As we enter the New Year, we are suddenly bombarded with advertisements pushing weight loss products and filling our minds with the idea that, in order to be our “best selves” this year, we must follow some new diet and exercise regimen. For many individuals—especially those struggling with eating disorders (ED)—this time of the year can make us particularly vulnerable to feelings of guilt and shame as we are faced with increased pressure to “undo” the indulgences of the holidays.
For individuals struggling with an ED, food-related guilt and body image shame is often dealt with through self-punishing behaviours; for example, following an overly restrictive diet and excessively exercising. On the other hand, some individuals cope with body image shame by hiding under baggy clothes in an effort to avoid painful feelings of guilt and shame. However, in my practice as a therapist, I’ve found that such self-punishing and avoidance behaviours are unsustainable and ultimately perpetuate the cycle of guilt and shame.
Instead, consider these three more sustainable tips for coping with post-holiday food guilt and body image shame, none of which involve dieting or pursuing weight loss:
1. Don’t criticize yourself: Practice self-compassion and Radical Acceptance
Instead of beating yourself up, or running away from feelings of shame (literally or figuratively), try working towards greater self-compassion. Be gentle with yourself and be reminded that shame is a fleeting feeling, not an identity; just because you are feeling bad, does not mean you are bad. Another self-compassionate approach to dealing with shame is practicing Radical Acceptance, a skill used in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (Dimeff & Linehan, 2001). Rather than ignoring, avoiding, or wishing the situation were different, accept things exactly as they are, including the painful emotions of shame and guilt. Radical Acceptance can help you regulate feelings such as anger, guilt, and shame by approaching them with kindness and self-understanding rather than self-judgment.
2. Ask Yourself: Whose Shame is it Really?
When working with clients who struggle with body image shame, I often ask them to reflect on who their shame really belongs to. This question is meant to facilitate differentiation, the process of recognizing the extent to which one’s body image shame has been taken on as a result of someone else’s shame. This can help you detach from and “disown” feelings of shame by identifying that perhaps your shame does not belong solely to you. Differentiation can protect you from internalizing—and thus negatively reacting to—body shame-inducing comments made by others.
3. Swap your “Clean Eating” Plan for a Social Media Cleanse
Research shows that exposure to media promoting the “thin ideal” or “athletic/muscular ideal” increases body image dissatisfaction and can also lead to negative emotions, depression, and disordered eating (Huang et al., 2021). We now have the ability to control what shows up on our timelines, so consider unfollowing any accounts that promote diet culture and start following body-positive or body-neutral content online. Doing so will ensure such shame-inducing content no longer appears on your feed or negatively impacts your well-being this year.
Loreana La Civita (B.A.Hons) is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR) working under the clinical supervision of Dr. Jean Kim (C.Psych). Loreana provides psychological services to adolescents and adults and has a special interest in treating individuals with eating disorders (e.g., Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, ARFID), body image concerns, neurodiversity (e.g., ADHD, ASD, OCD) and trauma. She integrates emotion-focused therapy (EFT), cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), and dialectical-behavioural therapy (DBT) informed techniques to support individuals struggling with concerns regarding eating, weight, and body image.
Dimeff, L., & Linehan, M. M. (2001). Dialectical behavior therapy in a nutshell. The California Psychologist, 34(3), 10-13.
Huang, Q., Peng, W., & Ahn, S. (2021). When media become the mirror: A meta-analysis on media and body image. Media Psychology, 24(4), 437-489.