I don’t know about you, but I heard enough commands, demands, and admonishments as a child to last me a lifetime. We all did because that’s pretty much how adults talk to children and, age appropriately, how things should be. You don’t ask a five-year-old if she wishes to hold your hand crossing a busy street, but tell her, “Take my hand.” You don’t ask a 10-year-old if he wants to be playing with matches and, instead, say, “Please stop doing that.” 

However, if that’s all you ever hear as a child and adolescent, that is, what you should or shouldn’t do, you’re going to start resenting not being able to use your developing mind to make decisions yourself. And the more you’re subject to demands and commands, the stronger your resentment will grow until you feel like you can’t stand and won’t tolerate anyone bossing you around. 

The problem is that while you bristle when others talk to you that way, you use these same words to bully yourself. How often do you tell yourself, “I should/shouldn’t, can/can’t, must/must, am supposed to/am not supposed to, need/don’t need to” do something? The problem with this kind of self-talk is that it is rooted in reacting to someone else and steals the locus of power away from you, when what you want to happen is the exact opposite. That is, you want to set aside what others might want or not want you to do and figure out what’s best for yourself.

Let’s look at the words can/can’t versus will/won’t. For example, when you say I can’t have that piece of cake, there’s an implication that your decision is not about what you want but what’s expected of you by someone else or society. The same is true with saying you can have the cake, as if you’re being granted permission or approval rather than expressing your own desire. Alternately, saying you will or won’t implies that you are in charge of your eating and make decisions accordingly. They are powerful words which show intent, not reactivity. If you always assume you can do whatever because you’re an adult, then the relevant question becomes whether or not you will or won’t.

Whenever I hear people say, “I shouldn’t” do X or Y, my first thought is that they really want to do X or Y but feel they’ll be bad if they do. Think about it, doesn’t that sound like a child or adult worrying about what will be thought of them? They’d do far better to consider what they want and will or won’t do. For more descriptions of which words will help you to become a “normal” eater, read my book, Words to Eat By: Using the Power of Self-talk to Transform Your Relationship with Food and Your Body.