Befriending Guilt

By Camille Williams, LCPC, CEDS, Therapist, Timberline Knolls

“I don’t want to feel guilty when I eat anymore!” This is one of the most common desires I hear from those seeking eating disorder recovery. This request makes sense because a reduction in guilt would ultimately decrease distress while eating and allow recovery to be a much easier process. Guilt associated with food has most likely been a significant part of someone’s eating disorder. “I feel so guilty after I binge. I hate myself.” “I would feel so guilty if I ate this, so I will restrict it.” “I will purge because I ate that and I shouldn’t have.” Eating disorder behaviors are fueled by guilt and on the contrary, also produce guilt. In the end eating disorders result in an increase in overall guilt, rather than decreasing it. Any avoidance of guilt is only temporary and will return even stronger than before.

The challenge in recovery is that guilt will also most likely increase, at least initially. It is one of the realities of recovery that is unavoidable. Guilt in recovery may be a dialectic though because while there may be guilt for eating foods that have been labeled as “bad” or for the amount of food eaten, there is also a small sense of pride in working towards recovery goals that begins to grow. It is important to connect with this feeling of accomplishment because recovery is challenging work and honoring commitments to follow a meal plan or increase variety of foods is something to be celebrated. This can help with making guilt more tolerable as well because most likely the guilt will still be there. If guilt is going to be a part of eating disorder recovery, rather than fight it or suppress it, maybe there is an opportunity to become friends.

How can you befriend guilt? Be curious about it. Where is the guilt coming from? Where did you hear the messages you have internalized about food? Are these messages aligned with your eating disorder that is no longer serving me to live my most meaningful life? Understanding the origin of these messages can allow for an opportunity to reevaluate beliefs and form more accurate or effective beliefs about food that align with recovery. This knowledge can also be applied to meals by acknowledging origin of the guilt while choosing to engage with food in new ways. You can notice guilty feelings that originate from thoughts about food and make an active choice to align with recovery.

Another aspect of befriending guilt may include having a conversation with guilt. Guilt doesn’t need to have the final say or the last word. If guilt is showing up, maybe respond by thinking or saying, “Oh hey, guilt, I see you there. I know where you come from and that you have been trying to help me avoid uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately, you don’t do a great job of that because you are usually still hanging around even when I do listen to you. So, I appreciate the recommendation and I think I’m going to honor the goals I set with my treatment team. I know you will probably still stick around with me during meals and snacks and I’m going to work on getting more comfortable with hanging out with you.” Another outlet could be writing a letter to guilt. It may feel strange to communicate with guilt and it may help with creating a balanced dialogue or discovering a new perspective.

Lastly, befriending guilt may be easier if you can find effective ways to spend time together. Is it helpful for you to hang out with guilt by yourself or is it better if you are with other people when guilt is around? What pleasurable or meaningful activities can you engage in while spending time with guilt? It might be easier to cope ahead and prepare a plan for when you think guilt will be around. If you know guilt shows up at certain times, what structure can you put in place to make the experience of guilt more tolerable?

We are human and therefore, experience a wide range of emotions, including guilt. If it is not going to go away, you may as well empower yourself to play a more active role in the relationship with guilt. Guilt provides feedback that does not have to dictate someone’s life or decisions. Ultimately, you have the power to choose.

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*The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders and not intended as endorsement by iaedp™ Foundation, Inc. or its Board of Directors.*

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