Karin Kratina, PhD, RD
Loud and persistent negative self-talk is a common theme among individuals with eating and weight concerns, as if enough negativity will finally motivate one to do better. While this might work once in a blue moon, it also causes stress and negative feelings. Unfortunately, those with eating and weight-related issues often deal with stress and negative feelings by eating when not hungry. Negative self-talk does not work.
Another common theme is black and white thinking, especially when it comes to food, eating and weight. When we’re on target, we do great. But veer off that target and things go downhill quickly. With these rigid ideas of what we should be eating, how much we should weigh, etc., any variation is seen as failure. We believe we must force ourselves back on track and remain on track to do well. We approach eating problems as though we were driving along a freeway—a freeway that is straight for the most part, wide, clearly marked, and with few interruptions as we zip along to our destination.
Healing eating- and weight-related issues, though, doesn’t work this way. Neither does life. We make mistakes, take wrong turns, have to back up and reevaluate—and this is all part of the journey of recovery. Of life. With each mistake we can grow wiser and stay more on track, but only if we look at our mistakes without negative judgment!
Consider that a journey that is made up almost entirely of errors can often still be moving us in the right direction. Stewart Emery (1978) learned this lesson on a plane to Hawaii. The captain for the flight was a friend of his, so Stewart was able to ride in the cockpit, where, between the captain and the co-pilot, he noticed a console with a little black box inside. The captain told Stewart that it was the navigational system, “It tells us where we are in relation to where we want to go. It doesn’t say whether it’s a good or bad place to be, it simply tells us where we are and what we need to do to correct if we are not doing it right. The fascinating fact is that we’re going to get to Hawaii, and we are going to touch down within five minutes of our estimated arrival time, having been in error 90% of the way!”
We’re really no different from an airplane in this regard: To be alive is to be constantly off course. But being off course doesn’t matter as long as we are aware and making the necessary adjustments in response. If an airplane can be in error 90% of the time yet still reach its destination, maybe we can look at ourselves with more tolerance and forgiveness as we journey through life.
Let’s start by revising our picture of how we reach our goals—from the straight shot of the highway to the zigzag of an airplane. We zig and we zag, back and forth, but as long as we’re moving in the general direction of our goal—intuitive eating, joyful movement, facing our feelings, etc. — we’re on track. Maybe we’re not even hungry when we start eating and decide to set the food aside and eat it later when we get hungry. That’s zigging. Maybe we are tired and plop in front of the TV while eating dinner. When the show is over, we realize we have eaten everything on our plate and are uncomfortably full. We think, “No wonder I ate it all, my attention was on the TV and not on myself. Tomorrow I’m going to fix dinner earlier and eat before the show comes on.” That’s zagging, getting back on the path. How does this zigzag work?
Let’s go back to Stewart’s story. The pilot actually called his navigational system “Fred and George.” Fred and George never fall out of communication with each other; they’re always providing each other with feedback. They don’t complain that each other is wrong, nor do they take feedback personally. Instead, Fred and George have the following conversation:
Fred: “George, we’re off 3 degrees to port.”
George: “Okay, Fred, I’ll fix it.”
Fred: “George, we’re off 2 degrees to starboard.”
George: “Thanks, Fred; got it covered.”
Fred: “We’re going 20 knots slower than we need to be going.”
George: “10-4, Fred, speeding up now.”
This goes on all the way to Hawaii. But consider what might happen if Fred and George decided to be judgmental of each other—how might the conversation go?
Fred: “George, we’re off 3 degrees to port.”
George: “Geez, Fred, you just said I was too far off to starboard and I fixed that. Give me a break!”
Fred: “George, get on the stick, we’re off 5 degrees to port.”
George: “So, what are you saying, Fred? Are you saying I don’t know how to do my job?”
Fred: “George? George! We’re off 7 degrees to port! Get with the program!”
George: “I’m getting sick of you, Fred; all you ever do is tell me I’m wrong. You fix it.”
Fred: “George, you lunatic, we’re off 11 degrees to port now! You’re right; I think you don’t know how to do your job!”
