Stop Beating Yourself Up!

Inhaled some cookies? It’s the self-criticism, not the calories, that hurts you most.

If you’re like most people, you discovered pretty early in life that scarfing down sweets or munching a mountain of mashed potatoes can dull emotional pain or fill a void. Maybe the penny dropped when an adult wiped away your tears while filling your palm with M&Ms to ‘make you all better,’ or when you ate a few extra slices of pizza to distract yourself when a kid who you thought was a friend refused to sit next to you in the cafeteria. As a child, you probably didn’t think much about it, but as an adult, awareness creeps in all too soon.

Once the fleeting sense of calm or pleasure passes, you quickly realize that eating hasn’t fixed anything. Then the maddening math starts—how many hundreds or even thousands of calories did you consume in one sitting? You vow to eat nothing but spinach and tuna for four days to make up for it. Of course, overly-rigid eating rules are doomed to lead to more failure and frustration, which triggers the cycle all over again.

You may be thinking the worst part of this whole scenario are the calories that lead to excessive weight gain. But it’s actually It’s the self-destructive feelings of guilt and shame that do the most damage. Each time we call ourselves pathetic or decide we don’t have what it takes to get healthy, we chip away at our confidence and damage our self esteem. Which in turn dampens resolve, and makes goals even harder to reach.

In a recent study researchers explored the relationship between procrastination and stress. They found that people who tend to procrastinate have less ‘self-compassion’ (e.g. beating themselves up for their behavior) and thus experience more stress. The good news is that this doesn’t have to be the case: a study of students showed that those who forgive themselves after procrastinating on a task are less likely to procrastinate the next time they have to do it. Procrastinating and overeating may be different behaviors, but the lesson still applies. “A setback of any kind can lead to guilty feelings and harsh self-criticism, but guilt is actually a poor motivator,” says Dr. Cameron Sepah, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF Medical School, and Omada Health’s Medical Director. “The more adaptive thing to do in these moments is to step back and view the setback as a learning opportunity rather than a failure.”

What exactly is there to learn from downing half a dozen mini-donuts in one sitting? Plenty. By identifying what caused you to overeat, you can empower yourself to prevent it from happening again. But that requires carefully reviewing the details of the situation: When did it happen? Where were you? Who were you with? How were you feeling (tired, hungry, upset, bored)? What, if anything, did you do to cope before turning to food? “Once you have answers to these questions, you can make a plan for better handling such situations in the future,” says Dr. Sepah. “If you tried a coping strategy that didn’t work, you can modify it, or try something new.”

The best way to prepare for setbacks is to expect them and know exactly what you’ll do when they happen.  If you were bored when a snack-attack got the better of you, make a plan to call a friend next time, or pick out a new game to play on your phone and wait until boredom strikes to download it. If you had a frustrating conversation with a person close to you, plan to take a walk to blow off steam if things get tense again. Have a number of these “if this happens, then I will do that” scenarios played out in your mind, and you will be less likely to head to the kitchen for lack of a better strategy.
If, despite doing all of the above, you end up seeking solace at the bottom of a peanut butter jar, skip the self-abuse and simply forgive yourself. We’re talking a full on, let it go moment. Repeat after me: “It happens to everybody and it’s part of the process. I’ll do better next time.” Then revise your if-then scenarios with new coping strategies. Need ideas? Hit up your Prevent Health Coach, that’s what we’re here for.