A Compassionate Response to Emotional Eating

By Michelle May, M.D.

Self-compassion-not-self-criticismIf you eat for emotional reasons—when you’re sad, mad, glad, stressed, or lonely—you probably eat in order to feel better. And eating works!

Temporarily.

Unfortunately, you usually feel worse afterward—emotionally and physically. That may cause you to beat yourself up—quite literally adding insult to injury. The guilt and shame become yet another trigger for emotional eating, feeding the eat-repent-repeat cycle.

What if the first step to breaking this cycle is self-compassion instead of self-criticism? How might that help? And more important, where do you start?

How does self-compassion help with emotional eating?

As difficult as it may be to fathom, being understanding and forgiving of yourself for overeating will help you take the next step to finding other ways to meet your emotional needs.

After all, you don’t eat for emotional reasons because you are “weak-willed,” “stupid,” or “out of control.” You do it because it works!

Blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finding fault for attempting to care for yourself only backfires. Imagine you were teaching a young child something new… would blaming, shaming, criticizing, and finding fault help or hurt? The way you speak to yourself has just as much power! (You may be afraid that if you are “nice” to yourself, you won’t change, but the opposite is true! You care for yourself because you accept yourself, not so you’ll accept yourself. Read Fear of Self-Acceptance.)

So how can you begin to respond with self-compassion when you overeat?

Three Ways to Nurture Self-Compassion

Gently acknowledge that you were doing the best you could in that moment.

Validate your thoughts, feelings, and actions as being normal and understandable given the circumstances. As Dr. Kari Anderson, my co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, says, “Of course!” It’s like saying, “I totally get why you thought, felt, or did that!”

Of course you ate! Who wouldn’t want to feel better when you’re sad, mad, stressed, or lonely—or magnify the pleasure when you’re glad? This validation and unconditional acceptance creates a safe environment for experimenting with new thoughts, feelings, and actions.

When you overeat, validate the choice as being rational at the time: “Of course you __________________!” This gentle, understanding self-talk will open the door to exploring how you might do it differently next time if you don’t like how it turned out.

Bring nonjudgmental awareness to the situation.

Mindful eating is all about bringing nonjudgmental awareness to your choices and experiences with eating. Nonjudgment is essential because it provides a more objective understanding of what happened and why.

Dr. Camerin Ross, one of the two therapists at our upcoming Mindful Eating for Emotional Eating and Binge Eating Retreat, suggests writing about an overeating or binge eating episode and identifying the “voices” that show up. Nonjudgmentally recognizing how your Restrictive Eating, Overeating, and Binge Eating voices drive the cycle affords you the opportunity to cultivate your Self-Care Voice. (Read through this sample script to see how this works.)

Cultivate Your Self-Care Voice

Your Self-Care Voice wants the best for you. It is unconditionally compassionate, affirming, and accepting. Your Self-Care voice is the voice of kindness and wisdom. It is like a loving parent who guides you to learn from your mistakes, face your challenges, and loves you unconditionally, faults and all.

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