Are you sick and tired of struggling with food and weight? Do you constantly criticize yourself? 

Maybe you’re constantly judging your body, eating habits, and life choices. If so, you’re not alone. Many people are stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk that leads to emotional eating, leading to more self-criticism.

The good news is that it’s possible to break this cycle. The key to stopping binge eating is turning self-criticism into something 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 crucial to creating a happier, binge-free life. Without ordering endless boring salads and missing out on your favorite foods. Without eliminating carbs from your diet or wasting time and money spent on yet another workout plan or constantly planning your meals or vowing to be “good” with food

Address the critical thoughts

The first step to challenging self-critical ideas is identifying them and considering where those thoughts, feelings, and beliefs originated.

Let me tell you about Iliana, who 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 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 brothers thought she was stupid and her family never said anything, so therefore it must be the truth. Iliana started being mean to herself, believing she wasn’t smart enough and issuing disclaimers whenever she shared an opinion or an insight.

She’d say, “I know this probably sounds dumb… or, I know this might be completely idiotic…” and was constantly apologizing for her thoughts.

For Iliana, realizing that she’d internalized the perspective of her older brothers was eye-opening. It was a real lightbulb moment.

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.

Here’s a tip: Reflect on your past experiences and how they have shaped you–without judgment.

Identify the HIDDEN triggers

Our unconscious drives our beliefs about ourselves. This means that we are not always aware of why we think the things we believe or why we do the things we do.

We simply repeat self-defeating patterns 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, the difficult one, the dramatic one, or other family myths.

Our earliest relationships form the basis for so much of our current dynamics. Fear of intimacy can be rooted in past experiences of rejection or abandonment. Once we understand 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 we’ve been trying to avoid or deny. It’s also hard to recognize that our difficulties are rooted in earlier experiences that we may not remember or fully understand.

Tip: Consider what past experiences have influenced the way you view yourself in the present.

Is it always about the past?

Many people think the past is over and see no point in going over their history. For example, when Cara started therapy she was adamant 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 essential to look at how the past influences our current lives. The past haunts our present and impacts our relationship with yourself, 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 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.

To change the present, you have to be a time traveler

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 also influence our relationship choices. When we look into the past, we find clues about our present.

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 takes over, 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

Stop mind-reading: 

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 rephrase 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 essential 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.

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 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, 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.

Cultivate self-care

Another way to treat ourselves compassionately is to cultivate self-care. That can mean different things, depending on the definition of “self care.” For example, Hildy considered herself the queen of self care. Yet, she still struggled with binge eating.

Hildy got regular manicures and pedicures, massages, facials, and weekly blowouts for her hair. Yet, she still had feelings of depression and worthiness. She wondered why she still felt so bad, since she was taking such good care of herself.

What she didn’t realize is that true self care is more than just grooming (which is what she was doing). Self-care means taking care of yourself in all areas of life. It means considering what you want and need, which can be different for everyone.

Some people find that meditation brings them inner peace. Others prefer physical activities like running, walking, hiking, or working out. For some people, self-care means quiet time, reading a book, watching a good show, or journaling. 

Self-care can look different for everyone, but it is always about refocusing and reconnecting with yourself.

Taking care of yourself is a way of recognizing that you’re worthy of care and attention. The goal of self-care is to build resilience and create a balance in our lives, which helps us cope with the challenges of life. The more we do that, the less we turn to other ways of coping, such as binge eating, overspending, and other negative coping strategies.