If you struggle with food, you know all too well that the heart of the struggle isn’t with the food so much as it is with yourself. We can’t just remove certain foods, or change what we eat, and hope that’ll be enough to end our emotional eating. It won’t. We’ve tried that. What we need is an overhaul of the relationship with ourselves. And that’s some hard work. After all, we’ve only been fighting who we are for, oh, decades maybe?
But there’s a secret—a shortcut even. Not an easy path, let me warn you, but it’s the straightest, surest one to working through emotional eating. And it’s going to startle you, but hear me out: To recover from emotional eating, you must first accept yourself.
If the concept of self-acceptance seems contradictory to change and recovery, I get it, because we’re often trying to recover because of the dissatisfaction we feel with our current state. How can I accept the very thing I want to change? And then, If I could accept myself, why would I need to change? But self-acceptance is more beneficial than you think.
Simply, it is accepting all parts of ourselves—from our limitations to our strengths. Acceptance doesn’t mean we think we’re perfect, or allow complacency, or even stop us from improvement. It’s complete, eyes-open, awareness of who we are in the present moment and embracing that. Why embrace that?
Because we’re not motivated by criticism. We’re not inspired when we hate ourselves. If your daughter became chubby, and you judged her, shamed her, and let her know just how much you couldn’t accept her chubbiness…would it motivate her to change?
Or would she feel ashamed? Would she begin to eat secretly and alone, like us?
Or let’s say it did lead her to lose weight…what do you think her relationship with food, herself, and you, would look like afterward? Years from now?
As hard as we may try, you just can’t beat yourself into change. When we constantly judge ourselves, we internalize those harsh criticisms, and stop believing we’re capable. Instead of recognizing that we have moments of weakness, we start to believe we are weak. Instead of recognizing that we have some ingrained habits that don’t serve us, we believe we are deeply flawed. It’s so commonplace to believe these things about ourselves. Ask any woman you know. She can’t bear to accept herself and she’s got a list of things she could rattle off that she needs to improve.
A person who is not self accepting might be in such a state of inner and outer turmoil that they can’t help but avoid their current reality. They’ll do anything to repress the emotions they feel. I’ve been this person, with my eyes closed and fingers in my ears, trying to block out how shameful the reality of my binge eating was—and how much weight I’d gained (hi, 2012!). I thought that accepting myself meant being OK with myself, and I wasn’t. So I didn’t weigh myself, didn’t write about it, didn’t want to talk about it. I just distracted myself so that I couldn’t feel the anxiety, all the while gaining, eating nightly with the promise to start clean tomorrow. And every day I hated myself, because I deserved it.
What would self-acceptance have looked like then? I remember my therapist mentioning it and me, almost spitting out my coffee at the very thought, “Of course I can’t accept myself! I’m a mess!” But knowing what I know now, I recognize that self-acceptance means waking up the morning after a binge, acknowledging that it’s shame I feel, and knowing that when I hear the voice in my head saying, “You always screw up. Why are you so weak?!” I should remember that it’s the same voice who tells me a million conflicting thoughts 100 times a day—the same voice that can, within the same hour, make me think I’m pretty and then ugly, smart and then dumb, secure and oh no.
If I were self-accepting, I could have recognized that I was lodged in a cycle of binge, restrict, repeat, and rather than trying to spend that day eating next to nothing to make up for the zillion calories I’d eaten the night before, a compassionate me could have encouraged, “Andie you’ve learned that never works. Maybe you won’t make up for the binge today, or ever, but mentally and emotionally, why don’t you try feeling stable and balanced?” Because the old way never worked. And the compassionate way is precisely what does.
Acceptance gives you permission to practice kindness with the person you’ve historically been the least kind to: you. If you give it a real try, you’ll see how the criticisms get lighter. Self-doubt shakes off. Shame dissipates. Hating yourself becomes a rare phenomenon, but you’re human. Slowly, your beliefs about yourself shift from less-than to enough, from powerless to empowered. And when you do make changes, like losing weight, let’s say, you have the perspective to see that hating yourself never made you any thinner, and doubling up on self-criticism never counted for a damn thing.
But acceptance did.