I saw a quote the other day that stopped me in my tracks:
Its stark simplicity hit me hard.
It’s absolutely true. If children are criticised relentlessly, they don’t start hating their parents, they start hating themselves.
We all criticise our kids at some point, but if you grow up with excessive criticism you come to believe you should never make mistakes and are unworthy of forgiveness.
As an adult, you have unrelentingly high standards for yourself. You don’t stop to consider whether the error was simply because you’re human. Instead, any minor infraction means you come down on yourself like a ton of bricks.
Or rather your Inner Bully does. When you make a mistake, however innocent, your Inner Bully’s damning monologue goes something like this:
“I can’t believe you did that. You’re such an idiot. What will they think of you? You never get it right. You’re so stupid and worthless”.
The shame you experience as a result will have you heading for the fridge as you to turn to food to detach from it. You need something to relieve your emotional pain and food provides that comfort.
But binge eating isn’t always about comfort. Sometimes it’s a form of punishment. Food can be used to ensure your physical and psychological discomfort as your Inner Bully sadistically urges, “Keep eating – you don’t deserve to feel good”.
Not everyone who struggles with emotion-driven overeating experienced hypercriticism as a child. Often trying and failing at dieting for many years is enough to guarantee you can’t forgive yourself. After all, diets are usually marketed as “easy” and “simple”. Therefore, if you fail at them you must be some kind of monumental numpty, right?
So what’s to be done? How can you learn to forgive yourself? I have some suggestions:
Consider the Source of the Criticism
Think about the negative messages you received in childhood. Where did they come from? Were those people reliable sources of information? As a child, you had to blindly accept their judgement, but as an adult you can consider their motives. Did they have admirable character traits such as integrity, honesty, compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit? If they themselves were lacking in positive attributes, why accept their feedback? You can undo the damage they’ve done by seeing yourself realistically. And no, that’s not arrogance. Humility means owning your strengths as well as your weaknesses.
Lower that Bar, Baby
While there’s nothing wrong with having high standards, perfectionism is damaging. If you can just lower your standards a little, you might see that most of the time you do OK and can give yourself a break. If you do get it wrong, was the transgression intentional or unintentional? If you didn’t set out to attack, sabotage or deliberately hurt anyone in any other way, then forgive yourself for just being human.
Blame Dieting, Not Yourself
I don’t care if the diet says it’s “easy”. I don’t care what celebrity has done what. It doesn’t work for you, me and the vast majority of people who do it. I know I’ve said this before but some messages are worth reiterating time and again until you understand the truth. Diets have at least a 95% failure rate – you’re not the failure, they are. So forgive yourself for your dieting history once and for all. It’s not your fault, it never was.
Don’t Surrender, Fight Back
The Inner Bully wants to diminish and shame you. But you don’t have to let it. Just because you’re used to surrendering to it and feeling awful about yourself, doesn’t mean you can’t find it within yourself to fight back. When it begins its damning monologue, feel free to interrupt and dismiss it: “It wasn’t a big deal. Nobody minded. How dare you blame me. You’re not welcome here. Get lost”. Keep going until it shuts up. Yes, you can do this.
Reconciliation not Rumination
It’s important you dismiss your Inner Bully when it’s giving you a hard time so you can properly reconcile the experience within you and move on. Otherwise, you’ll ruminate and there’s nothing like rumination to make you binge. Essentially, rather than giving in to the Bully, you’re looking inside yourself for a second opinion, one that is more authentic and self-compassionate. The more you can do this, the better you’ll feel about yourself.
The fact of the matter is we all make mistakes.
I know intellectually you understand this. Now read that sentence again and, as well as comprehending it cognitively, pause and give yourself the chance to really feel it.
We all make mistakes.
We all mess things up, fall flat, fall short, miss the mark, say the wrong thing. We all make mistakes because we’re all learning all the time and that’s OK.
If you insist on perpetuating your own suffering with self-punishment you’ll always turn to food, either as a source of comfort or means of torture, and I don’t want that for you.
I want you to give yourself a flipping break.
My wish for you next year and beyond is that you commit to forgiving yourself for your mistakes and cultivate an attitude of openness, forgiveness and self-compassion.
So, in future, your answer to the question “can you forgive yourself?” is an immediate and very definite “of course I can”.