How to Stop Feeling Guilty in Eating Disorder Recovery
Hey you! You shouldn't have eaten that. You should not have taken a rest day! You should politely decline when they offer you dessert, otherwise, you’ll feel guilty afterwards!
Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you? 5 years ago, this was pretty much a snippet of the dialogue that went through my head daily. I had all these mental rules I had to abide by, all these rigid routines I had to stick to, and what kept me stuck for so long, was this intense fear that I would feel guilty if I did do something different and if I did break the routine…doing something different often meant going against the eating disorder, and going against the eating disorder resulted in feeling guilty. But in order to fully recover, you MUST go against the eating disorder…I mean, that’s the whole point of recovery, right? So then the question is, how can you go against the eating disorder without feeling guilty? In this post, I’ll be answering that exact question so you can let go of guilt for GOOD and finally gain the freedom you deserve!
Distraction from the Mind
For the longest time, I persistently felt like I was being chased by this self-imposed pressure to be “productive”. I had this incredible fear of emptiness, whether that be unplanned blocks of time, not having my work schedule setup, or just really anything unaccounted for. Now looking back, I believe this deep desire to have every second of every day filled with an activity was simply an attempt to protect myself from having to sit with my anxious or guilty thoughts.
Consistently focusing my energy on activities outside myself acted as a distraction from my mind. But at some point, this becomes exhausting…and if you’re reading this, I’m positive you know what I mean! Constantly chasing this unattainable level of “productivity” and “busyness” is simply not sustainable, because we NEED rest! But when we do allow ourselves to rest, we feel guilty and having to deal with the guilt is almost even more exhausting!
The reality is that we live in a society of “hustle culture” where working around the clock is praised and resting is “lazy”, so of course we feel guilty when we rest. We’ve been conditioned to feel guilty when we rest! To say the way our society functions is seriously f*cked up would be an understatement, but where I’m going with this is actually in a very positive direction; the very fact that guilt IS a result of conditioning means that we can also re-condition our brain to feel emotions that we actually WANT to feel…because let’s be honest, no one actually wants to feel guilty!
Lately, I’ve finally started allowing myself to have open space. I am finally allowing myself the space to breathe and sit with my thoughts. When you approach life from a place of LOVE instead of FEAR, everything just starts to flow. You no longer feel the need to micromanage everything, because you trust that everything will happen at the time it’s supposed to happen. As I mentioned in my post on a scientific link between Autism, Anorexia, and Anxiety: the opposite of anxiety isn’t calm, it’s trust. So how can we start to trust our bodies and minds and let go of guilt? First, we need to understand what causes it.
What causes guilt?
We can only start to UPROOT the feeling of guilt if know what the root IS! This root can be found in our belief system. All humans have their own unique code of conduct, comprising of our belief system, values, and morals. This “code of conduct” is constantly being shaped by all our experiences in life, from the very moment you are born. As a child, you are taught to say please and thank you when someone is generous or kind, that this is the “right” thing to do. You are also taught what not to do – what is the “wrong” thing to do – such as lying or stealing. The more and more you act based on this conditioning of right and wrong, the more deeply it becomes engrained in your overall belief system.
As I mentioned before, guilt is also something you’ve been conditioned to feel. Just as you’re not born to say please and thank you, you’re not born feeling guilty. I mean think about it; no baby comes out of the womb thinking they need to lose weight or thinking they’re not good enough! As they grow up, a baby adopts these beliefs based on their experiences. Because these experiences shape our perception of right and wrong, they also guide us to believe what we should or shouldn't do.
You are told that you should say please and thank you because it’s the right thing to do just like you are told you should NOT steal or lie because it’s the wrong thing to do. Where guilt fits into all of this, is that it helps us course correct. We’re all human and we all make mistakes, though! I’ve stolen before, I’ve lied before, and I’ve done many things that caused me to feel guilty afterwards! Yet, it’s that feeling of guilt that taught me to not repeat the very action that caused me to feel guilty in the first place!
We all know what guilt feels like: it's a painful, gut-wrenching emotion that no one wants to experience…but that’s the very reason we experience it: so that we avoid taking action that would lead to feelings of guilt. That said, guilt itself is not a bad thing. Guilt serves a purpose, and that purpose is to inform us how to act in a way that is aligned with our true values.
What happens when you develop an eating disorder?
You start to adopt new morals and beliefs that go directly against what you truly believe to be morally correct. I talked about how your eating disorder distorts your frame of reference at length in my post Seeing the eating disorder as a Parasite, so I definitely recommend you read that if you are enjoying this post! I like to compare an eating disorder to a parasite or a virus because your eating disorder has its own core beliefs that inject themselves into your brain like a virus that uses your cells as its host and your RNA to multiply.
