Those of you who have struggled with your relationship with food are probably no stranger to the feelings of guilt that can come when you eat something you said you weren't going to eat.
What you might be less aware of is the impact that can have on body image. This post explains the connection between the two, and what to do about it. You can always watch this video if you prefer that to reading.
Just the other day, I was voice-memo-ing back and forth with one of my private 1:1 clients because she was having a bad body image day.
While there are several components to improving your body image, a component is to identify your triggers. It’s common to one day be totally fine with how you look and the next day feel like crap. So what gives?
Retracing your steps in the hours, days, and even weeka leading up to the bad body image day(s) will help you work through it to the other side and be more equipped to take care of yourself the next time a triggering situation happens.
I asked my client to retrace her steps.
She mentioned that the night before she ate really late, which historically, she has tried not to due during her dieting days (ugh Intermittent Fasting!) and was feeling really guilty about it. She believes she needs to stay thin or get thinner and fears that eating late at night will lead to weight gain.
Bingo. Food guilt. That was her trigger this time.
She woke up with bad body image because of eating late the night before triggering anxiety around her body.
Guilt, by definition, is a feeling of having done wrong or failed in an obligation.
In this "messed up with food" scenario, you believe you did something wrong with food, and in order to do something wrong with food, there has to be an underlying belief about what is the right thing to do with food.
And we only ever have a right and wrong way to eat if we have food rules.
So the way to eliminate food guilt, and the negative body image it can trigger, is to eliminate food rules.
Food rules are something you learn from Diet Culture or you can come up with on your own, in response to having anxiety around food and your body.
For example, You are told sugar is bad and will ruin your health which makes you fearful and anxious around sugar, so to manage the fear and anxiety you might make a rule to not eat sugar or only eat small amounts.
Or, you feel insecure and anxious about the size of your body, and you hear that intermittent fasting can help you lose weight, so you make a rule to only eat during a specific window of time during the day to help manage the insecurity and anxiety around your body.
Insert some of your food rules here:________________
As a result, you temporarily feel less anxious as you follow the rules but the problem with food rules is that you almost always break them eventually. They are unsustainable throughout the unfolding of our lives.
When you break them, you feel guilty, because you think you did something wrong and failed an obligation.
This leads to the original anxiety coming back because of what it might do to your body. You try to manage the uncomfortable feelings by trying to make up for it and by promising to stick to the rules even harder next time.
And the cycle just continues.
anxious about food/body -> makes food rule -> temporary decrease in anxiety -> breaks rule, feels guilty -> anxious about food/body -> makes food rule -> temporary decrease in anxiety -> breaks rule, feels guilty and on and on and on.
To break the cycle you have to eliminate the rules by first identifying the rule, giving yourselves permission to break it and doing so without trying to "make up for it" like you have in the past.
By not going back to rules, over exercising, or restricting, you are breaking the cycle.
This of course means you will have to deal with the fear, guilt and anxiety that arises after breaking the rule without "making up for it" in the ways you typically do. This will be uncomfortable.
Move through the discomfort with your mind and our heart. You will have to talk yourself through it by tapping into both.
Mind: Using rational, intellectual thought, what do you know to be true?
Heart: What you are committed to, why do you want to be free from your food rules? Food rules are restrictive and contracting, so what would feel expansive and freeing?
Lets go through the intermittent fasting example from my client:
Mind says: I know that eating past 6 pm is okay, humans do it all the time. And if I am hungry past 6 pm, honoring my hunger is listening to my body and taking care of it. Not honoring my physical hunger is starving myself and that is a disordered eating behavior. Intermittent Fasting, outside of a select medical situations in which a doctor is supervising the fasting as a medical intervention, it is not only totally unnecessary but a slippery slope into an eating disorder.
Heart says: I want to honor my body in every way, and by doing, so I honor myself. I want to go out to eat dinner with family and friends and not fear what time is but rather be present and enjoy my life fully. I am committed to having unconditional permission so eating is easy.
Then you have to repeatedly break your food rule, without "making up for it", and work through the guilt and other uncomfortable emotions by checking in with your mind and heart.
With repetition and time the rule will dissolve and so will the guilt and negative body image it triggers.