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Stop Beating Yourself Up

Psychology teaches us that there are two ways to change behavior: one is through incentives and the other is through punishment. Incentives mean working for reward or pleasure, and punishment involves taking action to avoid pain. One form of behavior modification is not necessarily more potent than the other, but using only self-punishment will not help you become a “normal” eater. If you are used to coming down hard on yourself in your efforts to eat more or less, you will have to change your approach.

Think about how you were encouraged to alter your behavior in childhood and how your parents tried to modify theirs. Did they beat themselves up when they didn’t measure up? Did they punish you verbally or physically when you failed to meet their or your expectations? Or did they use appropriate incentives to sustain motivation and offer healthy rewards for you to do better? My bet is that if you are hard on yourself when you make mistakes or don’t reach your goals, you had at least one parents that was extremely self-punishing and you have patterned yourself similarly.

Face it, if flagellating yourself emotionally was going to work to change your behavior, it would have happened already. If beating yourself up was going to make a difference, don’t you think it would have worked by now? This is a case of more is not better. The fact is that punishing yourself for not eating the way you’d like is one of the worst things you can do if you want to eat “normally.” It may be necessary to chastise a child for running into traffic or to put a drunk driver into jail, but it’s not healthy or productive to regularly reprimand yourself for not living up to your expectations, eating or otherwise.

Instead, you want to be curious and compassionate and give yourself appropriate incentives to change. Every time you rebuke yourself for not trying hard enough, for doing it “wrong,” for being a failure, you make the process more difficult and success more impossible. The “stick” may be the only way you’ve known to motivate yourself, but it doesn’t work. Maya Angelou once said, “When we know better, we do better.” Now that you’re aware that self-punishment isn’t going to take you where you want to go with food and weight, it’s time to turn off this behavior. Be aware every time you come down hard on yourself. Substitute kind words for harsh ones. Go for understanding your behavior, not condemning it. Punishment and stinging self-judgment are difficult habits to break, but you must let them go if you want to achieve your eating goals.