I regularly see posts on social media and pieces elsewhere about food and guilt. Posts that say if you “splurge” occasionally, you have no reason to feel guilty. If you eat dessert once or twice a week, that’s OK, too. Usually. If you’re exercising and eating healthy, then you have no reason to feel guilty either. Most of the time. I’ve seen comments that say, “Yes! You’re so right.”
And I get it: This is what we read and hear all over the place: In magazines. On TV. Maybe at the dinner table. Maybe when we’re out and about.
Margarita Tartakovsky is an associate editor at PsychCentral.com, an award-winning mental health website, and the voice behind Weightless, a blog that helps women deal with body image issues and disordered eating. She also writes a monthly feature for Beliefnet.com, covering topics such as patience and procrastination.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Which, for me, brings up so many questions: What’s the underlying message here? Does that mean I should be feeling guilty for splurges that aren’t occasional? Does that mean I should feel guilty when I don’t work out? Should I feel guilty about food in general? Is guilt essential for “healthy eating”? Is something wrong with me because I eat cookies or chocolate every day?
How we eat, exercise and generally navigate this world are all personal preferences and decisions. But I get upset and concerned when I see such words (even when they’re from well-meaning people who are trying to be encouraging). Because instead of absolving our guilt, they only add to it. They only amplify our guilt.
Someone reading such a post or article might think, But I ate a few cookies today. I even ate a bagel with real cream cheese. I also had a bowl of pasta. In one day. Is that healthy? Am I doing something wrong? What the heck is wrong with me that I need dessert daily? That I can’t diet? Maybe I need to work this off. I wish I didn’t have such a big appetite.
We start to question our food choices, and we start to blame ourselves. We start to see ourselves as sinners. We think of ourselves as bad and wrong and unworthy and less than, because maybe we don’t exercise regularly. Maybe we’re too exhausted to get up from the couch. Maybe we like dessert.
Guilt hijacks our minds, and we have a hard time focusing on anything else. We get anxious. We get angry with ourselves. We start developing a distorted relationship with food. With ourselves.
So what can we do?
First we can realize that everyone has a different perspective on food, on exercise, on life. We can acknowledge that there are no experts. And we can choose what works for us. We can choose what inspires and supports us—which may be different from someone else. We can choose what serves and nourishes us.
We can be kind. We can be a friend to ourselves (which I know sounds a bit funny or might feel unfamiliar). We can write ourselves a letter. I understand why you feel guilty. It’s ingrained into our culture. It’s probably now ingrained into your brain. It will subside, and you will feel better. This is temporary. But I know that right now it feels too close. So let’s breathe through it. Let’s journal about the pain. Let’s share that we’re struggling with someone who’s always supportive.
Guilt grows when we criticize ourselves. When we bash our bodies and berate our choices. But if you aren’t ready to be self-compassionate, that’s OK, too. Take a few deep breaths. Listen to some calming music. And do something you enjoy—even if you want to punish yourself instead. Think of it as an experiment in doing the opposite. Do something that lifts you up, something that’s fun, something that calms you. Read. Ride your bike. Take a walk. Dance. Draw. Watch a funny film.
I know you don’t think you deserve to do these nice things. But you do. And if you need to read it, you are absolved. You are absolutely absolved.
P.S., If you’re interested in creating a sacred home—filled with meaningful objects, a space that meets your needs—you might like this piece I wrote for Spirituality & Health.