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Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.
Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.

Why the Guilt?

When eating habits make you feel guilty this holiday season...

I am not in the business of advising if you should go in for seconds on that delicious piece of pie. Nor am I going to tell you, “Pshh, it’s the holidays, just have fun and be good starting January 1." Those are rules, and we all have a habit of breaking our own personal, and typically arbitrary, rules. And then feeling guilty about breaking them in the first place.

What is inevitable this holiday season is that you will be faced with momentary choices about which foods — and how much of those foods — to consume. You will be face-to-face with foods that aren’t part of your daily diet. And you will very likely have an internal monologue that hems and haws about whether or not to eat them, and then beats you up for the choice, whichever it was.

Here are three strategies for this holiday season to minimize feelings of eating-related guilt. Because you have enough stress without adding food-stress onto your plate (pun intended).

1. Make an intentional choice.

Before you show up for your event, make an active choice about how you want to handle food decisions. If you want to be open to following your taste buds and going up for seconds or thirds of the dish you’re doing the happy dance for, then tell yourself ahead of time that you will do so if you have the urge to do so.

2. Commit to that choice after the fact.

Your typical pattern may be to enjoy and then shame yourself, falling prey to judgmental thoughts about your self-control when you get dressed the next morning or catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. That is the precise moment when I encourage you to catch yourself falling prey to this mean habit of yours and, instead, own the choice you made. Remind yourself: If I had a do-over button I wouldn’t have held back, because I wanted to let myself do the food happy dance. Last-night me had fun, and that was my plan.

3. Use your experience to inform your plans for next time.

Instead of using any negative feelings to orient your thoughts to what you “shouldn’t” have done last night, redirect to how you want to handle similar choices that come up in the future. Because this holiday season, you will face that choice again and again and again: at the office holiday event, at your in-laws', and at the New Year's party. Rather than get locked into past-oriented ruminations, simply ask yourself if you’d like to handle the situation differently next time. You might want to write your answer down in your journal, on a post-it note, or in the private “description” of the event on your online calendar. Write down what you want your future self to do, so you can refer to it in time.

To indulge or not to indulge isn't nearly as important as choosing with intention and then being kind to yourself in the aftermath of that choice. You’re human. Live a little, see how it goes — and if it wasn’t for you, simply revise for next time. You might feel a little less guilt and a little more joy this holiday season as a result.

If you liked this post, read on for part 2 in the 5 part holiday series: Why the embarrassment?

About the Author
Rachel Hershenberg Ph.D.

Rachel Hershenberg, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University.

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