We all have one – that little voice inside our minds that tells us what we are and what we aren’t doing right. Sometimes it is a gentle whisper offering encouragement, but all too often in eating disorders it is an angry and loud voice criticizing every thought, emotion, and action. In ED treatment there is a lot of focus on building and repairing relationships with friends and family, but what about the relationship we have with ourselves? How do the things we say to ourselves and the words we use with ourselves affect our day-to-day lives?
Negative thinking and self-talk develop for a variety of reasons and can take a number of forms, but one of the most prominent forms is labeling. Labeling is essentially assigning a usually negative label to one’s personhood based on a behavior (e.g., calling oneself a loser after a single failure). When we do this we often ignore evidence to the contrary and tend to seek out evidence that supports our use of the negative label. Often times the things we tell ourselves we would never say to a friend, family member, or even a complete stranger. Would you call your best friend a loser after her team lost a game? Would you tell your daughter that there is no way she could handle trying something new? Probably not. This double standard is harmful to our well-being and self-esteem. The next time you make a mistake or are fretting about a perceived fault I challenge yourself to speak to yourself as though you were speaking to your best friend or a young child. Offer yourself supportive advice and words of encouragement. If you get stuck you can try imagining what a friend or loved one would tell you about the situation. Another way to challenge labeling is to label the behavior and not the person. If I label myself as being irresponsible for being late to a meeting, I am likely to take a hit in self-esteem and begin to see myself as irresponsible in all areas of my life. Instead, label the behavior. Being late to a meeting is an irresponsible behavior- a behavior that can be changed. Does that feel more empowering?
When that inner voice becomes a relentless and tireless critic it can be helpful to give that voice a name. “Miss Mean”, “Cruella”, and “The Witch” are names I have heard people use to describe the voice. Naming the negative voice helps you not only notice how often it comes into play, but also allows you to begin arguing back. So if “Miss Mean” is yammering on and on about your faults your healthy voice can answer back and tell “Miss Mean” to take a hike or to simmer down. You can also challenge “Miss Mean” directly by negating her criticisms with positive affirmations or inspiring quotes and/or by finding evidence that is in direct opposition to what “Miss Mean” has said.
So the next time you find yourself in a self-pity or shame monologue try naming the negative voice and arguing back, label the behavior and not the person, and offer yourself the love, support, and encouragement you’d offer a loved one.
Dr. Kylene Halliday, PsyD.