Self-monitoring in psychology is a reflective process of self-observation that can help you better understand yourself.
I feel this process is the best thing for stopping compulsive eating and in this post I’ll explain why!
And beyond binge eating, please know that the self-monitoring practice is used in many types of therapies for many types of problems!
Anxiety, addiction, anger outbursts, and eating disorders are just a few of the struggles that benefit greatly from self-monitoring.
Self-monitoring is a really great skill and tool to learn!
It’s an important component in the therapeutic process because it enables people to learn and develop:
This first part about self-awareness is really important because often people don’t really KNOW their difficulties.
They know they have a problem, but not why the problem happens or how to stop it.
For example, many times people know they have a problem with impulsive behavior like eating, yelling, etc.
(Note: I use compulsive, impulsive, automatic, mindless, losing control, etc as synonyms in this article)
However, that’s all they REALLY know. They know they have a problem.
But then that’s it. They don’t understand the underlying emotional / cognitive issues that cause the problem to continuously happen.
Is this you? You know you have a problem with eating but you aren’t sure why?
Most people can’t predict when this behavior will happen or know how to stop it.
In other words, they have low self-monitoring ability. But good news, you can improve your self-monitoring!
As you improve in self-monitoring with practice, you’ll l be able to understand the feelings, thoughts and emotions that happened BEFORE you acted impulsively.
You’ll understand why you binged.
Therefore, self-monitoring helps people see their behaviors differently. Instead of just doing the bingeing or any problematic behavior, now you’ll see WHY.
Ultimately, as you understand more about your WHY, you’ll become more confident.
Please note: this article focuses on bingeing to demonstrate how self-monitoring works for impulsive behaviors like bingeing. There is another different self-monitoring scale and approach which is for social relationships, but that’s not what we are talking about here.
Let’s see how self-monitoring works, for bingeing!
What is self-monitoring in psychology?
Self-monitoring in psychology is a self reflection tool that helps you learn a great deal more about your behaviors.
Basically self-monitoring means observing yourself and creating a record of the impulsive behavior.
This makes any compulsive processes explicit, measurable and in your conscious world, so that we can review them later!
There are two main actions to self-monitor your behavior:
- Learning (or discrimination)
You start by recording the impulsive behavior, like bingeing. After 1 week you have an initial record of your behavior.
(Please note: Looking at your binges in this manner can be difficult and bring up lots of shame and guilt. Be sure to see my section below about Growth Mindset and Compassion, as these are important when you are just beginning.)
Then after a few days of data gathering, you can ask yourself with more accuracy questions such as:
- “Do I eat when stressed?”
- “Or, do I eat because of hunger?”
- “Do I eat when I say that I can only have a certain amount”
For example, before you started self-monitoring, when you ate you probably missed how you eat in relation to stress.
Sure, on some cognitive level you might ‘know’ you’re a stress eater. But until you actually SEE your records and really SEE the patterns directly, you don’t actually know.
But if you record, then you can learn.
Therefore with self-monitoring, you see what’s really happening!
Self-monitoring also includes “analyzing” the data we collect.
This means looking for patterns, triggers, and anything that seems to be related to our behavior patterns!
Recording problematic events as they occur is the first and necessary step.
Simply by writing before you eat, as in the case of binge eating, will dramatically help with identifying and changing problematic behavior.
However, you must also include step 2, which is learning and “analyzing”.
It’s vital you have written journal entries that can be reviewed so that you can spot patterns.
To summarize, when we self-monitor we analyze the data we collect to look for patterns, triggers, and anything that seems related to our impulsive behaviors!
The deeper meaning of self-monitoring
While recording and learning are two great steps, there is a more powerful reason why self-monitoring works.
Back in the day when I was learning about my emotions …
I found that “mindfulness” techniques really helped – I got a tool where I could finally engage with my emotions in an accessible way.
Instead of feeling this pressure build up in me and not knowing how to release it …
Instead, I could start to DO something about it!
Before using mindfulness techniques, my emotions were always blocked, or too overwhelming.
I would get trapped in my head and always be thinking, or feeling conflicted and trapped.
But with mindfulness, I got a sense of control over my emotions.
And that’s what I believe self-monitoring helps you develop as well – emotional control.
In particular, self-monitoring in psychology supports clients’ engagement and motivation by fostering a sense of self-control and autonomy.
Let me repeat that!
Self-monitoring helps human beings develop a sense of self-control and autonomy.
In other words, safety, emotional safety.
When you practice recording as part of self-monitoring, there is something about this process that IS empowering!
That’s why at Eating Enlightenment we start with Mindful Food Journaling, a form of self-monitoring geared towards eating disorders.
We start here so that you can get those emotional needs identified and met, WHILE dramatically decreasing your bingeing.
As human beings develop a greater sense of control and autonomy, they naturally feel safer and more in control.
And yes, I’m talking about you here too!
These feelings of security and control then can give people the necessary internal sparks to really change.
In essence, self-monitoring helps people to develop a critical awareness and understanding.
This critical skill of awareness then builds your confidence because you understand WHAT is going on and WHY.
Then, confidence is what ultimately prepares you to personally own your behavior change.
What are examples of self-monitoring?
When you actually set out to self-monitor yourself, especially for bingeing, I highly suggest you start out with our blank Eating Enlightenment Journal Template.
You can also download the Eating Enlightenment App here!
Now, as you’ll see (whether you use a paper journal or the app), there are spaces to record when you are eating.
If you are trying to overcome bingeing, then the guideline is simple. Journal before you eat!
This is HOW you practice self-monitoring in psychology!
If you practice journaling before you eat, you’ll automatically record the binges.
You’ll automatically self-monitor the problematic behavior, which in this case is binge eating.
