Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.ED, joined us for an interview on her book, Words to Eat By: Using the Power of Self-Talk to Transform Your Relationship with Food and Your Body. What follows are our questions in italics, and Karen’s thoughtful responses.
What motivated you to develop words to eat by: using the power of self-talk to transform your relationship with food and your body?
With all of my 8 books, one has led to another. I’ve been working with dysregulated eaters for 30+ years and keep learning what aids recovery, what clients require to heal and become “normal” eaters. For a long while I’ve been listening to what clients say to me and hearing what they say to themselves and realized that their self-talk was a substantial barrier to recovery. You can’t say, “I can’t stop eating,” “I need to be thin to be loved” or “I don’t care what I eat” and move forward. I realized that dysregulated eaters—in fact, most people—have no idea how they program themselves for unhealthy behaviors through negative self-talk and that they can consciously use self-talk to promote healthier habits.
There’s a catchy phrase on the back cover of your book. It reads, “use word power rather than will power.” Please tell us more.
Most of us grew up hearing about the tremendous benefits of and need for will power, aka self-discipline, around food. So, we tried and tried to make ourselves do things by the sheer force of our will. And failed mightily with food, as Traci Mann, PhD tells us in her illuminating book, Secrets from the Eating Lab. The fact that will power doesn’t work long-term to manage food urges was a real shock to many dysregulated eaters and hard to swallow: take away will power and dieters felt they had no tools to manage their eating. But we do have tools that work better than will power and one is word power or the self-talk we employ. We talk ourselves into and out of doing things every day, and most of that self-talk is unconscious. Why not intentionally use that power to manage our relationship with food and our bodies?
What are some specific words you encourage your readers to eliminate from their self-talk?
My clients would laugh if they heard this question and all would repeat in unison “should/shouldn’t/need/have to/must/ought to/am supposed to.” These are the words we use to pressure ourselves into doing things we’re ambivalent about doing. If we really wanted wholeheartedly to do them, we would. As I tease clients, if I told you that you had two billion dollars waiting for you at the lottery office, would you really say, “I have to go there tomorrow to pick it up.”? No, you’d want to go and wouldn’t need to convince yourself to do it. These external motivators do nothing to move us forward and in fact create backlash to healthy behaviors via rebellion against the pressure. It’s far better to increase wanting to do healthy things so that desire is stronger than wanting to do unhealthy things. Words to enhance motivation include “want/desire/prefer/wish/would like to.” Internal motivation comes straight from the heart.
You raise the common concern of “What if I don’t believe what I’m saying to myself?” What do you suggest?
My advice is to say something positive, even if you don’t believe it. I tell clients, “Back when you started telling yourself you ‘couldn’t eat this because it’s fattening’ or ‘couldn’t resist that because it tastes so good,’ you didn’t already believe those ideas. You came to believe them through repetition. Moreover, research tells us that fake-it-til-you-make-it works. You don’t have to believe what you’re saying for it to encode in your brain. Don’t get hung up on whether you believe it or not. Just say the words over and over and over again.
Please share what you define as five intervention points in the eating process.
Because dysregulated eaters tend to think and behave in all-or-nothing ways (I know from personal experience because I was one for the first half of my life), I thought it would be helpful to break down the overeating or binge process and show clients that there are different things they can say to themselves depending on where they are in it. I wanted to show that binge-eating need not be all or nothing. I break down the intervention points as follows: to prevent a binge, to stop a binge, and to feel better after a binge. As I said, we can either talk ourselves into or out of a binge. We all know how we unintentionally egg ourselves on to have one, and it’s crucial that we also know the words to use to steer ourselves away from one. Even when we’re in the midst of overeating, we can stop—depending on what we say to ourselves. And then, because a binge is the gift that keeps on giving, it’s so important to choose positive self-talk after a binge. The usual message is about berating and shaming ourselves which makes us feel worse. With improved self-talk using compassion, we can undo some of the psychological and emotional damage of binge-eating.
“Self-caring” vs. “Self-care.” You prefer “self-caring,” why?
I can’t say that I feel hugely strongly about this, but I do prefer self-caring to self-care. The latter is so over used and vague and seems so static, as if we do self-care in between bouts of self-destruction. We don’t want dysregulated eaters to engage in self-care only on and off. We want it to be ongoing, threaded into their consciousness every minute of every day. That’s why I like the active tense of the verb: self-caring to me sounds like a process rather than an event.
What qualities contribute to the internal motivation to spiral upward in life?
This is a great question, Kathy, one I think about a great deal. I wrote Nice Girls Finish Fat (a title I came up with over a decade ago and would change now if I could because the word “fat” is used pejoratively) to talk about the importance of personality traits in generating or healing eating disorders. Internal motivation is about wanting the best for yourself because you deserve it and love yourself ferociously. Internal motivation is all about wants, and keeps shoulds and shouldn’ts at bay. It’s full of hope, encouragement, compassion, love, and empowerment. It looks to your past successes to inspire your current and future ones and at those who’ve recovered from eating disorders with the thought that, “If they can do it, I can do it.” Other essential traits include spirit and the certainty that you won’t stop until you get where you want to go.
About the author:
Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist, international, award-winning author, national speaker and popular blogger. She has 30-plus years of experience in the field of eating psychology teaching chronic dieters and emotional, binge, and over-eaters to become “normal” eaters through using a non-diet, non-weight focus on eating intuitively and creating joyous, meaningful lives. Her eighth book, Words to Eat By: Using the Power of Self-talk to Transform Your Relationship with Food and Your Body, was published in January 2021. She lives and practices in Sarasota, Florida. Her website is http://www.karenrkoenig.com.