Many of us who have struggled with compulsive eating and weight have a pretty mean voice in our heads that is either ever-present, or comes out to take swings when the scale moves up or we ate that donut. It might be slightly critical or judgmental, or it might be flat-out abusive. The voice can differ from person to person, but the common denominator for most of us is that whatever the precise kinds of things we say to ourselves, the voice is anything but loving.
Mine used to be extremely nasty. I used to say to myself frequently things like, “You’re disgusting and I hate this body” and “What’s wrong with you? What is so hard for you about eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full?” and related to weight and eating as well: “You’re just weak, disgusting and pathetic”, and such kinds of things, usually with a lot more expletives.
When I started on my path of personal and spiritual growth, which had primarily to do with wanting to be free of the misery that was my life due to my eating and weight, I realized consciously, for the first time that I even had this kind of tone with myself. I had talked to myself like this for so long that I never actually had the realization that it was a mean voice. It was normal to me, so I never really thought about it. Perhaps like a fish isn’t aware it’s in water.
Once I did acknowledge that this voice was a bully, I started contemplating the idea that it wasn’t supposed to be like that. The nasty, critical, angry, emotionally violent voice was so normal that I’d also never considered that it could be any different. I couldn’t even really imagine what it would look like if it was different, but I started to consider the possibility that the kind of self-talk I had was not something that inherently had to be there. It was not part of who I really was. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it didn’t have to be there and was not part of who I was after all, and so I decided that it had to change.
It is an absolutely necessary step we must take to eradicate this voice, and more importantly, the beliefs and feelings behind it. I have never known someone who has successfully freed themselves of food issues forever and has achieved it through self-hate. The people who have achieved true freedom with food and eating, are happy with their bodies and their lives, have moved from self-hate into self-love in order to have that. It sounds obvious when stated like this, but how many of us still act as though self-hate achieves something?
Why Do We Have This Voice?
In many cases, the self-hate and bullying we do to ourselves in regards to our weight and eating started when we were young. It is generally a combination of our parent(s’) or other primarily caretakers’ attitudes towards these topics, since they are the ones we spent the most time with, and so we would have absorbed a great deal of how they felt about extra weight (on themselves or others), food, and eating.
The voice also partially consists of what we’ve absorbed from society at large. When we receive messages when we’re young that worth depends on our weight, the voice is created. It starts when we observe that thin people receive more love, attention, and approval than overweight people. When we hear our parents make mean comments about their own bodies, or other people’s bodies, or sadly for many people, even their child(s’) bodies. When we’re adults, we choose to perpetuate that treatment of ourselves, and that voice that we absorbed from others is now also our own which we strengthen ourselves.
Self-Hate Fuels Food Addiction
When I look back at the way I treated myself emotionally in my cycle of eating and weight issues—I’m not even talking about physically at the moment—and how I would beat myself up all day long, every day, saturating myself with hate and anger and judgment. I reflect on how I directed violent and toxic energy at my body and myself all day long for years and years, I now think, “It is no wonder that I ate so much and was overall so incredibly miserable in my life!”
Of course, there were other reasons why I was so unhappy and addicted to eating other than just my self-talk, but it was a huge contributor. Living in an environment of self-hate is a prison. It’s a hell. I didn’t even realize bad it really was, but in retrospect, it was absolutely awful. It was so exhausting, it was so dark, it was so completely devoid of gentleness, peace, love, or anything beautiful. I can now see that part of the reason I ate compulsively was to give myself a reprieve from my own hell of self-hate.
The Belief that Beating Ourselves Up Leads to Change
When I started contemplating this idea that I needed to move from self-hate to self-love, at first that sounded like a great idea. It made sense to me. I finally realized, “Well gosh, that’s so obvious! I need to love myself, not hate myself.” But then, I started noticing I felt some resistance towards making that change. It was easier said than done. Easier to intellectualize than actually do emotionally. In feeling through why I was resistant, I realized it was about two things:
- Self-hate was more familiar and comfortable.
I had lived in self-hate most of my life. I remember criticizing my body in the mirror, wanting to be skinnier as young as 6 or 7, and wishing I could restrict my food not long after that. The older I got, the meaner the voice got. And even though it was toxic, it became familiar. And in a weird way, sometimes we humans actually get comfortable with toxic, familiar things. The familiarity and consistency of living that way can somehow end up feeling comfortable. It can feel like a secure part of our identity, a familiar part of our day, even a companion. I didn’t know any different than having that judgement all the time, and so the notion of change–the notion of living in a totally different by not beating myself up–was actually scary. Would I be able to do it? Was it possible for me? What if I can’t do it? I don’t even know how to do it so maybe I shouldn’t even try? I felt intimidated by how to make that change.
