Ciao! I woke up this morning, and I was feeling super awesome. Hence this
selfie (I don’t do selfies…):
This tends to happen when I know I’m going out for a morning at the cafe to write… I can’t help but get excited and bubbly. Then I walk there whilst I listen to some solid beats on my phone, and because I’m feeling awesome I have some upbeat tunes (my walking groove that always makes its way onto the “feeling awesome” playlist) on that I can strut to. And I coordinate my footsteps with the beat… And then I realize that I’m singing outloud and getting entirely too physical with my movements and have to tone it down because people are looking at me as if I’m having a spasm…
Uncoordination at its finest.
So I got to the cafe, and it just so happens that the best seat in the cafe is open! Right by the open sunny window, view up the street, and in the corner so it’s private. The awesomeness continues, and my face be like:
AND then… my boyfriend shows up by surprise and he’s like my favourite person. The awesomeness continues, and my face be like:
After a visit, I get down to business, start writing, feeling good, on a roll… so on a roll that lunchtime creeps up on me, and I don’t want to stop writing so I decide to finally try that roasted mushroom sandwich with hummus that has sounded so good…
And in making that decision, in two seconds my awesomeness went to anxiousness. Anxiousness, guilt, and shame, for being seated, in a cafe, ordering lunch when I could be up moving, or making something less intimidating for lunch at home. All that awesomeness, shot down in an instant. Bummer.
It’s funny how quickly emotions can shift. How one day you can look in a mirror and see huge, and the next day it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. How one second you can be feeling amazing, and then next second you can feel like crap. And it’s not just those who suffer from eating disorders that experience this. Its one of those side effects of being human: having somewhat unpredictable emotions.
Two overriding emotions in eating disorder recovery, as well as a vast majority of mental illnesses are guilt and shame. They act as a wall that puts an invisible, but solid barrier between us and the rest of the world. They separate us, segregate us, and silence us. And they take the awesomeness out of your morning in one smear of hummus…
I was listening to a podcast the other day, during one of my more anxious moments, and they were discussing one of the most talked about names in the world of self help and discovery: Brené Brown.
Undoubtably, you’ve heard of her. Author, scholar, and speaker, she is well known for her renowned TEDtalks, and her growing collection of self-help books, among which are the bestsellers Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection. While I can’t personally attest to their brilliance, as they’re both still on my reading list, I know many people personally who have claimed their ability to impact and change how you view the world and your place in it.
Anyways, in this podcast, they were discussing the difference between guilt and shame, and how both emotions play in when it comes to eating disorders and eating disorder recovery. I know for me, it is difficult to tell the difference between the two, as they are distinct but often intertwined. They mentioned a quote from Brené’s book, Daring Greatly, that struck a note for me:
I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.
At first glance, I didn’t agree with this at all, but mostly because of the guilt portion of the quote. In my own experience, guilt has rarely been helpful, but rather harmful in my day to day life.
I mean, after all, I feel guilty about eating a piece of cake, so I go for a 3 hour run the next day. I feel guilty about eating three meals a day, so I skip my snacks. I feel guilty about leaving university, and so I hole myself up and don’t go to family gatherings. I feel guilty about choosing the easier yoga video instead of the longer more strenuous one, so I do an extra hour the next day, or miss another meal.
Whichever one you pick, it all leads/has lead me to the same place: alone, lonely, sad, depressed, anxious, on my death bed…
How can an emotion that has produced so much heartache and emotion, mental, and physical deterioration possibly be adaptive or helpful? Clearly guilt is a negative emotion, and one to be avoided at all costs!
Yeah, it appears that way at first glance. And it’s a much easier way to look at things: my situation is a result of my emotions. I can blame the things that have held me back and shoved me down on my feelings. And since we’re supposed to feel our feelings, and not stifle them, I’m completely justified in my behaviours. Or, if I’m not completely justified in my behaviours, I am at least completely justified in why it’s taking so long and is so impossible to change them.
Except it’s not entirely true… because the emotion itself doesn’t control the behaviour. An emotion is simply a cue as to what is going on in your internal experience. The reality is that your situation is not a result of your emotion, but a result of your REACTION to your emotion.
So what is guilt then? Brené kind of hit the nail on the head here:
…it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
Key: Something we’ve DONE or FAILED TO DO up against our VALUES and feeling PSYCHOLOGICAL DISCOMFORT.
Hence, this is why a most classic example of guilt shows its helpfulness and healthfulness: You lie to your best friend, you feel guilty because it goes against your value of honesty, and the psychological discomfort you feel (AKA your conscience) pushes you to “right the wrong” in order to realign with your values.
