Stop Binge Eating

How to improve self-esteem

Learn where self-esteem comes from and why it becomes a vicious cycle. We explain how it influences eating and provide exercises and activities so you can improve your self-esteem.

Self-esteem can be split roughly into two types: secure self-esteem and insecure self-esteem.

We can improve self-esteem by tweaking our mindset to gradually make it more secure.
Secure self-esteem is where you feel ok about yourself. You value yourself for just being you. You are secure in yourself so other people’s comments can just roll off your shoulders. This type of self-esteem is relatively stable, and these people generally feel pretty secure and content about themselves.
What is secure self-esteem like?
  • Thinking of yourself as ‘ok’
  • Thinking that others think you are ‘ok’.
  • Not being too hard on yourself.
  • Not expecting the worst.
  • If things go wrong, you know you will do your best to sort it out.
  • Accepting things are not perfect.
Insecure self-esteem is where how you feel about yourself depends on other people. A negative comment from someone can send you into a tailspin and you may spend a lot of time worrying about what people think about you. If you have this type of self-esteem, it can feel like you are being flung around from high to low mood depending on other people. This can feel insecure as you are not in control of how you feel about yourself.
If you have insecure self-esteem, you might:
  • Wish you were more confident.
  • Fear being judged or criticized.
  • Negatively compare yourself with others
  • Put weight back on as soon as you start getting compliments about your weight loss.
  • Have motivations to lose weight to please others.
  • May think that you are destined to be overweight.
  • Feel that you have failed when gaining even a small amount of weight.
  • You may feel that either you don’t have a deeper life purpose or think you can’t achieve it.
If you see this in yourself then increasing self-esteem could help with weight loss and tackling emotional eating and make life easier to live.
We can improve self-esteem by tweaking our mindset to gradually make it more secure.
Where does insecure self-esteem come from?
People tend to judge themselves inaccurately and harshly. This judgement perpetuates low self-esteem as these negative perceptions lead to an undervaluation of yourself. Once you believe these negative thoughts are true, we tend to act as if they are. People tend to remember and dwell on the things that confirm this belief (the bad things) and tend to forget the good stuff which would disprove it. This is a vicious cycle.
Most insecure self-esteem comes from, and is kept going by, thoughts which often are not true. Insecure self-esteem can be present in just some areas of life, such as having confidence at work but not in social situations. This example can stem from a childhood encouraged to do well academically at the expense of making friends.
Insecure self-esteem can come from a few separate events where someone blames themselves or can be more insidious such as if someone is regularly put down or criticised. This is even the case if that criticism is imagined and not real.
Beneath low self-esteem, there are usually untrue core beliefs. Core beliefs are stubborn as they are viewed as ‘facts’. Therefore, people are very resistant to thinking they can change. An example of a core belief is “I am not good enough” reinforced by thinking that if someone criticises you, you have failed.
How does insecure self-esteem influence me?
This is an example of an insecure low self-esteem pattern with eating:
  • Event: Ate too much
  • Thought: There is no point being healthy, I can’t stop bingeing, I can’t do anything about it.
  • Outcome: Feeling ashamed, guilty, pointless resisting, decide to eat whatever I want.
This is the same event but for someone with a secure self-esteem pattern:
  • Event: Ate too much
  • Thought: Just because I ate too much doesn’t mean that I need to do it again.
  • Outcome: Plan to distract myself at tricky times so I don’t have the chance to binge.
How do I improve my self-esteem?
One way to improve self-esteem is to notice, understand and change patterns between thoughts and behaviours.
The first step to getting more secure self-esteem is to be aware of negative thoughts and practice rewriting them positively.
It helps to practice this exercise regularly:
  • Write down the negative thought.
  • Ask yourself, is this true? What is the evidence for the negative thought?
  • Write down a positive spin of the thought.
  • Ask yourself, is this true? What is the evidence for the positive thought?
This exercise needs you to think of the type of robust evidence needed in a court case. Not just ‘because I said so’ or ‘because I think so’. Gradually you can realise that these negative thoughts are not true and there is more evidence for positive ones. This allows our negative mindset to gradually shift toward the positive. This can have positive effects in many aspect of life.
Some other ways to gradually improve your self-esteem:
In addition to the exercise above, there are other things you can do to feel better about yourself and break out of the insecure self-esteem cycle.
  • Change ‘should’ to ‘could’: Using ’should’ feeds insecure self-esteem as it implies failure every time. You can almost preface every should with ‘because I am not, I should…’. You could try changing this to “it is ok I’m not, but I could…”
