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Emotional Eater? Label the behavior instead

By Michelle May, M.D.

One of the most important parenting tips I received was, “Label the behavior, not the child.” So instead of saying, “Bad girl!” I would say, “Hitting your brother is an unacceptable way to tell him you are angry. Use your words.” The theory (and my personal experience) with this parenting advice is that unlike personality characteristics, behaviors can be explored and changed.

By objectifying the behavior and explaining why it is problematic, the child learns to recognize the effects of their choices. We allow them to experience the consequences (or create natural consequences when necessary) and guide them toward other behaviors with more desirable outcomes. More important, we create a climate of unconditional love and acceptance, no matter what choices the child makes. We affirm their intrinsic value, creating the necessary conditions for change when needed.

(I admit that I didn’t follow all parenting advice perfectly. That didn’t make me a “Bad Parent;” it just gave me plenty of opportunities to demonstrate how to ask for forgiveness!)

I believe that “label the behavior” is valuable advice for adults too.

You Are NOT an Emotional Eater

I cringe when someone says, “I am an emotional eater” or “I am a binger.” That stake in the ground is awfully hard to pull out. When you define yourself by your actions, you leave little room for other options.

By labeling yourself (or your client) as an “emotional eater” or a “binge eater,” you are setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Repeating this definition over and over tells your brain who you are, and therefore, what you do. Your identity as an emotional eater or binge eater will continue to drive your actions.

By approaching your difficulty with food mindfully, you become aware of your sensations, thoughts, and feelings nonjudgmentally, and cultivate curiosity about the reasons for, and the consequences of, your choices. Your curiosity and willingness to examine the behavior without judgment, will help you discover the source of the behavior and therefore, possible alternatives.

You Are Not a “Labeler” Either!

ChangeThe easiest way to change the habit of labeling yourself is to notice when you use “–er” (“emotional eater”) then replace it with “–ing” (“emotional eating”). Here are other examples of how you can describe the behavior in a more helpful way:

  • eating for emotional reasons
  • eating when I feel stressed
  • eating because I am bored
  • eating when I am lonely
  • using food for comfort
  • eating to avoid confrontation
  • eating to entertain myself

Notice that these objective descriptions also point you toward other options that might be more effective than eating. (For more about that, read Embrace Emotional Eating.)

Parent Thyself

So let’s rework the parenting advice above into a “self-parenting” guide. (This is especially important if your own parents made mistakes by labeling you instead of your behavior. If needed, seek counseling to learn to re-parent yourself so you won’t perpetuate that error.)

By observing my behavior objectively, I am able to experience the effects of my choices and the problems they create for me without judging myself. I can make more effective choices with more desirable outcomes in the future. When I love and accept myself unconditionally and affirm my intrinsic value, I create the necessary conditions for change.

If you struggle with emotional eating, Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs will guide you toward other behaviors with more effective outcomes!


About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

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