BUT when the experience of guilt results in a harmful behaviour, such as restriction, overexercise, purging, binging, self harm, or the like, does this mean that it’s no longer helpful, healthful, or fitting with its definition?
No. Not at all.
I know, shocking. But remember what guilt does: it points to how we’ve gone against or neglected our values. So guilt in this scenario, the scenario of feeling guilty over a brownie or a hamburger, or a slice of pizza, points to a value that we must be brushing up against. If nothing else, guilt is a great little tool to use to tell you what it is that you truly value in your life.
Now for me, the realization of guilt being helpful in this way is a new one. And as awesome as it is that an emotion I feel a bisquillion times a day is secretly an ally of mine, it is also incredibly humbling and more than a little depressing. Here’s the crux:
What on earth do I value so incredibly that it results in me feeling guilty about eating these “forbidden/cheat/unhealthy” foods?
Now, in my mind, there’s only a couple possible things that could actually result in food guilt:
- I feel guilty about the food because I fear being unhealthy. I value having a healthy, strong, body and treating my body in the best possible way.
- I feel guilty about the food because I fear what the food could do to my outward appearance. I value having a beautiful/thin/fat-free/slim/toned/whatever-adjective-fits-for-you appearance.
And because the guilt is so pervasive, so all-consuming, so strong that I’m willing to push other things aside such as meaningful relationships, spending time with those who matter to me, doing the daily activities that need to get done, just to “right the wrong” and attone for my “gluttonous sins”, it really points that I value one of these things incredibly highly. As in whatever I value takes priority as one of my chief values in life.
And that’s where the depressing and humbling part comes in, as well as sadness and anger. Regardless of whichever element it is (and for me I think it’s both: perfectionism and orthorexia valuing having a perfectly healthy and clean body on the inside, and the having a fat-free, slim, toned, and beautiful outward appearance), I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that I clearly value that so much more than some of the other things in my life. Like, if it was my funeral, would I really want to be remembered as the “girl who had the perfect/healthiest body” or the “girl who took every opportunity possible to laugh”. “The girl who put others before herself”. “The girl who was always up for some quality time with her friends and family.” “The girl who was not afraid to be completely real, and totally herself”.
I don’t know about you, but for me, every option sounds better than the first one.
But this realization, as sad as it is, and as infuriating as it might be, isn’t a pointer that you’re conceited, self-absorbed, trivial, or whatever other adjective that puts you down says. The fact that you might value your physical appearance or your fat-free body quite(too) highly isn’t a death sentence. It isn’t yet another redline through your despicable character that you’re convinced (by the eating disorder) that you have. Because, there’s always a silver lining…
Okay. So realization, confession, acceptance:
My name is Tiffany. I hold no grudge against people who are larger. I hold no misgivings over someone who has fat, or cellulite, and I think no less of them as a human being. I do not believe that anyone’s outward appearance has an impact on their worthiness, worth, or value as a person, or their worthiness of love, care, compassion, or happiness. And I would NEVER, EVER, say that I am better than anyone else based on my outward appearance. However, for some reason, I do not hold myself up to the same standards. I value my outward appearance highly. I value what I physically look like too highly. And as much as I do not judge others for how they appear, I am terrified of appearing larger, or with more fat, or less tone. This value interferes with my life. It gets in my way because it results in me missing opportunities and not being present in my relationships in the ways that I want to be present in them. And because I value this so highly, it often results in me putting my outward appearance ahead of a lot of other things in my life that it should not, that I do not want it to be ahead of.
And it angers me. And I’m working on the acceptance part.
HOWEVER, here’s that part where I luck out at having guilt as my ally! Guilt has helped me by pointing out what I value… let’s add to the Brené Brown quote:
I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. Guilt acts as a lighthouse guiding you home to both your true values AND your MISPLACED values. And as a result, you can work on changing them for the better.
Yes, just because you hold something as a value, doesn’t mean it needs to stay a value. Just because it’s engrained into your psyche as something of critical importance, doesn’t mean that it’s a part of you. Your values are not your genes: they’re not a special CATGGATC (isn’t that the four nucleotides?) sequence that can’t be altered without some fancy GMO. If you change your values, you won’t create cancer or suddenly grow 12 arms or bananas with breasts…
I don’t even know where that came from. Moving on…
It takes work, it takes conscious effort, and it takes immersing yourself completely in new ideas and ideals to change your values. But it can be done. And you’ll know when you’ve achieved it:
You’ll eat that brownie without a second thought.
You’ll go out for pizza with your friends and then eat breakfast the next day. And snack. And lunch. And dinner.
Your burger will come with a side of fries instead of a side of guilt.
Your blessing in disguise will be your guide.