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Stop Gaslighting Yourself

How to keep self-sabotage from making food obsessions worse.

Key points

  • A history of trauma can lead to feelings of being unsafe, making you feel you don't deserve to succeed or to have good things in life.
  • It's common for self-sabotaging beliefs and behaviors to surface when we approach something we truly desire.
  • Many people dealing with emotional eating or binge eating are also perfectionistic, which can be a form of self-sabotage.

Gaslighting, usually a form of verbal abuse that uses statements that make you doubt yourself. When you struggle with binge eating, food obsessions, or emotional eating, you may find yourself constantly engaging in negative self-talk, undermining even the progress you've made, being super-critical and condescending — even calling into doubt your abilities or goals — could be called gaslighting yourself.

Gaslighting could also be something that is self-inflicted and therefore, another way of "self-sabotaging." Self-sabotage is common and happens to people from all walks of life -celebrities as well as us "regular folks." Just think about how over 80% of people who make New Year's resolutions in January are unable to keep them by February. Self-sabotage is not uncommon also in those who struggle with emotional eating or binge eating. Self-sabotage can be defined as undermining yourself or your own plans or goals.

Self-sabotage occurs when we undermine ourselves, whether it be physically, mentally, or emotionally, or deliberately hinder our own success and wellbeing by undermining our personal values and goals. Self-sabotage can be conscious or unconscious. For example, when you find yourself going through the drive-through and pretending you're ordering for two, even when you promised yourself you wouldn't do that anymore - that's self-sabotage. An example of unconscious sabotage is "forgetting" a date you made to work out with your personal trainer or your exercise partner or suddenly being too busy at work to go. Self-sabotage can take a toll on all areas of your life — career, health, relationships, and more.

Many people who struggle with these issues also tend to be perfectionistic or too hard on themselves, which can be a form of self-sabotage. The belief you need to be perfect no matter what, often leaves you feeling "you're not good enough." A fear of making mistakes can lead to procrastination and self-sabotage.

A history of trauma can lead to feelings of being unsafe, making you feel you don't deserve to succeed or to have good things in life. Sometimes behaviors, especially around food, may have developed as a way to cope with overwhelming emotions or situations when you were younger. These are called "adaptive" behaviors because they help us "adapt" to uncomfortable situations - whether it be childhood trauma, moving to a new neighborhood or being bullied, for example. When these behaviors extend into our adult lives, they can cause unwanted behaviors such as binge eating and emotional eating. Being neglected as a child can lead to low self-esteem and cause us to sabotage relationships or make ourselves feel unattractive to avoid being vulnerable or getting hurt. Being in a bigger body can feel safer for many trauma survivors.

Self-sabotage can be part of your mindset. A sabotaging mindset includes negativity, disorganization, indecisiveness, and negative self-talk. Sometimes we consciously or unconsciously engage in mindless distractions that keep us from reaching our goals. Some mindless distractions include binge-watching TV, surfing the internet, scrolling through social media, video game obsession, and internet shopping — and not just when we're stuck at home during a pandemic.

But it’s not just what goes on in our mind that leads to self-sabotage; it is also unwanted behaviors – binging or overeating, drinking too much, overspending, obsessively thinking about food or your body.

Other behaviors help us avoid situations, people, or emotions with which we’re uncomfortable. These behaviors keep us stuck in self-sabotage though. Examples include procrastination, being late all the time, quitting when things get tough, being a people-pleaser, or lacking assertiveness.

Obviously, it’s rational to fear true dangers in life in order to survive and stay safe and keep our loved ones safe. But many people, especially those with trauma histories, may feel unsafe because they are triggered by a situation that takes them back to their trauma where they were truly unsafe. This can lead to commitment fears, being afraid of the change, or of losing control.

It's common for self-sabotaging beliefs and behaviors to surface when we approach something we truly desire. For many, many people, the desire to be free from unwanted behaviors, obsessive thoughts about food, and body dissatisfaction is a true, heartfelt desire. That is what makes it so much harder to accept when self-sabotaging behaviors keep popping up. "Why can't I succeed in this one area of my life?" is the question I'm often asked by my patients with binge eating or emotional eating. Each of these mini-failures can deplete your confidence, followed by more behaviors to cope with the pain of failure.

What gets rewarded, gets repeated. ( If self-sabotage is so bad for us, so painful, why does it get repeated? I love the saying above because it's true that we don't keep doing something if we're not getting something from it. I'm sure this seems contradictory to you and I understand. However, if you look deeper, you may find that your behaviors do provide something — comfort, a reward, an escape, a way to rebel or avoid. To stop the behaviors, it's important to identify the root cause and heal that.

We all have an inner critic – that little voice in the back of our minds that’s always telling us what we’ve done wrong or could have done better and why we’re not worthy or that we’ll never get it right. Our inner critic constantly challenges us – not to do better but to believe we can't do better.

These are remnants from the past, often the result of traumatic experiences in the past that deplete our self-confidence and lead to the creation of habits that have served in the past as ways to keep us from feeling certain emotions, from experiencing rejection, or from being hurt in some way. Sabotage also protects that part of us that fears being “too big” of a personality, taking up too much space, or being too powerful as this may feel unsafe or feel threatening.

Sometimes self-sabotaging behaviors are things that were modeled for us growing up. Maybe you had a parent with food and body image issues who went on diet after diet or constantly made negative comments about their own body. You may have come to believe that was the only way to deal with the food and body image issues you have too.

Some of the most important conversations we have are those in our heads, with ourselves. The problem is that many people think what goes on in their heads is who they are. And if you’ve experienced trauma you may engage in a lot of negative self-talk, perhaps thinking it will help you whip yourself into shape, when that isn’t further from the truth. I’ve spoken in past podcasts about research that shows that the more negative your self-talk, the less likely you are to engage in healthy eating or activity.

Here are ways you can begin to put an end to self-sabotage around food and body image issues:

1. Start becoming aware of your emotions. Only 1 in 3 people can identify what they're feeling. When you don't know what you are feeling, you may just have a sense of "discomfort" and then quickly numb that sense with food without recognizing that your emotions may be trying to tell you something. Maybe an emotion is telling you you're angry at your partner and you should let your partner know. Or you may be feeling tired, which by the way, is not the same as being hungry.

2. Journal about your emotions and how they impact your eating behaviors. This will begin to give you evidence of how you use food — to numb, to escape, to rebel, etc. With this information and more emotional awareness, you can begin to find other ways to fill the void or to find relaxation or escapes that don't involve food.

3. Think about the messages you were given or that were implied as you were growing up. Maybe you were neglected as a kid and grew up never feeling you were flawed or unworthy. Or you had a very critical parent who made you feel nothing was good enough unless it was perfect. Once you realize this, you can ask yourself if you can help your younger self let go of that unhealthy belief and find another more affirming belief to take its place.

4. Set up structures in your life, at work, etc. to interrupt or avoid self-sabotage. For example, when I'm reaching for the stars in my career and I have a big meeting coming up, I put on 3 alarms to make sure I don't "accidentally forget." Do the same for making sure you eat regularly to reduce risk of binging, for example. Set an alarm for meals.

You don't have to let gaslighting make you feel ashamed or guilty. It can be seen as a messenger, telling you it's time for healing. It can be a call to action.

All the best,

Dr. Carolyn