The most important part in overcoming bingeing via self-monitoring is … to simply start self-monitoring and journaling!
For bingeing at least, and most other impulsive behaviors, the power of self-monitoring is about pausing and writing before the impulse.
WHAT you actually write does NOT matter so much.
But just writing – anything! – before the impulsive action is what is most important.
As I like to say, the best self-monitoring interventions simply have people begin recording!
But of course, you still must learn from your recording!
While recording is necessary, it’s not enough. You still must learn and analyze.
If you aren’t sure what to monitor, here are some common things you can try.
- Events: Do you feel like overeating after a particular event?
- Emotions: Which emotions are present when you want to binge?
- Thoughts: Are there negative thoughts present before an impulse?
- Memories: Do you feel flooded by memories before a compulsion?
- Body sensations: When do you feel overwhelmed in your body?
- Behavior: monitoring frequency of behaviors such as avoidance, self-harm, safety behaviors, appeasement, bingeing and purging.
How to practice self-monitoring in psychology
Now, self-monitoring in psychology is both a tool and a skill. The tool is the writing.
The skill is where you learn from your writing.
Like any other skill, there are a few ways you can make learning practical and easy.
Here are a few ways I help clients to learn the skill of self-monitoring.
- Select a relevant target for monitoring – do you want to track emotions, food, thoughts, food etc? Sometimes just starting out with tracking food (not calories though) is best.
- Ensure the target is specific, clearly defined and agreed upon – do you understand how to feel an emotion in your body and name this emotion?
- Provide clear instructions – do you understand how to complete self-monitoring? Whenever I work with someone I have them do a mock journaling session at the moment.
- Offer concrete support for recording – how will recording be completed? I suggest using the app or journal template forms above!
- Provide modeling and training in how to record – have you practiced recording? Has your counselor observed you practicing? This is very important and something I work on with clients.
- Use the monitoring data – last but not least, subsequent sessions should always review and draw upon prior self-monitoring data you have recorded.
My favorite part is learning from the monitoring data.
I love it when people bring me a few days of journal entries and together we are able to pour over their data and start to make sense of patterns.
And this is how you harness the power of ….. Growth Mindset
This is a really important concept that you need to embrace to overcome bingeing.
Growth Mindset is where we focus on learning and see mistakes as a part of the journey.
It’s not about being perfect, it’s about making progress, about growing.
In order to have a Growth Mindset we must be able to learn from our mistakes and analyze what happened in order to improve for next time.
This is where self-monitoring excels!
By analyzing data (that is, your journal recording), we can learn so much about ourselves that we may have never known before!
Here are some key questions you can ask yourself as you reflect over your journal entries:
- Were you too hungry?
- Did a negative emotion happen earlier in the day that went undetected for hours? But built up inside of you and then eventually exploded?
- Were there any triggers?
- What about cues?
- What emotion made you binge?
- Do you know what was your reward from bingeing?
Because remember, you must learn from your self-monitoring!
If you can learn from your self-monitoring, then you will harness the power of Growth Mindset!
Soon you will be entirely free from compulsions. For more info on this topic see my article here.
But, we can’t forget about another important ingredient – self-compassion.
Self-compassion is important in self-monitoring and learning from eating behaviors because it keeps us connected to our humanity.
With compassion, we don’t hate or dislike ourselves too much.
Too often, with guilt and shame, we blame ourselves. And when we blame ourselves, we cut off our learning.
When we are hard on ourselves, it’s difficult to learn and grow from our mistakes.
But when we can connect with self-compassion, that allows for more understanding, kindness and patience – all of which promote healing and growth.
Basically, without compassion, you might not have the ‘kindness’ and ‘gentleness’ needed to learn from your eating mistakes.
I know some people have such terrible shame from bingeing, that they cannot stand to look or review their past binges!
But how are you going to learn and harness the power of Growth Mindset, if your internal shame blocks you from even examining your impulsive behavior?
But there’s good news.
Self-monitoring, itself, is a powerful tool that can help you develop compassion too!
For example, here’s a thought you might catch if you are practicing self-monitoring in psychology.
“I’m so lazy, I should just go ahead and binge.”
This is an example of a thought that may lead to an impulse to eat compulsively because it’s self-bashing.
However, if you catch this thought then you can probably hear your inner critic.
“I’m so lazy, I should just go ahead and binge.”
Don’t you hear the self-contempt and self-dislike here?
And when you hear your inner critic, then you can hear how harsh this voice is, yes?
Don’t you naturally want to shift your internal voice to compassion, once you hear how hard and mean you are towards yourself?
Would you ever speak to a child with a contemptuous hateful voice?
So why do you speak to yourself like this?
Would you ever use this inner critical voice in a room with small children? Or at any of your social gatherings? No!
Yet we speak to ourselves with harshness and meanness, using words we would never utter to another person.
In terms of social interactions, we are nice to others but terrible to ourselves!
But, this type of criticism towards ourselves also blocks us from learning, growing and changing.
So, self-compassion is necessary to disentangle yourself from shame and the inner critic.
Because there’s no learning when you are trapped in the context of shame!
Instead, with self-compassion, you can free up your mental energy to actually focus on self-monitoring.
Plus, there’s more good news.
You don’t need to self-monitor forever!
People self-monitor for a little while so they get a better understanding of their eating behaviors.
Usually there are just a few different situations which cause people to binge or eat compulsively.
With study and learning however, you start becoming wiser as you see the same situations pop up again and again.
Even if you are feeling totally helpless and hopeless…
This process will help you get back in control, make better decisions and in a relatively short time, have you ready to rock and roll!
Got questions about how self-monitoring in psychology works?
Our private community is dedicated to learning the art of self-monitoring (aka, mindfulness journaling) so be sure to join and get the support you need!