Why Self-Talk Matters When We Goof Up With Food

by Heather Bell, MPH, RD,LDN

We’re well into a New Year of food and fitness resolutions, so I thought it might be a good idea to focus for a moment on how we can best help ourselves when we’re unhappy with our eating choices.

Firstly, we need to have some appreciation for the context in which we’re struggling with food. The recent holidays are an example of how certain times of year ramp up the emotional intensity around eating—lots of special foods around, lots of social interactions focused on food and alcohol, and generally higher levels of emotional stress and fatigue.  Whether our tendency is to under eat or to overeat, these or other similar circumstances increase the likelihood that we’re going to feel more emotionally dysregulated around food. That makes us more vulnerable to disconnecting from our bodies and our emotions and more vulnerable to using behaviors that create a temporary feeling of relief. I say temporary, because it’s usually the case that the behavior is quickly followed by discomfort—both physical and emotional, and that’s when our self-talk becomes hugely important.

How we talk to ourselves when we’re in that place of feeling awful can make the difference between a momentary slip and days of escalating behaviors.  If we can sit with ourselves as we’d sit with someone else—someone we love and want to support—our self-talk tends to be a lot more effective. Being curious and compassionate about our behavior is the key.  Being kind, and asking questions about what happened and why so that we understand how to take care of ourselves better the next time, is hugely helpful. It creates the sense that we CAN figure out our relationship to food, and we CAN plan and practice for things to go better.  It allows us to feel optimistic about moving forward.

Positive self-talk in negative circumstances is not instinctive for most people, and this is particularly true for folks with eating disorders.  We’re coming to understand that eating disorders are essentially anxiety disorders, and that people who struggle with eating disorders also struggle with a brain that has evolved to think in terms of worst-case scenarios and self-criticism.  It’s part of how the anxious brain tries to maintain hypervigilance; if we’re always focused on what’s wrong with us, the assumption is that we are somehow better prepared. The anxious brain fools us into thinking that getting sucked into a spiral of self-criticism is actually an effective use of our time, that somehow, if we can just be harsh enough with ourselves, we won’t make as many goofs.  

Unfortunately, goofing things up is just part of being human, sometimes.  Even when we are trying to make better choices, we have to have a strategy in case things go poorly because yelling at ourselves doesn’t work.  Yelling at ourselves shuts us down, makes us want to avoid looking at what happened and why, and usually sends us right back to using behaviors in order to comfort ourselves.  So if you think about it, we can’t afford a lot of negative self-talk when we goof-up. Negative self-talk isn’t merely counter-productive; it actually makes things WORSE.

And let me be clear: I’m not talking about denial or avoidance or sugar-coating anything.  There’s a big difference between speaking the truth to ourselves (and to others) with love and respect and saying things that are both inaccurate and hurtful because we’re upset.

So the next time you make a food or eating choice you’re not happy with:

  1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally—weak, shaky, overfull, angry, or disappointed.
  2. Resist the urge to buy into what your self-critical voice is saying; it’s just your anxiety trying to figure out how to deal with the discomfort.
  3. As kindly as possible, ask yourself what was going on for you when you made the unsupportive choice.  Don’t accept any dialogue from the inner critic that revolves around shaming, blaming, or name-calling. Keep setting that talk aside, and speak to yourself as you would to a friend.  Be curious about the feelings and thoughts that were coming up—these are the clues that are going to be the most helpful when dealing with future scenarios.
  4. Have a game plan for taking care of yourself afterwards.  Again, your food goof probably happened because you were feeling overwhelmed in some way, so you’ll bounce back faster if you can give yourself some TLC.
  5. Commit to the next meal or snack (or other scheduled self-care opportunity), even if you aren’t in the mood.  You will limit the behavior spiral if you can get back on track, so just focus on what some people refer to as “the next right thing.”
  6. Make peace with the idea that goofs are going to happen—they’re a necessary part of learning, growing, and being human.  It’s how we deal with them that makes all the difference.