I love seahorses. They stick two fingers up at the 'normal' way to do things, being one the few creatures on this planet that leaves birth up to the male. They are beautiful. They assess each other's fertility by dancing (who needs ovulation tests anyway?) And did you know that a seahorse can give birth to 2,000 babies at a time?
Well, guilt over sugar is about as prolific as these little creatures are fertile, and much less lovely to think about.
However thinking about it is time well spent, because I am going to completely upend how you see this emotional toxin that is not - as you believe - part of your strategy to get off sugar, but is in fact keeping you addicted to those C12H22011 molecules.
A quick language note before we dive in: where some people say guilt, others say shame. Talking to clients and researching people's needs for this course told me that guilt is by far the most common term (I won't say 'popular'), so that is what I will use. There are shades of meaning that we could go into - but that is for another time, another course. However, be aware that for our purposes, they are interchangeable.
Food guilt is utterly useless and destructive to your health goals. I am going to sell you on the idea of rejecting it - not by the fluffy, nonsensical logic of 'just love yourself' that the worst excesses of the positive thinking/spirituality industries promote.
No, I have a far more rock solid escape route out of Guiltsville.
STEP ONE: Understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate guilt.
All emotions have a function, and the point of guilt should be to get us to see that we have broken our own standards of behaviour, breached our own boundaries. For example, at the end of a tough day at work, I sit down for a well-earned rest. My 8 year-old starts whining "I want my dolllllllllly" that she has left at her friend's house. I blow up at my daughter. She cries, and I feel hideously bad, because I was taking my work stress out on her.
This is appropriate guilt, and it tells me to put in measures to prevent the blow-up in the future. I can do something to make up for shouting. I give her a hug, apologise and we go and get the toy. We sit down and she makes a sign for her to put by the front door: Remember Dolly.
Now let's contrast that with inappropriate guilt.
Same day, same work stresses - but in this scenario, my daughter has her toy safe and sound upstairs. Instead of coming home to dolly-gate, I come home and all I can think about is how magnetic the food for tomorrow's birthday party in the fridge has become. While my little girl plays happily with the doll upstairs, I demolish half of the junk, with the kitchen table blocking the kitchen door so she cannot interrupt me. I put the remainder back in the fridge, vowing to throw it out and planning when to buy the replacement junk.
As the sugar high disintegrates into a toxic fit of self attack, there feels like NOTHING I can do to make up for the binge.
This is the vital difference between appropriate and inappropriate guilt: appropriate guilt is a course corrector. You apologise. You work out preventative measures so you don't breach your own standards of behaviour in future (getting kids to take responsibility for their own stuff for example).
Inappropriate guilt never course corrects. There is no amount of food you can replace, no amount of exercise you can do that will make up for the apparent crime you have committed. It screams "You are bad, through and through - and there's nothing you can do about it".
Food guilt is always inappropriate, because it puts us in the YOU ARE BAD jail. It wants to lock you up for a psychological life sentence - and I mean until you die (even real-life 'life sentences' can be served and have time limits, say 15 years).
It is true that on one level, you have indeed breached your own boundaries when you tore into the party food like Road Runner on amphetamines. And for people who do not use food as an emotional coping mechanism, food guilt may be appropriate. IF incidents like this are isolated, and they feel better once they have replaced the food. IF they decide to do 30 minutes extra exercise a day for the next two weeks - and feel better about it.
STEP TWO: Accept that food is probably a smokesceen
You need to understand that for us compulsives, us food rebels, us emotional eaters, food plays a complex role in our lives. It is often a coping mechanism for problems we would rather not think about.
Maybe the work stress you have that leads to the binge is actually a sign asking you to course correct by blowing the whistle on workplace bullying, or a standing up to client who takes advantage of you. But if you grew up in a home where you saw one parent bully the other and indeed were never respected yourself, standing up to the workplace bully may be something that you were never taught. It may even feel like a dangerous risk to take.
One of my roles as a coach is to make connections between food and what we call 'power domains' in life such as close relationships, sex, work and money. Issues in these areas often get transferred to eating. Time and again I see what my clients cannot - partly because that is what I am looking for, but partly because they have unconsciously blinded themselves to problems in these power domains.
In the example above, I am telling myself that I have let myself down with the binge, that I am such a terrible person. I tell myself it is about me vs sugar.
The sugar here is a smokescreen. The truth is you feel you are in an impossible position because your boss is making demands of me that are wiping out your social life. But if grew up seeing this dynamic play out at home, you don't have the skills to set clear boundaries. Maybe you had a fear of authority modelled for you by your parents' marriage. Mum stayed when she should have taken you and left, but dad hit her and her confidence barely survived. Or: mum was a narcissist who had your stepdad kowtow to her every whim. Everyone was on tenterhooks awaiting the next emotional rage attack. Perhaps the only way to survive childhood was to be a good boy/girl.
Do you remember that line from The Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey says:
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist
The greatest trick these deep-seated problems are pulling on you is convincing you they don't exist - or at least that they are 'just how things are'. That you must accept the status quo.