The reason why you are able to justify your disordered behavior (or initially may even be unaware that it’s disordered) is because the newly adopted morals & beliefs created by the eating disorder, support the disordered behavior.
Your eating disorder may tell you there are foods that you "should" and "shouldn't" eat and that certain foods are either "right" or "wrong", just like you are taught that you should or shouldn’t act a certain way to make friends, or that saying please is right and stealing is wrong. An ED takes everyday beliefs and inflicts them onto food and exercise, which results in feelings of guilt when you don’t abide by the rules your eating disorder has created.
Ultimately, an eating disorder works directly against our true core beliefs, but we aren't aware of these ED beliefs until they have become so engrained and we mentally can't take the negative thoughts any longer. So what’s the next step? How do we rewire this disordered belief system? How do we change these torturous thoughts? The simple answer is to change your actions.
How to rewire ED-related guilt
Something I always preach to my clients during 1:1 Coaching is that you cannot choose your thoughts, but you can choose your reaction to the thoughts. It's the same with emotions; in this case, guilt. You cannot choose whether the feeling of guilt arises, because evidently, it will! You’ve conditioned yourself to feel it. However, you can ALWAYS choose whether or not you're going to engage in the feelings of guilt.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase: where your attention goes, energy flows. This is EXACTLY what causes eating disorder behaviors to become so entrenched, because we're constantly bringing attention to the ED thoughts. If your eating disorder tells you to restrict and you act on this thought by restricting, you're fueling that very thought to keep returning. You're giving your brain the notion that this is the "right" course of action, therefore signaling to it that eating is "wrong". This goes for any eating disorder behavior whether it be restricting, exercising, bodychecking, comparing, etc. Every time you give an eating disorder urge attention, you're giving it energy to influence you and shape your belief system.
How do we come back to our true core beliefs?
You do the exact opposite of what your eating disorder tells you to do. If your eating disorder tells you to restrict, you eat more. If our eating disorder tells you to workout, you rest. If ANY thought has the slightest possibility of stemming from your eating disorder, you act in opposition to that thought. Trust me, it’s a damn hard thing to do, but this is the ONLY way to create new neural pathways in the brain.
Using this opposite-action technique is key when it comes to ridding yourself of food guilt. To give an example, say you ate a donut. Your head starts screaming at you that you "shouldn't" have eaten the donut and that doing so was "wrong". Those are the eating disorder thoughts. Your conditioned response is to pay attention to those ED thoughts and thus, give them energy to make you feel guilty. When you've repeated this thought pattern enough times, your brain will now associate eating a donut with feelings of guilt and you now believe "eating a donut will make me feel guilty".
Being an advocate in recovery
Blaming this feeling of guilt on the donut is adopting a victim mindset. It's like running out the door and not taking time to tie your shoelaces, then tripping and saying it's the floor's fault. In recovery, you need to learn to tie your own damn shoelaces. You need to be an advocate. In the beginning, this will be SO hard. Tying the recovery knots (and therefore untying the eating disorder knots) will demand lots of brain power and discipline. But just as you know that tying your shoelaces was something you had to learn and something that is now second nature, so is being an advocate for your recovery. No one is going to do this for you. No one can take away your guilt. You have to choose whether or not you’re going to engage in the ED thoughts.
Label free = guilt free!
In essence, labels are the root cause of guilt. Guilt is the result of labeling food or behaviors as “right” or “wrong” and labeling your actions around said food or exercise as things you “should” or “shouldn’t” do. The whole reason I named my brand Liv Label Free was because it wasn’t until I let go of all these labels, that I could start writing my own definitions by which I wanted to live. I no longer felt guilty for eating a certain food because I no longer labeled food. I no longer felt guilty for resting because I stopped attaching meaning to exercise. This was incredibly hard work, but it was letting go of labels that brought me to where I am today; now being able to inspire and coach YOU!
If you made it all the way to the end of this post, I want to invite you to take ONE SMALL STEP today to let go of guilt. Do ONE THING today that completely opposes what your eating disorder wants you to do. When you take opposite action against your eating disorder and stop engaging in thoughts of whether you should or shouldn’t do something, it will be impossible to feel guilty! To put this into context with the donut example: if your eating disorder says you "shouldn't" eat the donut and you take opposite action to replace that thought with "I should eat the donut". Then, when you end up eating the donut, you'll have nothing to feel guilty about because you didn't do anything wrong! Now, go out there and eat the damn donut.
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