You dish up a delicious bagel to go with your breakfast and as you finish the last tasty bite, the voice in your mind starts to scream: “Bagels are so bad”, “I should have chosen a bowl of hearty oatmeal” “How can I make up for this?”. Many people struggle with feelings of guilt after eating something they labeled as bad. Labeling food as good or bad prevents you from actually enjoying it.
“I feel so bad. I just had had a snack and now my parents and brother invited me to go to a restaurant. I don’t know what to do? I’m already worthless. I should be exercising, but there is not enough time. I am such a loser. Maybe there is something on the menu that isn’t so bad, but what if they want to order dessert too? I know that place has the most delicious chocolate cake that I can’t resist, I’m sure mom’s gonna order it. I hope I have enough discipline. I am so ugly. I need to make a plan for tomorrow to make up for this.” – Miriam (2007).
The above journal entry highlights the distorted thought patterns and negative self-talk eating disorders cause. I remember how the feelings of guilt and failure pushed me into punishing behaviors like compulsive exercising or anything that could help me to get rid of that feeling. In recovery, I discovered those feelings weren’t really related to food. They were related to the inability to love and accept myself and the presence of my – nagging and pesky – inner critic that was constantly telling me that I wasn’t good enough/smart enough/pretty enough/funny enough. The lists of “good” and “bad” food or feelings of guilt after eating were just the way to deal with that. If you feel guilty or bad after eating a bagel or a cupcake it’s easy to feel bad about yourself too and what you ate starts to define the way you feel about yourself. Understanding your behaviors is an important aspect of recovery. The labels, diet rules, and compensating behaviors prevent you from asking for help and letting your emotions in. Making that distinction is a very important first step in getting rid of the guilt and learning how to enjoy food again and to deal with your emotions in a healthy way.
Experiencing your emotions can be very overwhelming, but it’s one of the most important and valuable things of recovery. When you feel the urge to act on a behavior you use to get rid of the feeling of guilt, start journaling. Write down what you feel and where you think it comes from. In what parts of your body do you feel it the most? Another exercise that I found really useful is to write down 3 things you like about yourself. I remember the first time I had to do that all I could think of was ‘This is stupid. There is nothing to like or love about me.’ But after a while, I noticed a shift and suddenly I was able to approach myself with kindness instead of judgment. This exercise is a simple way to distract your mind and by directing it towards something positive it helps you in learning to appreciate yourself.
Your emotions and feelings are there to be felt not to be pushed away. Talk to them, welcome them, but choose not to punish their existence.
Remember that change doesn’t happen overnight and it’s okay to feel guilty as long as you don’t judge yourself for it (or act on them). Your worth doesn’t depend on food or diet rules. Food is to nourish your body and feed your mind and soul, not for counting calories and compensation. It’s a waste of time and energy. So the next time when the guilt pops up in your mind during or after eating, take a moment to step back and try to realize “Oh there is guilt, it’s going to make me feel bad, but you know what, I’m not.”