Author: Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed.
One of the major causes of mindless eating might surprise you. It’s not feeling
overwhelmed by intense feelings, acting out repressed emotions, or habituating to eating specific foods or at certain times, although all these factors contribute substantially to dysregulated eating. Rather, a significant barrier to mindful eating is the self-talk about food, exercise, and self-care that steers us toward mindless eating.
Aside from the brain’s automatic fear reaction—when we’re lost in a forest, unlocking our apartment door as a stranger approaches, or the alarm we feel when our boss unexpectedly insists we take over for her at a staff meeting—we all have the capacity to decide which thoughts to act on and which ones to ignore. But, too often, we act as if we’re victims of our thoughts and powerless over how we speak to ourselves.
Self-talk generates our actions
Discerning between mindful or mindless self-talk is especially important around food and self-care practices where our thoughts, channeled through our self-talk, can so easily lead us astray. Eating mindfully starts with what we say to ourselves and how we say it—the words and phrases we use, as well as the tone we employ.
For example, my client Gina spent many therapy sessions insisting, “I really try to be mindful of what I eat, but when I visit my dad who’s a baker and he’s just made my favorite bread, I can’t say no, even when I’ve just had lunch. I never can and never will be able to. Even when I walk in with a full stomach, when that delicious smell hits me, I just don’t care.”
When Gina says, “I can’t say no” or “I just don’t care,” she’s programming herself to eat Dad’s bread because our brain listens to what we say and then acts on the intent we express. Because the brain assumes that what we say is what we want to do, it translates whatever we say into action.
Gina and I have spent many sessions talking about talking, in this case, about the messages she sends herself about food and eating. She now understands that she needs to listen carefully to and sift through her self-talk in order to make it generate the outcome she desires. She recognizes that when she’s full she can’t repeatedly tell herself, “I have to eat Dad’s bread,” and hope to end up declining it. Instead, she’s learned to use self-talk that will lead to the results she wants. She’s learned when she wants to enjoy a piece of Dad’s bread, when she wants to pass, and when she wants to pack up half a loaf to enjoy later.
When you’re mindless about self-talk, it can thwart your best intentions and cause you to engage in harmful habits. Sadly, you’re probably not even aware that you’re speaking to yourself, never mind urging yourself to engage in eating behaviors you know make you miserable.
Mindless self-talk of dysregulated eaters usually includes cognitive distortions such as:
All-or-nothing thinking. Using words like “never” or “always” cements action in an either-or direction. Think and say them enough, and they’ll put you on auto-pilot. When you use these words, your brain hears “every time I’m in this setting, always or never do this.” You don’t even need to repeat your instructions because your brain stores what you say the first time you say it. Banish the words “never” and “always” from your vocabulary, eating and otherwise.
A failure orientation. With this mindset, you foretell the things you can’t do and the mistakes you’re going to make. When you say, “I can never say no to free food,” you’ve conjured up its image and that’s what you’ll think about. You can’t win if you tell yourself you’re going to lose; you can’t succeed if your self-talk is all about failure.
Comparing or competing. This kind of self-talk either makes us feel not good enough or pressures us to be more like others. When you say, “I want to eat like him and be as thin as he is,” you remove the focus from your own body and what it wants. You can only be you, not someone else. Make sure your self-talk is 100% about you and your unique mind and body, not you in relation to others.
Moralistic. Dysregulated eaters use words like “good” or “bad” frequently. Foods are labeled as such and so are people, including yourself. Morally and judgmentally, you think eating chocolate cake is bad and makes you bad, and eating salads is good and confers goodness on you. Food is on a continuum of more to less nutritious. People are neither good nor bad and what you eat makes you neither. You are more than your food choices!
Negativity. This self-talk is focused on all you’ve done, are doing and will do that you judge yourself for. For example, when you say, “I am so bad. I ate three cupcakes and feel sick,” gone from focus is the fact that you cleaned your house, worked overtime, and took the kids shopping for new shoes. You don’t appreciate the wonder of you and all your accomplishments because your perceived mistakes blot out everything else and failure looms large in your mind. How can you expect positive results from all that negativity?