- Bullying myself was how I thought I’d finally change.
The biggest reason I was resistant to addressing my self-bullying and moving towards love—bigger than the above first reason for me—was a belief that I’d never realized I had for most of my life. This belief was that bullying and criticizing would successfully get me to being a thin person with no food struggles. I felt that I needed that militant, drill sergeant, bullying voice in order to get me in line. I needed it in order to not eat too much. I needed it if I ever wanted to lose weight and feel comfortable in my body. This is a really common belief among compulsive eaters, because if we truly believed bullying ourselves had no value, why would we do it?
When I was honest with myself, I did not believe that love could get me there. I did not initially think that being nice to myself would get me anywhere. But then I started feeling about this idea of self-love and what it would look like for me to in that space with my body and food, and I discovered I had some more beliefs that I’d never realized. I believed that self-love was actually equivalent to indulgence and excess. I often overate or binged after saying to myself things like, “I’m going to be nice to myself now and eat whatever and how much I want.” –which was in rebellion to my inner bully. And I think this is a big issue in our society, too. How often do we hear, “I’ve been so strict all week, I’m going to be nice to myself tonight”—and then the person eats a bunch of junk food? Or, “My partner just broke up with me and I’m so sad and so I’m not going to be hard on myself.” – and then they eat a pint of ice cream? Much of our society equates self-love and self-care with junk food and overeating.
Related is the fact that society perpetuates the kind of thinking that the next crash diet, miracle pill or exercise move etc., will be miserable and challenging, but somehow get us to a good place (which no one gets to, which is why dieting is a multi-billion dollar industry). Our mass media is the biggest engine of body-shaming. Our society teaches us that misery = positive change and if you’re overweight you should indeed feel you’re disgusting.
The more I thought about it, I realized that the kind of behavior I just described, which I had also partaken in all of my life, was not self-love. Hurting our bodies with food is never kind, loving, or gentle, no matter why we tell ourselves we’re doing it. Logically, it doesn’t make sense that “self-care” or “being nice” meant hurting my body with food. That “love” meant putting a bunch of crap in it and waking up feeling terrible the next day. So what was that, really, if not being nice to myself? It was rebellion, and more addiction. But it wasn’t love.
I had been afraid that if I gave up the bully, I’d start eating even more and I’d gain another 50 pounds. I pictured myself “being nice to myself” and therefore eating tons of cookies and chocolate every day. I pictured myself coming home after a stressful day and eating pizza followed by chips followed by donuts. I pictured myself lazing on the couch and staying inside all of the time. I just thought of being nice to myself as not caring about health, not caring about nutrition, and being “lax” on my health habits. I associated “self-love” with ambivalence. Obliviousness. Ambiguity.
And so I had to admit something: I didn’t actually know what it meant or felt like to have real self-love with eating and my body. And I’d never known what it was actually like. This realization was two-sided for me. On one hand, I felt once again afraid — how do I find deep self-love if I’ve never experienced it? On the other hand, I felt relief: neither trying to bully myself into strictness, nor rebelling with overeating was the answer. Perhaps there was a future where I didn’t have to do either of those things. In an odd way, it was a relief there was a piece of the puzzle I hadn’t tried yet.
Even though I wasn’t convinced yet, I started really contemplating and feeling a lot about these questions of, “What does real self-love do and feel like in regards to my body?” and “What does real self-love do and feel like in regards to food and eating?” I started to realize if someone-anyone-really, truly loved themselves (by my new definition of self-love), of course they wouldn’t hurt themselves with food. Of course they wouldn’t do something willingly that would put them in pain. And of course, they wouldn’t be bullies to themselves in their heads. Essentially, if you loved yourself sincerely, and deeply, you would never be mean to yourself and would not have eating issues, because the love would dictate you would not be able to. I don’t say this to give you another reason to feel bad about yourself, but to illustrate that love dictates we always, every time, treat ourselves and our bodies well.
Think About How You’d Treat a Child
One other thing that helped me re-define my concept of self-love was to think about a child. Would I say the things I say to myself to a beautiful little child? Would I tell them they’re disgusting? Would I tell them that it’s no wonder no one wants to be close to them, with a body like that? Would I scream at them, demanding them to answer what is wrong with them that they can’t just eat normally? Would I reprimand them harshly for days about one thing that was unhealthy they ate?
I wouldn’t, of course, and my guess is no one in their right mind would either. People like that can get their children taken away from them (as they should). And I don’t care if we’re 20, or 50, or 80 years old– our souls are not immune to that kind of abuse just because we’re now adults. And even though I wasn’t quite sure what self-love for myself looked like, putting it all in the context of treating a child a certain way helped me clarify what that might look like. It was a way to frame things that I was saying to myself daily and reflect on them.
