Is Food and Exercise Guilt Keeping You Stuck?
Updated: Dec 15, 2022
Through all my years of helping people quit dieting and heal from disordered eating, destructive self talk, and shitty body image, (and through my own journey with these things) something that comes up insanely frequently is the trap of black or white thinking. I have thought about this a lot over the years - trying to understand the psychology behind this tendency. There's good research showing that rigid thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, stands in the way of Intuitive Eating. Why do so many people have a hard time with moderation? Why do we need to be doing something perfectly in order to feel like we’re succeeding and stick with it? I think many spiritual texts, certainly in Buddhism, talk about this "middle way". So why do our brains find comfort in needing to either do things 100% or not at all? When it comes to diet and exercise, the trap might show up for you in the form of chaotic eating or resistance to exercise. Here are some other examples of how black or white thinking may be making it hard for you to be an intuitive eater.
1. You are either eating “all clean” or whatever version of “good” or “healthy” or “low calorie/low carb, etc” and cooking all the time and taking your lunch to work OR you are getting lots of take out, snacking on crap at work, getting breakfast on the go, overeating a lot, and drinking too much coffee and/or alcohol.
2. If you think that eating “badly” one day or one meal means you’ve blown it, then you feel guilty and continue to eat this way later on that day or the next day, binging, or eating way past fullness.
3. If you’re reluctant to go for a walk, or go to a yoga class once in a while because you feel like it doesn’t count or isn’t worth it unless you go everyday or complete whatever ideal amount of minutes, steps, miles, or calories burned.
4. Once you finally do go to a workout class, you promise yourself you’re going to go 5 times a week (or 3, 4, whatever it is) and feel bad about not following through. So you find yourself doing exercise in bursts rather than consistently.
There are so many more subtle and not-so-subtle examples of this trap that can show up if your relationship to food is on the rocks. Working through the steps of intuitive eating could be really healing for you.
It’s ok if you feel this way - it’s incredibly common. Our brains like certainty, even if it's an illusion. It's interesting - we continuously learn throughout our lives that certainty and perfection are unrealistic illusions, but we still crave them. They make us feel safe, especially if we’ve been told or taught that our body is not okay as it is and we cannot be trusted to eat what we want. In a diet culture world, where so many foods are deemed “dangerous” and immoral, it’s no wonder we feel like we need strict rules to keep it together.
And diet culture is sure benefitting from it. As the diet industry is one of the biggest out there, ($80 billion!!) it can afford to hire the smartest psychologists in the field to figure out how to make foods that keep us coming back for more, and to sell diet plans that feed into our insecurities. Diets don’t work of course because restriction is not sustainable and neither is doing anything 100% of the time. Eventually, you go from ALL to NOTHING. And there you are again, feeling bad about yourself. Sigh, what a roller coaster.
Luckily, we are not doomed to keep thinking this way. You can consciously choose to allow yourself to go for a 10 minute walk if that’s all you have time for. It does count and it does matter. You can choose to have pizza for dinner on a Tuesday because you’re tired and have no food in the house, and then go grocery shopping the next day to make your favorite pasta dish. You can choose to have a big, hearty salad for lunch with croutons and plenty of ranch dressing and feel just great about it. This is how to build sustainable moderation. This work can take time and patience, and sometimes more healing work is necessary to process past trauma and free up space to feel safe making change.
When talking to yourself, use words like sometimes, often, usually instead of always and never. Be present with yourself when you're going for your walk or eating your "kinda healthy" meal - enjoy it. Don't let yourself tell you it's not good enough. It is good enough.
Give yourself compassion for where you’re at - today and every day. It may feel counter-intuitive to “go for the grey”, but you will eventually land at a relationship to food and exercise that feels balanced, natural, and like a beautiful form of self-care.
If you feel stuck with your eating and self-care habits and think you may need support on this journey, you can sign up for my upcoming small online group. And if you’d like more one-on-one support, I offer one-on-one anti-diet counseling and am accepting new clients at this time. More on that here. You can look through a directory of other Intuitive Eating Counselors here. Another great idea to work through this on your own, is to use the Intuitive Eating Workbook. It's amazing - I use it a lot with my clients.
If you just want to marinate on this a little and see if this mentality is blocking you from true self-care, try this journal prompt:
Where in my life do I feel stuck, like I don’t have enough willpower to stick to a way of eating or exerting? Are my expectations for what I should be doing too rigid or too high? Do I even have time in my life to cook every night and exercise 5 days a week? What if I try cooking once a week and going for a short walk after work a couple times?
I'd love to hear your thoughts.