Mindful self-talk is constructive and speaks to attaining and maintaining your eating and self-care goals. It comes from listening to what you say to yourself and being clear about which self-talk will help you be healthy and happy—and which won’t. It’s full of wisdom and stems from caring deeply for yourself every moment, considering every thought and word because they are the vehicles that will transform your relationship with food and your body.
Mindful self-talk includes constructive elements such as:
Intentionality. The intent is the hallmark of mindful self-talk. Rather than act on any old thought that pops up, reflect on what you could say, then carefully choose words that will bring out your best self. Say what will help you reach your goals with love and self-respect. Speak from your wisdom learned from experience. Intentional self-talk sounds like this: “I’ll not snack around for supper tonight, but make myself a delicious, home-cooked dinner” or “I’ll order what nourishes and pleases me no matter what others are eating.”
Empowerment. Certain words and phrases make you feel strong and confident, such as “I am woman (or man), hear me roar.” Empowering self-talk states what you will and can do, not what you won’t and can’t. “I will eat until I’m full and stop” tells your brain that you are in charge and will alert it when you’re done eating. It makes you feel bigger and stronger, not smaller and weaker.
Hopeful. Many dysregulated eaters walk around feeling defeated and hopeless to change their eating and self-care habits. Hopeful self-talk reflects your ability to see yourself as successful. It’s about the positive you will do. “I can go to the party and not overeat if I don’t want to” or “I can eat dinner at the table, then watch TV without snacking. If I’m hungry, I can stop watching and feed myself in the kitchen.” Hope is a springboard into a positive future.
Loving. Loving self-talk assumes you are lovable and worthy of love, from yourself and others. It draws from a well of deservedness: you merit the best in life. It infuses everything you think, say, and do with joy in being your unique self. Kind, gentle and encouraging, it underscores your value and promotes what works for you, such as, “I will keep my body active to take care of it” and “I will always take the best care of myself that I can.”
Self-compassionate. Your self-talk as a dysregulated eater may include being hard on yourself and even beating yourself up for how much or what you’ve eaten. Shame, guilt, and judgment, however, only make you feel worse—and are deterrents to having a positive relationship with food and your body. Alternately, self-compassionate self-talk meets your suffering with understanding and kindness, values you just as you are, and moves you toward mind/body healing. It comes from choosing your words carefully, and without judgment saying what you’d want your best friend to tell you (or what you might say to them). Saying, “I love myself even though I ate more than I wanted to eat” is a statement of self-acceptance. From this stance, you are more likely to make self-loving choices in the future.
The path to mindful self-talk and eating
Before you can eat mindfully consistently, you’ll need to develop and practice mindful self-talk. Start by listening with curiosity (not judgment!) to how you talk to yourself. Clients are often shocked when I repeat back to them what they’ve said to and about themselves in front of me.
While you’re listening, see if you can catch yourself saying something hurtful or uncaring. If you do, stop and start again using mindful and caring self-talk. Practice slowing down your thinking enough to make conscious statements that have your best interest at heart. Make a list of statements you want to hear, then say them to yourself: I am lovable and deserving, I can eat mindfully, I know when I’m hungry and full and will honor each sensation, I am worthy of taking care of my body well. The list is endless.
Write down phrases you value and repeat them upon awakening, when you’re in the shower, in traffic, on hold on the phone, and before you fall asleep. Begin every food interaction by setting an intention for how you will eat. End every meal with a mindful, self-compassionate comment about how your body feels. Ask intimates to tactfully let you know when you’re not using mindful and caring self-talk. Make a recording of what you want to say to yourself, then play it back and repeat what it says.
You have the power to change your thinking, self-talk, and eating. I’ve joyously watched as clients such as Gina have become more mindful about how they nourish their minds and body through their words and tone. I’ve done it myself, having ended binge-eating more than three decades ago. Forget about willpower. It’s time for the transformational force of word power and using mindful self-talk to heal your eating and self-care problems.
Find more Mindful Eating Resources to support your practice here.
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, was published in January 2021. She lives and practices in Sarasota, Florida. Her website is http://www.karenrkoenig.com.