How often do you hear a parental voice in your head that says things like, “You’ve got to lose weight,” or “You should get up earlier every morning and exercise,” or “Today I should get caught up on the bills,” or “I’ve got to get rid of this clutter.” Let’s explore what happens in response to this voice.
We have a very good reason for judging ourselves: the judgmental part of us believes that by judging, criticizing, “shoulding” ourselves, we will motivate ourselves to take action and therefore protect against failure or rejection. We may have been judging ourselves to get ourselves to do things “right” since we were kids, hoping to keep ourselves in line. And we keep on doing it because we believe it works.
Let’s take the example of Karl, who is a high-powered executive in a large accounting firm. Karl has had a heart attack and is supposed to watch his diet. Right after his heart attack, he did well avoiding sugar, fats, and overeating, but after six months or so, he found himself struggling with his food plan. In our counseling session, Karl told me he was upset with himself for having a big desert as well as a big meal the night before. I asked Karl to put himself back into the situation and recreate what he had been feeling.
“Well, I was out to dinner with one of our biggest clients. He asked me a question and I didn’t remember the facts, so I couldn’t answer him. As soon as this happened, that voice came into my head telling me that I’m stupid, that I should have remembered it and ‘What’s the matter with me anyway?’”
“What did you feel as soon as you judged yourself?” I asked.
“Well, looking back, I think I felt that sad, sort of dark empty hollow feeling I often get inside. And you know what - that’s when I started to eat a lot of bread with tons of butter and ordered the desert! I didn’t realize it was in response to that empty feeling that I hate!”
“So the sad empty feeling is what you feel when you judge yourself. Judging yourself is an inner abandonment, so your Inner Child then feels alone, sad and empty. You are telling your Child that he is not good enough. I know that you don’t do this with your actual children, but you do it a lot with yourself, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I think it do it all the time. After I judged myself for not knowing the answer, then I judged myself for eating too much and having desert. And then I felt even worse.”
“So what did you hope for by judging yourself?
“I guess I hoped that I could control my eating and also get myself to work harder so I wouldn’t forget things.”
“It doesn’t seem to be working.”
“No, it just makes me feel terrible. In fact, I can see that judging myself for not knowing the answer made me feel so badly that then I wanted to eat more. Instead of giving me more control, it gave me less!”
“So you are trying to have control over yourself through your self-judgments, but what actually happens is that you feel awful and behave in addictive ways to avoid the pain. I think what also happens is that some part of you goes into resistance to being judged and told what to do, so you end up doing the opposite of what you tell yourself you should do.”
“Right. As soon as I tell myself not to eat so much and judge myself for eating, that’s when I really want to eat. So I’m eating to not be controlled and also because in judging myself I’m abandoning myself, which makes me feel sad and empty, and I’ve always used food to fill up that emptiness. Whew! How do I stop this cycle?”
“You can’t stop it until you are conscious of it. As long as you are doing it unconsciously - on automatic pilot - you have no choice over it. So the first thing you can do is not try to change it but just notice it. As you become very aware of this pattern, you will have the choice to change it. You will have the choice to be loving and caring toward yourself instead of judgmental once you become aware of what you are doing. You can start by noticing every time you feel that empty sad feeling, and then exploring what you were telling yourself that led to the painful feeling.”
Karl did start to notice and over time was able to stop judging himself. Not only did the sad empty feeling that he had experienced so often in his life go away, but he was able to keep to his medical nutrition plan for his heart. When his Inner Child felt loved instead of judged, he didn’t need to eat to take away the pain.