It’s pretty screwed up that feeling guilty after eating any food is even an optional response. Yet so many of us do it.
The countless health and fitness sources creating information that feeds this terrible habit certainly don’t help. There’s the good/bad dichotomy used to label foods (e.g.: calling baked chicken and steamed broccoli “good” and ice cream “bad”). There are the You ate it, now negate it! memes that display the calories in your favorite candy bars and treats and the number of jumping jacks or burpees or miles you must run to burn them off.
It’s no wonder so many people feel guilt or shame after eating certain foods, or why they feel compelled to “earn” them with brutal workouts.
It’s time to eradicate feelings of guilt after eating any food.
To do so, we will look to antiquity for some of its most valuable lessons.
We can thank authors like Ryan Holiday, Donald Robertson, Pierre Hadot for helping us rediscover the timeless lessons taught by Stoic philosophers. What most people don’t realize, or expect, is how powerful some of those core, ancient lessons can be applied to health and fitness, food and exercise, body image.
One of the most prevalent lessons in Stoicism is, as Epictetus said, “What troubles people is not things, but their judgments about things.”
That powerful statement can be tremendously helpful when applied to health and fitness. And I’ll prove it.
When was the last time you said something like, “I ate way too many cookies. I just blew my diet; that was so bad!” while being overcome with guilt?
Eating a cookie, or a dozen cookies, is not “bad.” It’s just a cookie, and you chewed and swallowed it. That’s all it is, and that is all that happened. But you are choosing to make the judgment that you are bad for eating cookies. The act of eating cookies cannot in and of itself upset you — it’s not a universal truth. That’s why one person can eat cookies without a second thought and someone else can be ravaged with guilt and feel like they must atone for the self-declared transgression.
You’re not upset for eating cookies (or pizza or candy or any other food you’ve become conditioned to label “bad”). Your subjective, and completely optional, judgment about the situation is what is upsetting you.
Maybe you’ve become accustomed to making this erroneous judgment out of habit. Perhaps for years your social circle and whatever health and fitness experts you follow use the good/bad dichotomous language to describe food, and that’s rubbed off on you, too. It’s now an ingrained habit.
It’s time to abolish this unhelpful response.
How to Break the Guilt-Inducing Cycle
Using the cookie-eating example above, it helps to ask, “What objectively happened?” You ate some cookies. Full stop. End of story.
See the reality of situations. Strip them of any reflexive subjective judgments you typically attach to them (“I’m bad because I ate cookies.”). Be as objective as possible to see only what is there, only what happened. Realize that any subjective judgments about yourself are comments you are choosing to attach to them. It is those optional judgments that bother you, not the event itself.
To break free from the guilt-inducing cycle, the goal is to catch yourself right before you make these subjective, unnecessary judgments, and train yourself to refrain from doing so. See the reality of what happened. Add nothing else to it. It’s challenging, but well worth the effort.
Guilt is never in the ingredients list. That is something only you can add.
The great news, should you struggle to refrain from making subjective statements as you work to break this habit, is that you can choose to erase them, immediately, afterward. And then simply move on with your life, unburdened from unnecessary guilt.
This single lesson can create a powerful ripple effect that helps you reclaim your health and fitness lifestyle; to make it empowering, enjoyable, and sustainable, like it should be. If you want more bite-sized lessons that pack a punch, check out my new book The 100-Day Reclaim. (Paid link.)