  • Exploring early experiences that feed into insecure self-esteem: If you can identify some experiences where you think your self-esteem has been knocked in the past, you could go back and view that situation as if you were an observer. You could try looking at the situation with fresh eyes and writing a new story which frames your previous self with a more positive and balanced attitude.
  • Donate some old clothes to charity and if you can afford something nice to wear for now, get it and don’t wait until you lose weight. You are learning to feel good now. This starts a positive cycle.
  • Do something nice for yourself every week or every day that you wouldn’t normally do like painting your nails, having a nice candlelit bubble bath, using the special crockery, dress up for date night (with yourself), go for a walk or do a special exercise class just for you. If you don’t like being alone then these activities can be even more helpful. As you practice doing nice things with yourself you will get used to your own company and find it easier.
  • Decide who will support you and who will sabotage you. Try and spend more time with the supportive people and avoid those who sabotage you.
  • Design some positive affirmations in the present tense so your brain can believe that they are already true. Tell yourself them twice a day and write them and put them up around the house. “I feel good about myself” or “It feels good to be slim.”
Why self-esteem is linked to emotional eating, binge eating and weight issues:
In people with insecure self-esteem, it is common to generalise the specific. This example shows how insecure self-esteem can perpetuate eating issues.
Abi and Zeta had a few drinks last night and ate a big greasy takeaway:
  • The next morning Abi thought ‘never mind, I ate too much last night. I will be healthier today’ This one event has no bearing on Abi’s views about herself.
  • The next morning Zeta thought ‘I am a horrible person, I ruined my diet, there is no point me being healthy as I can’t do it. I am a failure.’ This one event was generalised towards negativity about Zeta as a person.
Can you see how tweaking our interpretation of the same event can completely change the impact it has on our self-esteem and behaviour?
Due to low confidence, there can be resistance to leave an unhappy job or relationship and a fear to pursue your dreams. As you don’t feel good about yourself, you find comfort or escape with food. Eating can anaesthetise our unpleasant feelings about ourselves.
Because we start believing the negative thoughts we perpetuate about ourselves we start behaving differently which keeps the cycle going. Because these negative thoughts lead us to believe they are true, food is often used as an unconscious punishment to keep ourselves overweight and suffering.
We may feel like a doormat for others. Doing things we would rather not do as we do not feel we have the right or the confidence to say no. We may have been trained that it is selfish to state our opinions. It is easy to numb this feeling of frustration with food.
Why is self-esteem crucial for weight loss and tacking eating issues?
You need to have enough confidence to successfully lose weight or stop emotional eating as you need to believe that you can get through the tough bit and then maintain those changes afterwards.
Why is it so important to be nice to yourself?
Think of the people you like most. Are these the people who treat you nicely? How is it being with yourself all the time, treating yourself so meanly?
The first step to improving self-esteem is being nice to yourself. It probably feels guilty or selfish to start with. Being nice to yourself gets easier and starts to counteract those erroneous core beliefs.
Improving self-esteem takes practice but it can build into a positive cycle. As you chip away at the go-to negative thoughts about yourself and practice being more positive, eventually you will start feeling more positive. Once you start feeling more positive you are less likely to want to harm or punish yourself or block out your feelings with food.
Sources of information used for this article:
Overcoming Low Self-Esteem by Melanie Fennell
Personal Synthesis by Nash Popovic
The SAGE Handbook of Counselling and Psychotherapy by Colin Feltham
The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome by Doreen Virtue
Exploding the Self-Esteem Myth - Roy Baumeister

Binge Eating Therapy

I specialise in eating disorders and have 17 years’ experience as a behaviour change and obesity prevention scientist at Cambridge University. I’ve been there and I get it, and now support people with binge eating, emotional eating, weight loss struggles, and bulimia.
I help clients discover and take charge of their hidden eating triggers and transform their relationship with food. Sessions often focus on getting freedom from constant thoughts about food and weight and escaping the cycle of yo-yo dieting and weight gain. Gain understanding about what has prevented you from recovery in the past so you can overcome that, and live life without restriction or bingeing.
I combine counselling, to understand and overcome emotional barriers, with the strategies and tools of health coaching. The combination of counselling and coaching is powerful for making lasting change.

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The information in this website is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr Kirsten Keighley on behalf of Dr Kirsten Keighley Ltd. We recommend you make your own health decisions based on your own research and consultation with a qualified health professional. We recommend that you consult your and your child’s doctor and/or dietician before beginning a new diet or exercise programme.