So, things didn’t go exactly as you’d hoped at Thanksgiving?  Maybe had a bit too much stuffing or an extra piece (or three) of pumpkin pie?

For many of us, the immediate pleasure we derive from food becomes guilt in the aftermath.  We may wake up wondering, Why did I let this happen? Again?

Instructor Taking Exercise Class At GymInitially, this guilt may appear useful, as it motivates us (and the other 72 people vying for that elliptical) to get to the gym or to eat less. But guilt is rarely helpful as a long-term strategy for behavior change, and it can actually perpetuate the problem from which it originated.

We see this in the pattern of compulsive overeating: people overeat, feel guilty about doing so, and then eat again in an effort to assuage the guilt.  Eating is used as a way to cope with painful situations or feelings, but, as almost anyone can tell you, it doesn’t work. And this vicious cycle can lead to profound depression and isolation.

Guilt is also associated with yo-yo dieting and bulimia.  Both of these patterns involve vacillation between deprivation and overindulgence.  People eat more than they feel they should, and then feel terribly guilty.  Subsequently, they vow never to overeat again and enter into deprivation—through dieting, purging, or excessive and punitive exercise—as a way to lose the weight and vanquish the guilt.

For a short time, there is a sense of pride at being able to maintain this level of discipline and control.  But most people can only stand the deprivation for so long before overindulgence comes knocking: I deserve this pint of ice cream, I’ve been so good all week! For those stuck in this pattern, one pint turns into a night-long (or week-long) binge.  And then you-know-who shows up—our old foe, Mr. Guilt.

The lesson here?  Beating yourself up doesn’t usually lead to long-term changes in lifestyle. And making a global attribution about yourself based upon a single instance of behavior (e.g., seeing yourself as glutinous or bad because you overate), can make you feel worse and sabotage plans for self-care.

As an alternate strategy, you might try engaging in positive self-talk about your body.  Cut yourself some slack and remember that taking care of yourself—emotionally and physically—involves respect for who you are and how you look.  You might even dare to give thanks for your body in all its wonder, since it’s that time of year and all.

Creative Commons License photo credit: therichardlife