How often do we overhear the words “I feel guilty?”
We hear them and feel this when we cancel plans or realize that perhaps our words accidentally caused a misunderstanding. Rarely do we feel guilt in the context in which we are meant to; instead, any negative emotion becomes translated—so easily—into guilt. “I feel bad” becomes “I feel guilty.” We walk around with this murky emotion, calling it guilt, which likely leads to guilt—a feeling and thought that we did something wrong. And when guilt is present, feelings of shame are often next.
When does it make sense to feel guilt? According to the therapeutic trauma modality of Cognitive Processing Therapy, guilt fits the situation when we intentionally act in a way to evoke harm. Expressing a terribly mean comment in the hopes of hurting another person; deliberately tripping someone because you want him or her to fall. The emotional response, then, would be guilt based on your involvement and intentions. Any situation where the person is not intentionally engaging in a way that evokes harm will likely cause reactions, but guilt really does not fit that circumstance.
For instance, forgetting to share information that then leads someone’s feelings to be hurt could lead you to feel bad because of a mistake, but according to this model, guilt would not be the “fitting” emotion. Or if you tripped someone who then got hurt but did so by accident or did not think they would be injured, then this could lead to regret, but should not lead to guilt.
This is all very helpful from a logical or cerebral standpoint, but it might not be so simple to say what emotions are “fitting.” Emotions are wild and wacky and we cannot control which emotion pops up, regardless of if it “should” or “should not.” This mindset of telling oneself or others not to feel a certain way can, in fact, be damaging; it invalidates the experience and makes the person feel wrong for natural emotions that occur.
Dear reader, I am not telling you how to feel. I am introducing, though, new verbiage to encourage you to pause when you might feel or express guilt. I am suggesting that you try to reframe, and know that you likely did not intend harm and may not even have been directly involved in the situation at hand. Try to use words like regret or sadness and see if those match the “bad” feelings that you’ve been calling guilt. They might not. See if you can engage in a little internal dialogue about this and notice if you were naturally headed toward endorsing behaviors based on shame or guilt—and challenge this.
Guilt can lead to shame, judgment, poor self-worth and a negative internal dialogue. Sometimes, guilt is helpful or even needed; it causes us to grow and reflect, to seek forgiveness, to learn. But let us not confuse guilt with diving deeply into self-hatred; we can feel guilty without casting ourselves as “bad people” or engaging in the “I’m the worst…” dialogue. We can challenge the core beliefs that may peek out when we experience guilt and remember that it is okay to feel guilty, to learn and to not berate ourselves.
It is also okay to recognize that guilt typically comes from a place of knowing, internally, when we’ve done something wrong and want to do better. And now, another fundamental request:
Dear reader—can we please move away from coupling guilt with food? As noted above, guilt is typically about intentionally causing harm or doing something that is or feels wrong and then coping with the emotions that follow. Eating is not wrong.
Labeling food as “guilt free” would imply that some foods should, then, cause guilt. This likely stems from the mindset that these foods go against a diet or that they cause weight gain. Food is not immoral. You are not immoral for eating certain food. You are not—despite what the diet industry and fat-phobic world tell you—causing harm when you eat these foods. You may have feelings about it for a plethora of different reasons, but let’s connect with those reasons and call a spade a spade: despite often hiding behind health and wellness, research indicates that there is less of a connection between health and weight or food than we believe, and it is far more unhealthy to create a negative relationship with food, leading an individual to miss out on life and manipulate and damage the mind-body-soul relationship.
I hope that we can work together to change how we approach guilt in general, and this includes the idea that guilt should come from food choices. We are so much more than this. We deserve so much more than to equate self-worth to food choices or to live in shame because of comparisons. Call a food by its name, not by your judgment. You will protect your relationship to food and also foster healthier connections between the mind, body and soul of yourself and those around you.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, please visit www.temimah.com