11/25/2014 12:32 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

The Biggest Mistake Emotional Eaters Make

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Believe it or not, the biggest mistake emotional eaters make has nothing to do with food -- but it flavors everything.

The No. 1 mistake people make when they are trying to gain control of emotional eating and overeating is that they get mad at themselves and beat themselves up emotionally when things don't go as planned, when they have a slip, or when they overeat.

Critical self-judgment might seem like the appropriate response, but it creates nothing but a dead end -- or worse.

You tell yourself you're "wrong" or "bad" or "hopeless." You "screwed up" and you'll have to do better tomorrow.

Like children, adults don't thrive with punishment and negativity. And, as much as the get-tough-boot camp mentality may appeal to you, that kind of frustration with yourself won't set you up for weight loss success.

Think about it. How often is the moment that you decide you've "blown it again" the very same moment you decide to go ahead and finish the bag of chips or the cookie dough or whatever it was you just got mad at yourself for eating?

Judgment and self-blame are negative, closed, restrictive mindsets. They do nothing to encourage creative problem solving, optimism, or resourcefulness -- the very things required to succeed with emotional eating and weight loss. In fact, when you pile on the self-blame and the guilt, you're more likely to want to go to bed and pull the covers over your head than you are to want to keep moving forward.

You'll see much better results if you trade in the self-blame and instead, get curious about your hidden hungers and the reasons you are overeating in the first place.

Curiosity is the opposite of judgment. It's the tool of problem solvers and one of the most powerful resources you can learn to leverage in making peace with food. Questioning (instead of blaming) opens doors and propels you forward to take the power back from food and succeed at losing weight. Curiosity allows you to see options, opportunity, and new solutions. It's the key mechanism for learning how to "do it differently."

It's impossible to be absolutely curious and full of self-judgment at the same time.

It might be hard to imagine changing old habits of self-blame and the feeling that you "deserve" to be hard on yourself, but my clients are amazed at how powerful that shift feels and how much momentum it provides.

Three ways to engage your curiosity to take control of emotional eating:

Next time you are struggling with emotional eating or overeating, ask yourself the following questions. Work to suspend judgment and approach the questions and your answers with curiosity:

  1. What do I know about what made today (this afternoon, this week) so difficult for me? What contributed to my struggles with overeating?
  2. If today was a difficult day, how was it different from yesterday which was a little bit better? Is there anything I could learn from the difference that I might incorporate into my life or routine?
  3. What was going on for me before I overate? What could I have done instead of eating?

Learning to let go of self-blame and embrace a curious mindset is a process I cover in depth in The Emotional Eating Rescue Plan for Smart, Busy Women. You can start using curiosity today to take control of overeating by taking the free Hidden Hungers Quiz to determine your Hidden Hunger Profile, get more clarity about why food has so much power in your life, and learn the next, most effective steps for you.