STEP THREE: Stop Worrying - No Need To Figure It All Out Right Now
I was pretty floored when I went through step 3 above. You may see with horrible clarity what your sugar addiction has been a smokescreen for. (In my case, it not only helped me with the protective fat suit my cavebrain thought I needed to protect me from men, but it jammed my mental circuits so I made massively disempowering life choices. I chose a career that I could never flourish in and a partner who felt safe but I ended up taking responsibility for)
Or the truth sugar guilt is covering for may still be unclear, but you have a sense that somewhere else is where the action really is for you.
Wherever you are on the continuum of understanding the role sugar and food compulsion plays in your life is the right place for you to be.
This is not a lukewarm platitude. It is the right place because it is what your mind can cope with right now.
Let me illustrate what I mean with a story.
10 years ago, I worked for a few months teaching in a special needs setting. One of the kids had an abusive history AND severe special needs. He was also much stronger than me. In contrast to other similar schools I had worked in previously, the management was weak and there was a very insidious ethos of "If you're not hard enough to put up with this, you're not good enough to work here". I left after a term of physical then finally sexual harassement from this pupil. The school not only failed to back me up, but actually called me a liar when I put in an official complaint.
I must emphasise this school was NOT typical of care settings I have worked in, and I am happy to report that the following year, it shut down.
This experience was so painful it ended my teaching career (which was not exactly glittering, I have to tell you).
Anyway, a few years later I was in the supermarket and I saw a woman I recognised, but where from? This always drives me crackers - when you see someone you cannot place. Unable to stop myself, I approached her and blurted out "Sorry, but I recognise you - where do I know you from?"
She told me she had been the school nurse from that school.
We spoke briefly, and she told me about what Jim was doing now.
"Sorry...and who is Jim?" I asked, completely perplexed.
"He was your teaching assistant" she replied.
I was floored. It was not unbelievable that I had forgotten this woman (who I met 3 or 4 times) but to have wiped out from my conscious memory the name of my colleaugue, who I worked closely with every single working day for three months in a very chaotic, intensive job...?
What had happened was that this job had tapped into the trauma of sexual abuse I experienced as a child and protected me by shutting down all details of anything associated with the job. One thing I have learnt is that you can't heal what you cannot see - but if you cannot yet see the real cause of your eating problems, it is because your mind cannot yet cope with it. Otherwise we would not be able to function, our psyche would shatter. It is a safety catch for your mental health.
This safety catch often makes healing a long and drawn out process - but the time is going to pass anyway, and your desire to solve your problems will never override that safety catch. In our psychic economy, survival beats personal growth - because we are still at the mercy of Cavebrain: our evolutionary psychology that still lives in tribes and wears animal pelts.
STEP FOUR: Accept the mystery
So...how DO you be patient? How do you keep that inappropriate guilt at bay while walking around in the dark? Or if you HAVE intuited the reason for your eating problems but it feels immoveable, how can you proceed?
You accept the mystery. Your mind shut off (and may still be shutting off) the connection between those core life wounds and food for (as it sees it anyway) a good reason. All you can do is be humble and respect it. Your mind may be wrong, but it's all you have got to proceed with. You may want to sort it out ASAP, to slip into the sports car of life and zip down the freeway of personal development (And there are loads of self-appointed gurus who will sell you a ticket to their 3 day seminars promising such a trip) to the luxury island called No Problems. (This island is, by the way, sponsored by Happy Ego, Inc).
But what you actually have is an old banger that chugs along at 60mph and the highway of personal development turns out to have a few diversions. You will definiteley need to stop for a rest (and snacks, of course).
Stop fantasising about the sports car of problem solving, because it only exists within the marketing materials of fad diets, liposuction clinics and motivational speakers who spout crap like "Remove the word 'impossible' from your vocabulary".
STEP FIVE: Stay Curious
Not everything in life is possible. I will never have a washboard stomach (because of my genetics and middle age...and the fact that I don't have a spare 3 hours a day to work on it) or run a marathon (because of my knees) or meet my hero Stuart Wilde (because he is dead) or go on a date with Robert Downey Jnr (obviously he keeps asking, but I'm just too busy).
But I believe the human spirit is far more powerful than our culture would have us think. There are ways to process trauma - you do not need a time machine to go back and sidestep the root cause of your misery.
What you can access right now is your curiosity. Your perspective. You started this article feeling deep toxic guilt. I hope I have taken you to a more powerful place. Initially it may be painful - but whatever you are feeling is both something you CAN cope with AND a springboard to power. Don't you prefer that to the low level feeling of inadequacy that comes as part and parcel of sugar guilt, that never moves you on anywhere?
That day, standing there in the supermarket remembering Jim, it was painful. I was floored at how deeply I had buried this experience that I could not deal with at the time. But I also marvelled at the power of my mind. Both that it felt I needed shielding from memories of that job, and at the fact that I was now ready to process it (if I had not have been ready, I would not have remembered the school nurse or felt compelled to approach her). What a springboard to power!
From there I started to speak to others about that experience. Speaking your truth unloads alot of inappropriate guilt about difficult experiences and trauma (in this case the guilt sprang from the fact that the tribal leaders (my bosses and the company) had effectively banished me from the group by telling me I was a liar).
This is my final piece in that particular deshaming puzzle, writing about it publicly in order to help you. I hope I have not been self-indulgent and this has given you food for thought as an example.
When you step outside of the sheep-like shunning of your power that sugar guilt creates, you enter unchartered territory. It can be painful and you don't know why. Or you realise why, but have no idea how to heal.