George: “That’s it. I’ve had it with you, Fred. I’m just not going to listen to you any more.”
Fred: “George . . . I think we may be crashing.”
Fred makes a huge mistake when he interprets George’s feedback as criticism, and very often we make the same mistake, interpreting vital, constructive feedback on our efforts—whether from our bodies, our minds, or our friends—as criticism and judgment. The harshest criticism almost always comes from ourselves when we see ourselves not living up to our image of perfection. Yet just as feedback is critical for an airplane to stay on target, so too is feedback critical for us to stay on target with intuitive eating, joyful movement or other goals. Feedback can take many forms:
• How our body feels when we’ve eaten past “comfortably full” (avoid using the phrase “too much,” as that can feel judgmental and interfere with your ability to listen to the feedback).
• How our body feels when not getting physical activity.
• How our body feels when we are getting physical activity.
• Writing our food down to see if we are on target with hunger and satiety.
• Realizing we are distracted at work and not paying attention to signals of hunger.
• Listening when our body says it is satisfied.
• Paying attention when a friend says she or he is concerned about us.
The extent to which we are able to listen to this feedback without judgment is the extent to which we will be able to use it to our advantage. This connection between reducing negative self-talk and the ability to make changes is so strong that when a client tells me, “I had no overwhelming food cravings this week,” I always reply, “And I’ll bet you had minimal negative self-talk as well.” At first they are surprised, but they quickly come to understand the powerful influence that reducing negative self-talk can have on their lives.
Early Warning Systems
In the plane’s navigational system, Fred serves as the “early warning system,” providing feedback when things were getting off track. We also have a warning system that lets us know when we need to make adjustments—we can think of it as similar to Star Trek’s system of red alerts and yellow alerts. A yellow alert means that unless we do something, we’re headed for something not too good—yellow alerts are important, but not too serious. A red alert, however, means that danger is imminent, because once you’ve gotten to the red alert stage, it’s very difficult to change course. In your journey towards recovery, just as in Star Trek, being aware of yellow alerts makes it much easier to adjust your course and avoid “imminent danger.”
For instance, a yellow alert might be that you are angry at your partner and avoid addressing the issue. A red alert might be that you go grocery shopping while angry and hungry and find that you want to binge. Once the red alert has sounded, it is often extremely difficult to alter your course of action. It is much easier to head off the binge at the yellow alert when you could have called a friend to talk about what happened, journal or even sit down and talk with your partner, grab a bite to eat, then head to the grocery store. At first, it seems like more work to focus on the yellow alert, but if you fully consider what happens at the red alert stage, the work at yellow alert seems minimal.
A yellow alert might be your boss asking you to work through lunch to get a project done. The red alert comes along if you decide to skip lunch. Another red alert might come along if you shut down your hunger and pretend you don’t need food.
A yellow alert might consist of you running late and realizing you’re very hungry and that you still have one more errand. The red alert comes along when you take care of that errand before taking care of yourself and find yourself careening right into the kitchen cabinets when you get home eating whatever you can find.
When you begin to look for and find the yellow alerts, you will discover that it is much easier to alter the direction in which you are headed. However, when you are not looking for the yellow alerts, and find yourself in a red alert, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up acting in a way that is not supportive of your recovery. By responding to the yellow alert before it becomes red—calling ahead for take out, canceling the last appointment so you could get to the grocery store, or stopping to pick up something to eat that would be ready to eat as soon as you got home—you could avoid the red alert, and ultimately feel more in control of your life.
The yellow and red alerts in our lives—which will always be there—give us feedback on how we’re doing. Successful people are skilled at recognizing yellow alerts and making needed adjustments. The sooner you’re able to notice and willing to change what doesn’t work, without negative self-talk, the sooner you’ll reach your goal of living free from eating and weight related concerns.
As always, be gentle with yourself and remember that change is a matter of progress, not perfection. Life is a zigging and zagging journey that never ends.
—Adapted from the unpublished work of Linda Reding.
Stewart E. (1978). Actualizations: You Don’t Have to Rehearse to Be Yourself. New York: Doubleday Press.