Now Christmas has passed and the start of not only a new year but a new decade upon us, it’s time to think about what we want to leave behind in 2019. For many people, that may be leaving behind a negative relationship with food – food guilt.
A lot of people suffer with disordered eating patterns and a negative relationship with food, and it’s not always easy to spot. While it is healthy to be conscious of what you eat and to stay on top of exercise there is a point where this behaviour can become obsessive and unproductive.
If you know that you struggle with negative body image as well as food guilt, I’m here to share with you some of the exercises I have done to help me along my healing journey.
I’d like to start by telling you a little bit about my story with food. I hope this will help you feel less alone and also show you that there is a way out.
While I was never diagnosed with any form of eating disorder – one reason being I never sought out professional help and secondly because I didn’t fit into one specific type of eating disorder, I definitely struggled from disordered eating.
Since the age of around 8, running was part of my life. I had a natural gift and I absolutely adored doing it – it was my happy place and somewhere I had a lot of confidence in myself. I became a high-level athlete and placed in the top ten regularly in county and national level races. Unfortunately, I developed an injury which put me out for around 18 months. When I returned I was s l o w (for me) and that was incredibly painful to deal with. I no longer stood on the start line with unshakable confidence and I hated it.
Looking around at all of these girls who were now better than me, I noticed one thing – they were all thin. Ok I thought, to get back to my level I need to lose weight and I need to train more. Enter eating the bare minimum to not bring about suspicion, daily weigh-ins and exercising intensively twice a day. And the worst thing is it worked. I started to improve and people started to compliment my appearance. I was feeling g r e a t. Until I passed out on a run.
You see, you can’t do a 7-mile run when all you’ve eaten is a handful of blueberries all day. During the run, I started to feel incredibly light-headed and I couldn’t see that well, I felt dizzy. I stopped and fell to the floor desperately trying to get grounded.
The healing journey
This was the start of my healing journey, but let me tell you, it was not linear by far. It was filled with denial, googling how long it takes for food to digest so I could make sure I’d thrown it up before I gained the weight from it and feeling so out of control of everything. I vividly remember a conversation with my boyfriend (who has regularly seen the struggle I’ve gone through) where he asked: “If you had to put on weight in order to heal from this would you?” And I broke down crying because the answer was no. I’d much rather suffer daily with this than put on weight and that was where my problem lay. Putting on weight was the worst thing I could possibly imagine.
Despite my mind desperately clinging to this disease, I knew I had to do something because I couldn’t live my life in this self-hating misery any longer. It took a lot of trial and error on what worked for me.
Journalling to find your why
The first place to start on your healing journey is to figure out your core why. This is the mindset or narrative that keeps you trapped in the cycle of disordered eating. For me, my core value was “being thin is associated with success and attractiveness.” This came from the idea that being thin makes you a successful runner and social conditioning that thin people were more attractive. Until you know your deep-rooted belief you can’t begin changing it to something that aligns with your true reality now.
In your journal write “Why do I get food guilt?” And then in a stream of truthful consciousness write your answer. Then ask why to the answer.
e.g. I feel food guilt because I shouldn’t eat too much!
Why shouldn’t I eat too much?
Because I don’t want to get fat!
and continue asking why until you start uncovering the true motive behind your food guilt and your negative body image.
This will take several journaling sessions, stick with it. And you might think you’ve uncovered your why only to realise there is something hidden even further down that is the real cause. You’ll likely feel a lot of resistance and negative emotions arising during this process and that is perfectly normal. Sit with those emotions, thank them and start letting them pass through you. Meditate and clear the limiting thoughts from your mind because they are trying to keep you stuck rather than allowing you to grow. They’re not the truth they’re are just thoughts.
Anti food guilt love letter & affirmations
Once you know your why you can start reprogramming your mind to align with your truth. A wonderful way I loved to do this was through writing love letters to myself and by using positive affirmations.
When you first start doing either of these things it can feel weird and forced. That’s because it’s something you’re not used to doing and because it’s re-writing your narrative so your brain is f-r-e-a-k-i-n-g out! Stick with it because you’ll start to see the benefits before too long and they’re well worth feeling kinda silly.
When writing a love letter to your body try to focus more on functionality rather than appearance. It’s fine to throw in a compliment now and then because we deserve to focus on what we love about our body. But the point of this letter is to re-programme your mind into seeing all of the amazing things your body does for you rather than whether it’s looks how society says it should. s
Examples of statements that might be in your letter are:
I love my legs because they allow me to walk around.
I love my stomach because it helps in digesting my food and giving me energy.
I love my arms because I can hug people with them.
I love my eyes because they let me see the world.
If you’ve never used positive self-affirmations before I suggest sitting down and writing down around 5 “I am” statements that resonate with you and embody the kind of mindset and energy you want. Once you have your affirmations, write them out and place them around your house then every time you see one say it to yourself. Or each morning say them to yourself in the mirror.
When negative thoughts around food guilt or body image start to creep up take some deep breaths and say these affirmations to yourself.
Examples of “I am” affirmations can look like
I am a beautiful, loving, infinite being.
I am enough.
I am worthy of love.
Move without attachment to physical appearance
I really struggled to try and figure out how to incorporate exercise into my life in a healthy and balanced way. For a long time I thought my workouts were coming from a positive place but I realised it was actually my distorted body image, food guilt and disordered eating manifesting in a different way. I just couldn’t understand how I could care about keeping my body healthy and fit without it feeding (no pun intended!) this unhelpful mindset.
Then I realised. I need to move without attachment to a physical outcome. I want to move my body because it makes me healthier but the outcome on my physical appearance doesn’t matter. I’m not moving to look a certain way I’m moving to feel a certain way. This can be pretty difficult to get your mind around so one way I really worked up to being able to do this was to do an ‘exercise’ that I didn’t associate with weight loss or muscle gain. I danced. Because when I danced I felt really good, I was able to express myself and move which gave me such a boost in my mood but I never associated dancing with a physical outcome and so I didn’t have any expectations.
So how does this fit into reducing my food guilt or distorted body image you may be thinking? Well, every time I started to feel guilty about the food I’d eaten and start thinking about the compensatory workout I was going to do the next day to make up for it, I’d dance instead. This way I was getting in exercise but it wasn’t associated with keeping my weight at a certain level. This was to tell my mind that movement is about health, self-expression and energy not to do with my physical appearance.
So, what is a feel-good movement that you can use to start flowing without attachment to a physical outcome?
Feel the emotions
This process is long and definitely not linear. You will have setbacks and some days it will feel overwhelming and too hard. Your emotions might become unbearable. I’ve had many days where all I’ve wanted to do was scream and run away because my mind was fighting against the re-programming. But it is important to acknowledge these emotions and accept them as messengers – usually, it means you’re on the right track.
Our emotions are not something we should fight against but something that we should let pass through us with ease. They’re not going to stick around forever so just feel them out with the knowledge that this too will pass.
Love yo damn self
Finally and most importantly. This is a process of falling deeply and madly in love with yourself. That’s the real goal here. So go and have fun falling in love with yo damn self. Take yourself on a date, take long bubble baths and cook yourself a fancy meal. You deserve all of the love in the world and you have that to give.
YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE, BECAUSE OF YOUR IMPERFECTIONS. YOU ARE WORTHY. YOU ARE ENOUGH.