Why You Should Stop Beating Yourself Up for Overeating

For many of us, we have a tendency to ‘beat ourselves up’ when it comes to overeating–more so than in other areas of our lives.  We try so hard just to say, “no.”  Yes, we do try hard and strive to make better choices–eating healthier and exercising more, but changing our old habits is difficult.

Yet when we’ve had a setback on our path to choosing making healthier lifestyle choices, we often view it as a personal failure.  Consequently, we feel weak, hopeless, and a slave to our habits and senses.  Our reactions to these setbacks are easily overblown.  Either we plan to compensate with a starvation diet for tomorrow or alternately, just to give up altogether, what’s the use after all?

This type of pattern encapsulates relapses in terms of reverting back to old habits followed by harsh self-judgement and criticism.  As it turns out, these negative thoughts actually do more harm than good for maintaining a diet.

In one particular study, this is how it worked:  Dieters were told to “go easy on themselves” in the face of eating self-serve candy.  Those who were rated as “highly restrictive” ate less after hearing a self-compassion message compared to those who did not.

Christopher Germer, Ph.D., cited this study in  his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (2009). He’res his interpretation:

“When dieters’ heads are ‘not cluttered with unpleasant thoughts and feelings,’ they can focus on their dietary goals rather than trying to improve their mood by eating more food.”

Two recently published books and a corresponding New York Times article outlined the advantages of going easier on oneself when making dietary changes. To many of us, this may actually seem counterintuitive.

“I’m afraid if I go easy on myself, I’ll just give in and not care anymore,” says a typical dieter. “How can I be nice to myself after I’ve done something so disgusting?” says another. These thoughts, well-known to dieters and binge eaters, don’t reconcile with the reality that the slips and binges typically continue even with the self-abasement. The fear is that things might be even worse without it.

Let’s consider what might really be happening, though…

Who might really deserve to be treated nicely— or in others words, allow themselves to succeed, to feel satiated yet not over stuffed?

The person who’s doing their best, or the person who’s done something really “disgusting?”  The self-flagellation confirms the notion that we may not be worth the care and effort of eating better.

Picturing how we would respond to a friend who’s overeaten helps frame this issue.   Would we really punish and yell at them, or  rather would we try to be encouraging and compassionate?  Which do you think would be more helpful?

Also, as Germer noted, those negative thoughts and feelings do clutter the mind.  As such, it’s difficult to reflect on what happened—on how and why a slip or binge occurred—while being so preoccupied.  That kind of reflection, self-reflection,  helps avert future problems. Analysis of such events is, in fact, a major part of relapse prevention programs, and cognitive-behavioral change programs of all types.

Dr. Kristen Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, argues that self-compassion increases motivation, contrary to the idea that we’ll whip ourselves into shape with self-criticism.

You can hear this when the dieter quoted above, worked to change the habits and self-talk that followed her slips:

“It’s funny, now I actually feel like I want to avoid the temptations, because I know how good I’ll feel, and how bad I’ll feel if I don’t. I guess I feel like I have some power to control that now.”

The Self-Compassion Diet, by Jean Fain, points to the deprivation and neglect that most diet plans encourage. This stands out in the other quoted dieter’s case. She’d likewise begun to respond to her binges with more self-care. “It’s the old thing, you know, that if you can’t have it you want it so much more.”

Self-compassion sits firmly in the traditions of Buddhist psychology and modern mindfulness practices. These practices embrace the paradox that change more likely follows acceptance than resistance. They teach that it’s hard to behave in ways that are peaceful and non-harming (such as, eating well) without first extending care to oneself.

The shift to less severe responses indeed requires an investment in the form of “work,” time and energy. Mindfulness practice itself can help.  That is, the practice of observing one’s responses non-judgmentally, in the present moment, staying aware of the breath. Skills used to deal with other negative thoughts and behaviors can help here, too, such as cognitive restructuring or affirmations.

However you approach change, the compassionate stance is that it may not happen instantly or perfectly. You’ve been hard on yourself for a long time, after all.  Now, you’ll need to learn how to be nicer.  Be cognizant of what you try to do differently, and reassure yourself that you’re on the right path.


  1. Fain, The Self-Compassion Diet (2011), www.soundstrue.com
  2. Neff, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (2011), Morrow
  3. Katz, Eat Sanely: Get Off the Diet Roller Coaster for Good (2010), www.eatsanely.com
  4. Germer, The mindful path to self-compassion (2009), Guilford Press
  5. “Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges”, by Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times (3/1/11), www.nytimes.com

Terese Weinstein Katz, Ph.D.

Dr. Katz is a clinical psychologist, eating disorders specialist, diet coach, and author. Her workbook Eat Sanely: Get Off the Diet Roller Coaster for Good is available in paperback and ebook format. Her work aims to help as many people as possible eat more sanely in our food-crazy world. Visit her at www.eatsanely.com

2 thoughts on “Why You Should Stop Beating Yourself Up for Overeating

  • October 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    As one of my yoga teachers said, beating yourself up is a waste of your energy. Invest your energy in the present, not the past!

  • October 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    While dieting can be a bit stressful at times, it is best to realize that we need to make room for fun every once in a while as well!

    Anybody struggling with their weight should give this blog a look. He has an inspirational story of how he changed his life for the better, and ended up meeting the love of his life. I always read his first post whenever I am a bit frustrated with my dieting, Johnathan is a lucky man.


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