Something I hear a lot when talking to women is a pervasive feeling of guilt.
This guilt can come from many sources:
Guilt about “not doing enough” as a mother, daughter, co-worker, wife, friend, or activist.
Guilt about thinking of putting their own needs first.
Guilt about burdening others.
Guilt about asking for help.
Guilt about having desires.
Guilt about not being perfect.
One such source of immense guilt for many women is FOOD.
Food guilt (and a lot of other guilt) comes from having established a binary system of good and bad; a belief that there is a good way to be and a bad way to be, with fatness typically being bad and thinness being good. This usually leads to food rules and behaviors which are also drenched in good/bad morality; carbs might seem bad and protein good for example, or binging might feel bad and deprivation good.
From such a strict binary of good and bad, you can see how easily a person who breaks any of her own rules would immediately feel guilt, right?
This desire for “goodness” is often wired into us from a very young age. Many women grow up to experience a kind of “Good Girl Syndrome,” in which their entire identity has been built around being (or trying to be) “good,” so they feel extraordinary pressure to maintain the enigmatic standard of goodness.
As children, “Good Girls” were the ones who didn’t cause trouble and didn’t rebel against their parents. Good Girls were the ones who were most easily controlled; the ones who voluntarily participated in their own oppression.
Typically, Good Girls did what they were told, got good grades, didn’t have sex or do drugs, behaved politely, and were pretty and thin. Good Girls often feel that they are inherently Bad deep down, but they feel hyper-sensitive to the discomfort of guilt and shame (finding moments of being “bad” or disappointing someone to be practically unbearable) so they work really hard to never let those moments happen.
Guilt becomes the tool of their own internalized oppression; their punishment and warning for being “off track.” This is how so many adult womxn become held hostage by near-constant feelings of guilt.
After you establish a binary belief about what is Good and Bad, and determine that deep down you are Bad, then you have to create an enormous set of rules about how to behave, in order to control yourself and avoid the unbearable guilt.
Some example rules might be “never upset anyone,” or “don’t get fat” or “go to college, get a job, get married, have babies.”
Sometimes the rule is specific and conscious, such as “stop eating sugar,” and sometimes it’s vague and unconscious, such as “don’t be like my problematic sibling.”
Either way, once the rule is set, then anything that goes against it will create guilt.
This is how a lifestyle of pervasive guilt is created.
In a common example, once a person has committed to dieting, if she breaks any of her set food rules, she will typically feel enormous guilt. That’s because she feels like deep down she is bad for wanting to eat, and has created a set of rules to “be good.” The guilt is a reminder that she is bad and has done something wrong, and must try harder to punish or control herself.
Note: This is exactly how abusers, tyrants, and oppressors behave as well: tightening their grip on the oppressed whenever the current form of oppression isn’t working.
This is true even for pseudo-dieters, meaning those people who aren’t currently on a specific diet, but are “trying to be good” by following a variety of food rules they’ve gathered. These people are actually especially prone to guilt, because the rules they’re constantly breaking are ever-changing and unclear.
In another example, let’s say someone was brought up to believe that both masturbation and sex before marriage are bad. If this person is human, she will undoubtedly have sexual thoughts and feelings, but if she acts on any of these urges, she will likely experience guilt. Even if she can logically say that both masturbation and sex are fine, the guilt acts as the voice of the internalized oppression that says: you are inherently bad and must work harder to control yourself.
While we certainly do need to control and influence the behaviors of children at times to keep them safe, many children are overly managed, shamed, and controlled, and grow up having internalized the message that they can’t be trusted to behave on their own without following a long list of rules.
They learn that their Real Self is problematic and must be monitored, controlled, coerced, or dominated. They learn to feel a deep shame about not being good enough, to pile rules on top of rules to stay in control, and to never, ever let go and just be free.
First of all, pervasive guilt and constant self-monitoring mean that you can never really be free; you can never really be You. Everything will always be a struggle, a battle, a fight to stay in control.
Second of all, humans are not meant to be micromanaged.
We inherently don’t like to be told what to do and respond poorly to oppression, so having an endless stream of self-imposed rules to follow just turns us into the worst versions of ourselves and actually makes us less likely to accomplish what we most desire.
Think of that person on a diet, forcibly trying to control their appetite, weight, and body. That person is likely convinced that the worst thing that could happen to their body is they stop dieting and get “out of control,” because they genuinely believe they can’t be trusted around food.
The ironic thing though is that the act of restricting is often the exact reason this person can’t trust themselves. By establishing restrictive diet rules, this person is causing the feelings of intense hunger, cravings, obsessive thoughts about food, and (eventually) binging, that they believe are proof of their need to control and monitor themselves.
Trying to control yourself causes an immediate, natural desire to rebel, which means that the harder you try to tighten your grip on self-control, the more out-of-control you will spin.
Let’s take this back to childhood. If your sibling was playing with a toy, and your mom said you could play with literally any other toy except that one, didn’t you immediately, desperately want to play with that one toy? No other toy would do, right?
Right. Because we are wired to rebel against oppression.
So what’s the solution? How do we stop the epidemic pervasive guilt?
Simple (but not easy): We stop trying to control ourselves.
Start by making a list of things you do (or try to do) to “be good.” How many of them have to do with food/fat/exercise/weight/health? How many of them have to do with people-pleasing and putting the needs of others first, or not causing “problems”?
To begin the process of banishing guilt, try breaking one of those rules every day this week. It’s ok if that thought is terrifying, just start with baby steps. 😉
Remember that the rules you’ve been following aren’t real, they were simply created to control you, back when you felt like you needed to be controlled.
But you don’t actually need to be controlled.
You were born to be free.
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