One of the most interesting parts of being a therapist that specializes in disordered eating is becoming intimately familiar with the “shoulds.” Disordered eating patterns appeal to those of us that feel safe in the regimen of rules, and quell our near-constant anxiety with the promise that, as long as we keep doing things in a precise and “right” way, things will turn out okay. When our inner Rebel turns up and pushes us outside the confines of our prescribed “should” behaviors, we experience shame and guilt. Sometimes we punish ourselves.
“Shoulds” are powerful little suckers.
What is most fascinating about “shoulds” is that they are entirely arbitrary. We gleen them from a random blog post or fad diet or church sermon or podcast, and we decide that we are going to start following them, as gospel, tomorrow morning. The most recent example I can think of in the ED world is the keto diet – a very strict diet that works health wonders for some individuals with specific medical or bodily needs – being mass-adopted as the way that we all “should” be eating. Suddenly, we feel badly for having toast in the morning, or an apple as a snack. We gorge on butter (which was demonized itself, a few decades ago) as a “good” food. We feel terrible if we break the rules at the end of a stressful day by having a dessert, because of the sugar content. And on and on.
Diet trends change all the time, and are dictated by an industry that wants us to believe that we need to eat a certain way and look a certain way in order to be acceptable as people. Their level of success has been astounding; many of us have truly moralized the way that we eat. Foods are “good” or “bad,’ and we, by extension, are doing “good,” or “bad,” depending on what we are eating, in what quantities, on any given week. We internalize these messages even further when we feel that we are disciplined, successful, and strong, versus feeling that we are lazy or weak, depending on our eating habits. These are adjectives I hear clients use constantly to describe themselves in session; they are also representative of language I’ve used historically to describe myself.
It is a difficult thing to change our minds into believing that we remain our very lovely, flawed, and complex selves, regardless of our diets or body size or exercise plan. So hard, in fact, that I wonder sometimes if it is even completely possible. What I work with clients (and myself) on instead is taking very good care of our “should – er”; our inner voice that insists that we must be different and better in order to be loved and accepted, to hear what that voice really needs from us. Usually this is some version of fear of rejection, or separateness, that requires some attention and love and building up. We can choose to work with these fears, and gently reject the notion, over and over, that we must adhere to a strict list of “shoulds” in order to gain the acceptance we all desperately want.
There is not a set of standards that make us worthy people. Food and eating are not the moral concepts the diet industry want you to believe they are. The rules are arbitrary.
Stop Shoulding all over yourself.