We often hear very critical self-talk from our clients: “I am so stupid.” “I’m a pig.” “I’m lazy,” “I was bad this week,” “I hate that I ate that ice cream,” or “I should have stopped at one serving.” It’s tempting to argue with the person: “Don’t be so hard on yourself” or “Making that choice doesn’t mean you are stupid.” This tends to strengthen the client’s critic.
Face the facts of being what you are,
for that is what changes what you are.
We may in fact disappoint ourselves,
may not meet our own expectations,
but we do not cease to be a friend to ourselves.
What you are hearing is simply the critical parts of the client speaking up. We all have critics. You may be familiar with your critics. Do they push you to work harder by saying you are lazy? Do they give you the thought at times that you really don’t know what you are doing? These critical voices sometimes drown out parts that are more useful. These critical voices are almost always present in the stuck places we see our clients in. They keep a client inside the polarization between changing and not changing certain behaviors.
Cognitive-behavioral approaches address this talk directly by finding countering self-talk and asking the client to practice this positive talk. For example, when the thought “I’m bad because I ate that” comes up, the client can choose to substitute, “I am a worthy person, and what I choose to eat in a given moment doesn’t change that.” This approach has some success, though it tends to be short-lived. The critical voice is still there.
In the last tip, we explored the power of accepting what we wish to change. Here, we look at critical self-talk from the perspective of acceptance of all parts of us.
Those of us who work with eating disorders know that the behaviors (restricting, binging, purging, compulsive exercise) began as a way to cope with life’s difficulties. The client discovered (usually unconsciously) that these behaviors helped in some way, and started doing them more and more. Other nutrition clients with unhealthy eating habits have picked up their behaviors for some reason that made sense at one point. For example, the client who usually eats more than he needs at a meal may have begun that habit when growing up in a large family with fear of not getting enough. That fear is still in there and may emerge more strongly during times of stress.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model provides a useful perspective to work with critical self-talk. Here is a brief overview: Parts of the client have taken on protective roles at times of difficulty in the client’s life. The part of a person that holds the pain of the life event (loss, rejection, abuse) is exiled away in the service of functioning in the present. The protective parts that hold the exiled parts away can be premptive, such as extreme dieting or rigid ways of eating. Or the protective parts can be reactive when strong feelings threaten to take over. These reactive behaviors might be binging, compulsive exercise, or purging. (More on IFS)
It’s tempting to guess or try to figure out the intention of a part that engages in certain behaviors. It’s more effective to ask the part about its intention. A part will not share its intention if there are other parts that judge or hate it. This is where the critics come in. The negative self-talk we hear are critical parts that get in the way of listening for the intentions of the parts doing the troublesome behaviors. To get a clearer picture of how critics block change, take a moment to think of a person you disapprove of, dislike, or even hate. Notice how little openness and curiosity you have about her and her life. Now, think of a person you like, and notice your level of openness. This is an illustration of how negative feelings toward someone close us off. In the same way, when a client judges or hates a part of himself, he will be unable to learn about it.
From an IFS perspective, the process of healing and change involves getting to know our parts and hearing what they need to say. When we ask a client to engage with a part of her that, for example, binges, very quickly we hear, things like, “I hate it” or “I’m angry at it.” These are other, critical, parts of the person. It is completely understandable that these parts hate or are angry at the part that pushes the person to binge. In order to truly listen to that binging part, the hating and angry parts need to clear some space so the client can be fully present to the binging part. The more extreme the behavior (purging every meal, for example), the stronger the critic will be and the harder it is for the client to separate from this criticism. The client then continues to hear the critical thoughts, speak them, validate them as if they and the critic are one. You can guide your client to request the critic to back off (or turn down the volume on) the self-talk for a bit. If it agrees, you and the client may have enough space to turn with curiosity toward the part that does the behavior (binging, restricting, eating past satisfaction). Sometimes, a critical voice refuses to separate even for a moment. In that case, you can turn attention to it and listen carefully to its intention. Most of our parts long for our attention and healing presence.
As those of us who have worked with eating behaviors find, these underlying intentions are usually linked to deeper concerns, such as low self-esteem or past abuse or neglect. Often, the eating disorder parts are taking care of another, vulnerable part — perhaps a part stuck in the past from a difficult childhood. Healing of these deep issues is primarily the job of a therapist. As nutrition professionals, the more we understand the process underlying our clients’ behaviors, the more we can help them. Over and over I have found that key issues emerge first in the context of eating and exercise. Since we focus on food in our sessions, these connections will come up. We can show acceptance and then encourage the client to bring it up in therapy.
In summary, there is power in accepting the parts of the client that engage in troubling behaviors and the parts that criticize these behaviors. We thereby encourage our clients to consider doing the same – to create loving relationships even with these parts of themselves they may have come to dislike. When we lend our curiosity and compassion, shifts can happen.
There are some client handouts on this topic here.