Health & Wellness Articles

Stop Feeling Guilty about Every Mistake

Don't Let Toxic Guilt Wipe Out Your Willpower

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Does this story sound familiar to you? You’re doing pretty well sticking within your calorie range until that box of candy shows up in the office, or all heck breaks loose and the only way to squeeze in lunch is at the local fast food joint. You give in to the candy or the double cheeseburger with fries and after that, things really go downhill. You start off feeling a little guilty, and the next thing you know, you’re eating everything in sight and telling yourself you’ll start over tomorrow, or next week, or…

So, what’s really going on here? Were you just standing in the wrong line when they were handing out will power? Not too likely. Do you have some deep, subconscious desire to not lose weight that compels you to sabotage yourself? Possibly, but probably not. Most likely, the problem is that you went on a toxic guilt trip.

The Difference Between Healthy Guilt & Toxic Guilt
Don't get me wrong here. I'm all for an appropriate level of guilt. It lets you know when you're letting yourself (or someone else) down, and reminds you that your impulses are not the most important things in the universe. But there’s guilt, and then there’s GUILT.

The main difference between healthy guilt and its toxic cousin is a matter of when you feel it. Appropriate guilt is the kind you feel before you do something you don't want to do, while things are still in the thinking-about-it stage and there is still a chance you can choose not to do the thing that makes you feel guilty.

We psychologists refer to this as having a conscience, and it is a very helpful thing. It’s so helpful that it always amazes me that you hear so little about it in discussions about weight loss.

Most of us have a good conscience when it comes to treating other people decently—we routinely expect it of ourselves and others. But when it comes to treating ourselves decently by eating well and exercising and refusing to verbally abuse ourselves when we aren’t perfect…POOF! The most powerful weapon you have in your arsenal for getting yourself to act the way you want to suddenly becomes off-limits.

This might not be such a bad thing, if it meant you could get rid of the disabling, toxic guilt that comes with having an overactive, perfectionistic conscience. But that’s not what happens. In fact, just the opposite happens.

When you routinely push aside the little voice in your head that tells you, for your own sake, that you may want to think twice about eating that candy or double cheeseburger, it doesn’t go away. It just moves a couple of steps further down the chain of events and gets even louder. Now, instead of hearing that voice before you act, you don’t hear it until after you've already done the thing you might not really have wanted to do. Instead of a gentle voice reminding you to think before you act, it’s screaming at you about what you already did wrong and what a jerk you are. This compels you to spend way too much time worrying about why you keep doing this sort of thing, and getting down on yourself to the point that you become your own worst enemy. This is toxic guilt, and it is not your friend.

End the Toxic Guilt Trip: Exercise Your Healthy Lifestyle Conscience

Fortunately, the solution to the problem of toxic guilt is really quite simple, at least in theory. All you have to do are three simple things:
  1. When that quiet, nagging voice in your head starts saying that you are about to do something it doesn't approve of, listen to it. Stop what you're doing for a few moments to ask yourself, "Is this what I really want to do?"
     
  2. If you agree with the voice, decide not do the thing in question. If you disagree, decide to do it. And if you're not sure (or if you halfway want to and halfway don't), try to postpone your decision (and action) until you've had a chance to sort things out a little more.
     
  3. After you've made your decision, act! Then take a few more seconds to notice how you feel about what you just did. Nothing fancy here, no psychoanalyzing yourself, no reading yourself the riot act if you didn't do what you wanted. Just note what you decided, what you actually did, and how you felt afterwards. File this in the memory banks for future reference.
Now, you could be sitting there right now saying to yourself, "What the heck is this guy talking about? The whole problem is that I never hear that little voice until after the fact. The minute I see those candies, or smell that cheeseburger cooking, I go on autopilot and stuff it in my mouth."

This is NOT true. The little voice is there, you just aren't hearing it because you're more accustomed to your louder toxic guilt.

To train yourself to hear the little voice before it's too late, just keep practicing the three steps above until it becomes second nature to STOP and ASK yourself what you really want to do before you act. Once your conscience knows you are making the effort to listen again, it will move back up to its proper place in the chain of events.

If you find this very hard to do, you may also need to work on staying grounded in the moment and managing the particular situations that trigger mindless eating for you. Here are a few articles that might help:

De-Stress in 3 Minutes or Less
3 Ways to Stop Negative Thinking
The Challenges of Maintaining a Healthy Weight - Part 2

This article is Step 3 in SparkPeople's Mind Over Body series, a 10-step program to ending emotional eating and creating a permanent healthy lifestyle. View the full series here or continue to the next step.

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Member Comments

  • Great article! Needed this! Saving it as a favorite.
  • Great article. I do seem to be on autopilot but I must listen to my little voice and ask myself if I really want something or is it worth it? Toxic guilt isn't always easy to get a grip on but being mindful of how I can end the sabotage will help. Thanks, Dr. Dean. The older I get, the more I heed the advice of your articles. I wish I had listened to such insight yeas ago.
  • BILLTHOMSON
    I reflect where I came from and do I want to go back to that picture.
  • Again, an article which shakes loose stuff I had stored in the deep recesses of my memory.
  • SUGARLAND8
    Very good article.
  • I like this article. It gives voice to the dilemma of self control/willpower
    . I have begun to think before acting when I am craving a snack. I stop to think (often but not always) "Is there something else I like that would be a better choice, even if it doesn't fit my plan for the day?" and try to keep those better choices available in my home.
  • Great article! I just totally messed up, and it's still morning. I was mad at myself, and feeling so guilty, so I decided to come on SparkPeople for some much needed inspiration. The front page had a link to this article on it, and I feel much better about the rest of the day now. I plan on eating my fruits and veggies, watching out not to add too many calories or fat, and trying to get some fiber in. Thank you so much for this article!
  • I needed this today. I dropped the ball just a little the last two days while hormones were raging, after a few weeks and being right on track. I've been beating myself up mercilessly about it, and being reminded that it's okay to acknowledge the slip-ups--but it's counterproductive to dwell on them and let them completely derail your efforts.

    Great timing.
  • I agree with this article because, until recently, I thought I was impulsive, and just couldn't say no. But, of all things, I watched my daughter resisting a tempting desert; she looked at it, slightly cocked her head, then walked away. I never asked her about it, but thought maybe she learned that from me before I gained all this weight. I do hear that little voice now, and hope I have the strength to continue listening for it. 8-)
  • Very informative
  • I only read the first 3 so far and it is great advice. I agree that it is for all areas of our lives. Thanks.
  • BEMORESTUBBORN
    Great advice not only for weight loss but for every area of our lives. Thanks, Coach Dean!
  • Great article! I suffer from this. I haven't for the most part over the last two weeks, but I def mindlessly gnosh and I def beat the crap out of myself after I do it. I love the advice in this article and that there is hope in retraining that small voice to become the new force to be reckoned with. I will be practing this!
  • This is such a wonderful article. I am my own worst enemy. If I talked to others the way I talk to myself I would be a very hated person. Thank you for helping me.
  • A very good article - its healthier to try to learn from our mistakes and then move on.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.