How to Eradicate the Bully and Move into Self-Love
Here is what we need to understand about bullying ourselves: doing all that covers over deeper emotions. We have to recognize that underneath the tendency to beat ourselves up is an iceberg of emotions we are avoiding feeling fully, and the avoidance of them is what keeps the bully alive. Self-hate covers over deeper emotional wounds.
In a very, very generalized way, I actually want to divide those emotions into two categories:
- The emotions related to our struggle with eating and weight
Anyone who has had these struggles has a whole heap of emotions about the struggle itself. We usually feel like it’s impossible to change our eating. We hate that it’s affected us for years, or decades, or even our entire lives. We hate that there are people who don’t have problems with food, and we do. These and other kinds of anger-related emotions are ones I discussed more in depth in my blog, How Anger and Compulsive Eating Are Related.
As compulsive eaters we often have lots of fear, too. We might have a fear that we will never be free of compulsive eating. We may be afraid we’ll never feel healthy and at a comfortable weight.
And underneath all that, there is sadness and grief. Sadness about all the same things mentioned above. Sadness at how hard we feel like it is to change our eating. Hopelessness about whether we’ll ever get there. Grief about how much we’ve been limited in our lives because of our eating. And I’m going over these things in a rather brief manner, but please understand – these suppressed emotions are huge for most of us.
- Emotions unrelated to our eating and weight
These are often the emotional wounds that began our struggle in the first place. How did it feel when our mother talked with self-hate about her own body? How did it feel when our father abandoned the family? How did it feel when it felt like no one really cared about how we felt as a child?
There are millions of examples. Mainly I am trying to illustrate that all these emotions are the iceberg underneath the bully, and in order to release our self-hate and have self-love flow into our hearts, we have to acknowledge, and feel, all that is underneath.
All of these emotions, in both categories above, are the ones we need to feel in order to eradicate the bully. This is a very important point to make in regards to the topic of the bully in our head, because it would be a mistake to just go “Ok, I have to have self love and not self-hate” and then put on a fake happiness and force ourselves into being nice to ourselves when we really don’t feel that way. Moving from self-hate to self-love is an emotional process, not an intellectual decision alone. If we just try to think ourselves into self-love, it won’t stick and it won’t be a true change coming from our souls. We have to feel these feelings.
A note about anger specifically. I wrote more about this in the post I mentioned before, but it is an area a lot of people get confused. Bullying yourself is not experiencing your real anger. Directing anger towards yourself in self-hate is not healing. However, truly feeling the anger in us that is at the core of the issue is not only healing, but necessary for changing our eating forever. For example, it’s not healing anything to get stuck in, “I am so angry at myself, I hate myself and how pathetic I am”, but it can be healing to feel the emotion of, “I am so angry about how stuck I feel. I am so fed up with living a shadow of a life” – without beating yourself up, and while recognizing that under anger is fear and/or grief.
When Self-Hate Is Preferable
Many of us, without really realizing it at all, actually go to self-hate because even though it feels bad to an extent, it doesn’t feel as bad as all these other emotions I’ve given examples of. In other words, when we binge on pizza and wake up 5 pounds heavier, we would rather go into self-hate than touch the iceberg of emotion about how afraid we are that we will always be alone. When a family member calls us and is mean to us, and we go eat too many cookies after the conversation, we’d rather beat ourselves up than feel how awful it felt that they were mean. Because the iceberg of emotions underneath feels way more vulnerable to us than self-hate does. And so, self-hate is a preferable track to go down than having to get in touch with just how much frustration, anger, fear, hopelessness, and sadness we have in our souls.
It has been helpful for me, when I have slipped into the self-abuse, to say something to myself along the lines of, “Ok, I can see I’m going into bullying myself. What is this really about? What am I really feeling underneath the self-hate?” And the answer to that depended on the moment. But whatever was underneath has always been very, very valuable information because it was much closer to the heart of why I had food addiction. And when we have identified one or more of our feelings that is underneath the self-hate, we can say to ourselves, “Ok, then I am going to have to feel that emotion.”
In conclusion, I urge you to observe your self-bullying and how it affects your actions with food. Start questioning whether this is really the true you, and whether you need it all. Start asking yourself why you want to beat yourself up; what you believe it does for you. And start reflecting on what is actually underneath the chaos we create of self-hate.
You deserve to live a life of peace, freedom, and love, in all ways. Your prison of eating, weight, and self-hate is one you can walk out of and never, ever go back to. Healthy, long lasting weight loss, and far more importantly, the happy life you have a birthright to, will only come from love.