Over the past few years, but mostly the past few months, I’ve had a chance to explore both the emotional triggers and emotional implications of eating disorders. When I think back, I realise that I knew early on I had a problem, I just didn’t know it was a problem. I remember being in my late teens, my parents commenting on my weight (no need to blame anybody here, they didn’t know any better) and me telling them something like what follows:
‘I eat because I am stressed and when you annoy me about my eating and weight, it stresses me even further, making me wanting to eat even more!’
This is a concept that they didn’t understand back then and, to be honest, neither did I. When I said the word ‘stress’ I didn’t really know what I meant by it. Only now I can say that it was really a melting-pot of emotions I couldn’t make out. It was all the big mess of knots you find in a box of mixed yarn you haven’t opened in years. In order to tidy it up, you need to first find a lose thread and pull till it comes free. Well, the first thread I found was guilt.
Guilt is an emotion that everybody feels, even children. From as young as four or five, a child will start feel guilt as a result of certain behaviors that they are being taught is bad. Indeed, from then and while we grow up and learn, guilt is a moral barometer, part of what makes up our conscience.
What’s the role of Guilt in Eating Disorders?
As you can see, guilt is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite. Guilt is a guide for good behavior, a warning side that what you are doing or intending to do is not the right thing. So how does it affect somebody with an Eating Disorder? What’s the problem with it? Well, quite a few, to be honest. Guilt can be the trigger for a binge, the very behavior that sparks our urge to empty the fridge by shovelling food inside us, or, in the opposite extreme, deny yourself food altogether, or it can be the feeling that doesn’t let you stop these behaviors. I am going to talk about the latter possibility.
In this role, guilt is intrinsically associated with the concepts of ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods and your self-esteem.
Back in my binge-everyday days, guilt was not the initial trigger, it wasn’t the starting position, but it was the fuel that kept the binging going long after the originating feeling had disappeared. For whatever reason, whether it was loneliness, or sadness, or any other of my triggers, I would binge. I don’t think there was a period, back then, when I ate ‘normally’, all I did was either diet or binge.
The Diet/Binge Cycle
Before I continue with this article, I’ll spend a few lines talking about the diet and binge cycle. This cycle can be applied to other eating disorders but the behaviors expressed would be different.
- Dieting – We start dieting because we want to control our shape and weight, as well as our eating, which is at the core of our self esteem. While on diet, restriction of certain foods (‘bad’ foods) come into play, which leads to
- A preoccupation with food – Food becomes an obsession. It’s always in our mind, especially those foods we can’t eat. I even used to dream about it. And we try to hold on as long as we can but eventually
- We give in – It might be a biscuit, it might be a piece of chocolate, it doesn’t matter. Eventually, it happens and, as small as the treat might have been, we feel we’ve failed, and since we’ve already failed, cue the
- All-or-nothing behavior – Hands up if you are familiar with ‘I’ve already f****d up today, I might as well start again tomorrow.’ And who says tomorrow says next Monday, month, year… Which makes us feel even worse, making us
- Swear we’ll get it under control and get back to step 1, probably with even stricter rules.
Back to guilt
Well, one of the feelings that reinforces the sense of failure is guilt. And this guilt can be completely out there, disproportionate to the ‘crime’ itself. We might beat ourselves up because of eating that one biscuit, that one square of chocolate, the three chips we ate from a friend’s plate.
When I moved to Northern Ireland and I became solely responsible for my food, I remember I used to make myself for dinner 100gr of star shaped pasta with tomato sauce and cheese. Now, 100gr of pasta (that small) might fit in a small (very small) cereal bowl. It’s a completely reasonable portion of pasta. Yet I felt guilty. I used to tell my volunteer officer I was eating too much. When I think about it now I have to laugh at myself.
But back then I lived with other volunteers. The bigger problems started when I started alone. Then I was free to indulge in whatever I wanted and in the amounts I felt like, because there was nobody to judge me…
And who is a tougher critic than ourselves? The more I ate, the guiltier I felt and the more I wanted to eat, just to shut up the guilt.
Was that guilt unreasonable?
Except that, right now, I feel like saying that part of it wasn’t. Part of it must have been justified because look at how much I ate and how often, sometimes nonstop. Surely I had reason to feel guilty.
And it wasn’t just the food. When I started therapy the first time, I remember saying to my therapist: ‘look what I’ve done to myself’ referring to my size. This, of course, links to my self-esteem and believing that, not only was I a failure, but my size made me a bad person, an undesirable outsider, probably the source of all my issues.
And you might agree that I shouldn’t have eaten that much, that I should have had more willpower, that I was right to feel guilty.
But you might want to consider that overeating is not evil and neither is being fat. Guilt fools you into believing you are doing a terrible thing, yet it isn’t. So what’s the moral meaning of that guilt?
I’d like to say that grasping that was what helped me get over the unreasonable side of my feelings of guilt. The truth is, it’s still there, nagging at me. I keep it behind bars, though. It takes a lot of talking to myself. A lot of convincing myself that it’s fine, I am allowed to eat the chocolate/ice cream/cheesecake/…
Don’t get me wrong, like the rest of feelings, guilt is not the spawn of Evil, it is indeed a really useful feeling, a moral compass as I said earlier, but it should not play a role in our relationship with food. There are healthy voices that work as a guide for our eating. It’s called hunger and it’s time we became reacquainted with it.