Why Self-Talk Is A Vital Part Of Healing From An Eating Disorder

By Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd

If you’re recovering from an eating disorder, radically improving your self-talk might be the missing piece of your healing process. You may think of self-talk as mindless chatter—if you think of it at all—and as nothing to pay attention to. But the fact is that self-talk is the link between what we think and do, the driver of emotions and behavior. It’s how the human brain has evolved to get us to take conscious action. That is, the brain interprets whatever we say to ourselves as a directive to feel or behave in a certain way. It awaits our instructions and then executes them.  

When we say, “I hate cooking and food shopping,” odds are we’ll do less of it. When we say, “I’ll go food shopping and cook myself a lovely meal,” we have a better shot at making that happen. Similarly, when we’re afraid of food and say, “If I eat carbs, I’ll get fat,” irrational thinking is likely to win out and we’ll avoid all carbs. However, if we say, “I can eat some carbs and still nourish my body,” we have a bigger chance of not falling prey to the dangers or diets and restrictive eating.

No matter what kind of dysregulated eating you have, you can change your self-talk by doing the following: 

Listen attentively

The first step in improving self-talk is to hear it. This means anticipating and actively listening for it, as well as recognizing when it’s happening. By paying close attention, you’ll notice patterns of how you speak to yourself, the tone you use, the words you choose, the emotions beneath them, and what they prompt you to do or not do. The goal is for you to tune into self-talk and take charge.

Clients tell me they have no idea how they get from thinking about food one way to doing something completely different with it. The missing piece of the puzzle is self-talk. Once you start listening carefully to what you say to yourself, you’ll see how it fills the space between thought and action. With this recognition, you can move from mindless to mindful self-messaging. 

Ditch external motivators

The goal for self-talk is to get us to do something, but our culture and family often teach us the exact wrong way to make this happen: by using external or extrinsic motivators. This type of self-talk is meant to incentivize us to do something we are ambivalent about doing. If we were whole-heartedly for it, we wouldn’t need to pressure ourselves by self-bullying and insisting that, “I should, shouldn’t, must, have to, need to or am supposed to” take a particular action. Using these words may even boomerang and make us feel so pushed around and resentful that we end up doing the opposite of what’s best for us. 

How many times have you said to yourself, “I should get myself to the gym,” but felt annoyed at having to do something you’re not that into doing and, therefore, stayed home? Or told yourself, “I know I need to eat when I’m hungry” then ditched the thought because getting in touch with hunger made you feel uncomfortable? Remember, we only use external motivators when we have mixed feelings about doing something: you want to go to the gym because you always feel better after a workout and also don’t want to go because it’s pouring rain and a bit of a drive. You want to eat more to nourish your body but also (irrationally) think of food as the enemy.

Use internal motivators

Because we tend to do what we think will make us comfortable and happy, harnessing internal or intrinsic motivators works wonders. Words such as “want, wish, desire, prefer and would like to” help us get in touch with why we want to do something. They connect us with the deep yearnings we have to be healthy far better than self-coercion ever could. They capture the heart-felt desire to eat according to appetite, feel comfortable in our bodies, and take excellent care of ourselves.

Think of it this way: If I told you that you had two million dollars waiting for you at the lottery office, you wouldn’t say, “I must remember to go there tomorrow.” Nor would you keep reminding yourself “I really have to get there.” No, you’d be out the door in a flash because you want your winnings. So make sure to pour all your energy into focusing on your healthy desires and wants—really pump them up—and they’ll lead you to reaching your self-care goals.

Speak with self-compassion

Many dysregulated eaters are highly self-judgmental. They judge their thoughts harshly, and even criticize themselves for being self-critical. One of the most important lessons to be learned in recovery is to speak with kindness to yourself. That’s all self-compassion is: meeting suffering with kindness. Rather than say, “It’s stupid how I avoid going out with my friends so I won’t eat a lot in front of them,” you could say, “It’s been hard for me to feel okay eating in front of others, and I’m learning how.”

In developing self-compassionate self-talk, it helps to have curiosity. Rather than tearing yourself down for what you’re doing wrong, be curious about the reasons for your actions and learn to understand yourself better. Instead of saying, “I shouldn’t have skipped breakfast,” ask yourself why you did. Look for answers, not reasons to feel defective. 

The #1 reason dysregulated eaters have difficulty feeling self-compassion is that they believe that speaking kindly to themselves means they’re letting themselves off the hook for changing unhealthy patterns. They think they can hate themselves into healthier behavior, but recovery doesn’t work that way. You can have both self-compassion—responding to your own suffering with kindness—and take responsibility for yourself. You can be compassionate and accountable, by saying, “I deserve to eat better and will read a book on intuitive eating to gain the skills to help me.” 

You don’t need to wait until self-talk pops up to learn what to say to yourself. Make a list of what you wish to hear—words and phrases that are hopeful, inspiring, positive, and in your best interest. Practice in front of a mirror and notice how you feel showering yourself with encouraging words. You might feel uncomfortable at first because self-kindness is unfamiliar to you; just notice the feeling and let it pass. Eventually being kind to yourself will become your default setting.

Make note of what others say to you that makes you feel better and incorporate their words into your self-talk. At the end of each day, consider the kind of self-talk you engaged in. Gently review whether you could have said anything differently and plan what you will say tomorrow. 

Imagine yourself building a bridge from your eating and self-care today to better eating and self-care tomorrow. Self-talk is that bridge. It’s built of intentional, loving words and phrases that raise your hopes, express your dreams, kindle your energy, and inspire you to be your best self.

Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist, international, award-winning author, national speaker and popular blogger. She has 30-plus years of experience in the field of eating psychology teaching chronic dieters and emotional, binge, and over-eaters to become “normal” eaters through using a non-diet, non-weight focus on eating intuitively and creating joyous, meaningful lives. Her eighth book, Words to Eat By: Using the Power of Self-talk to Transform Your Relationship with Food and Your Body is due out in 2021. She lives and practices in Sarasota, Florida. Her website is http://www.karenrkoenig.com

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