, whenever your ‘Self' feels a certain way or is going through a tough time, your ‘Soother/Supporter' steps in, offering comfort and reassurance. But for many people, when the ‘Self' expresses a need or emotion, the ‘Critic' comes barging in, attacking. And when you're not able to respond to pain with kindness, you might turn to food for comfort or distraction. But then, of course, the critic jumps in to judge you for that, and it's a vicious cycle.

Learning to respond to yourself in a soothing, supportive way is vital to creating liberation from emotional eating. It's all about changing the conversation in your head.

Flip the script on negative self-talk

Flipping the script on negative self-talk can be very beneficial in creating a healthier relationship with yourself. Here are a few examples of how to do this:

Instead of: “You’re such a failure. You can't do anything right.”

Say, “I didn't succeed this time, but that doesn't mean I'm a failure. I've done well in many other aspects of my life. I'll learn from this experience and try again.”

Instead of, “I'm never going to lose weight. I have no self-control.”

Say, “I'm finding it difficult to stick to my diet, but that doesn't mean I lack self-control. I've exhibited self-control in other areas of my life. I just need to find a strategy that works better for me.”

Instead of, “I'm not good enough. I'll never be as successful as my colleagues.”

Say, “I have unique strengths and abilities that make me valuable. I'm not the same as my colleagues, and that's okay. We all have our own paths and strengths.”

Instead of, “I shouldn't have said that. I always say the wrong thing.”

Say, “I made a mistake in what I said, but that doesn't mean I always mess up. I've had many conversations where I've been able to express myself well. I can apologize and learn from this.”

Instead of, “I'm too lazy to get this task done.”

Say, “I've been feeling tired lately, and it's been harder to get things done. But I've completed many tasks before and I know I can do it again. I just need to manage my time and energy better.”

Self-criticism often arises from internalized standards and expectations we have of ourselves, which can be shaped by experiences in our family, and social or cultural expectations, or other experiences. When self-criticism becomes overly harsh, persistent, and generalized, it compromises our emotional health.

Remember that self-talk is a habit, and like all habits, it takes time to change. Be patient with yourself as you practice shifting from self-criticism to a more positive and self-affirming way of relating to yourself. It requires patience, practice, and above all, self-compassion. Making peace with yourself, your past, and your emotions creates total food freedom–or to put it another way, liberation.

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 The Author


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.

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