Blame. Binge. Shame. Repeat - part 1

This is a four-part series about what you need to know to overcome comfort eating. If you are not sure whether your overeating is comfort or ‘emotional’ eating, you may wish to read my introductory article Are you a comfort eater?


Part 1 – The self-critic behind the binge eater 

In my work with overeating, what I see the most, is people who are really hard on themselves. This is one of the main reasons that people overeat. So today I'm going to talk about how self-criticism goes hand in hand with comfort eating and binge eating. I’ll show you ways to understand this for yourself, and to begin the journey of stopping giving yourself such a hard time. Because that really is what’s needed to stop overeating.

But first, let’s talk about the habit of binge eating.

1. The habit

Most people who come to see me, who are frustrated with the compulsion to overeat, ask, “Isn’t it just a habit?”

It is a habit. Overeating is usually something that was learned very early on and has been practised (perhaps interspersed with periods of dieting) for most of their lives. It is a well-entrenched and well-practised pattern or pathway in their brains. As are the beliefs attached to and surrounding it. 

It is worth noticing the habits you have around eating, from what you are in the habit of doing, to what habits of thinking you have.

Notice what kind of habits you associate, or what associations you have, with eating junk food.

  • A really common one is associating celebrations with cake and lots of junk food.
  • Do you go to the petrol station and always buy yourself a coffee or a chocolate bar?
  • Do you always eat popcorn at the cinema? 
  • Do you eat sweets, or go to the cupboard and binge on biscuits after dinner?
  • Do you know what kind of associations you have?
  • How long have you had these habits? 

It is believed that a large percentage of our behaviour is habitual. So that's your first task: to start thinking about what habits and associations you have. 

2. Why do you want to stop overeating?

To break a habit, whether it’s the habit of eating something sweet after lunch, or overeating altogether, you need a compelling reason.

I know the first obvious reasons are because you want to look better, or you want to feel better about yourself. You want to fit into the clothes you used to fit into, and you think that would make your life much happier. I'm not going to dispute that. It probably would make you a little bit happier. However, I think you need something deeper than that to remind yourself of, to actually compel you to stop reaching for the junk food when you need some kind of comfort from an emotion.

So, it’s a good idea to really ask yourself why you want to stop?

  • I will lose weight.
  • I will feel proud of myself.
  • I won’t feel shame later.
  • I’m afraid of being ill.
  • I don't want the urge for food to be in control of me.
  • I don’t want to feel tired/sick/hyper/drowsy/numb/disengaged.
  • It’s not really going to help. It’s not what I actually need.
  • I know how to feel and feel okay with feeling.
  • Probably staying with who I am is going to improve my life in some way.

Nan looking out of the window

3. The self-critic

One of the habits of a comfort eater is self-criticism. Dieting is based around it. But the solution lies in not trying to be perfect. Not approaching stopping overeating with diet mentality. It’s the psychology of it that cannot be cut short. And learning to address real needs rather than finding a fix outside of yourself.

Self-criticism is at the heart of the reason for most comfort eating.  This can take so many different forms, but here’s one you might relate to:

One of the most common things my clients have talked about is having family, friends or doctors who point out their weight and try to restrict their eating, or encourage exercise. So they might say, 

  • “You're putting on a bit of weight, why don't you leave the food alone, and go to Weight Watchers?”
  • “Let's give you a smaller portion." 
  • “Let's take the chocolate away from you.”

The person who does this might be well-meaning, but the result is often that the person they said it to feels absolutely awful about themselves, and ends up overeating more. 

The person who overeats knows they need to eat less and move more, but they feel completely powerless to resist the binge urge, so just end up feeling shame and thinking:

“Why can't I stop eating. There must be something wrong with me.”

So, you just want to eat more. That’s your instinctive, natural, normal response. How are you going to manage how you feel? You feel rubbish about what they've just said, so you're going to want to eat!  Can you recognise that? Does that sound like you at all? This is the self-critic.

So, the thing to understand is how you're criticising yourself; what kind of self-critic you've got.

In my introductory blog ‘Are you a comfort eater?’ I asked you to think about when it is that you overeat and what was happening just before. It also really helps to ask yourself exactly what you're thinking just before you decide to abandon any good intentions and devour the whole packet of biscuits:

  • What are the exact words that you have in your head, just before you give up? 
  • Are you putting yourself down in some way? 
  • Are you being really nasty to yourself? 
  • Do you have certain phrases that put you down, that you repeat over and over again to yourself? Things that you would never say to someone else, never mind to somebody that you love?

Do you recognise any of these thoughts and behaviours?

  • Comparing yourself to others.
  • Perceiving only negative things about yourself, and feeling not good enough.
  • Feeling guilty.
  • All or nothing thinking.
  • Focusing on the negative.
  • Punishing yourself.

I had one client who realised she was saying you 'silly cow' with pretty much everything she did. She just walks into a room and she'd think: 

‘'Oh, you didn't do that right you silly cow!'’

That’s horrible, isn’t it? That's her being really nasty to herself! 

What to pay attention to

  1. Start thinking about the real reasons you want to give up overeating.
  2. Pay attention to what habits you have around overeating, particularly how you're talking to yourself. 
  3. Be aware that if you are self-critical, you might want to overeat more.
  4. What's often missing in the mind of an emotional eater is a kind of self-concerned voice. You need to start asking yourself what you're really saying to yourself, because calling yourself a stupid cow, or an idiot, even in passing, is never going to make you want to stop comfort eating, and will only make you want to eat more.

So start to note all the ways you give yourself a hard time. I'm willing to bet that it's a lot more than you realise.

In part two of this series, we will travel deeper into understanding more about what’s behind your overeating, and what to do about it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol, Somerset, BS4 2DS
Written by Shelley Treacher, Therapy for anxiety, depression & relationship difficulties.
Bristol, Somerset, BS4 2DS

I run groups for people who experience frustration with overeating. My programme helps people to overcome overeating or binge eating naturally, with peer support, and without giving junk food up, until you're ready.

Shelley Treacher MA. MBACP accred.

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