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Guilt, Shame, and Helping Your Clients Separate Food From Morality

I’m about to share something that I’ve only ever told one other person throughout the last two decades. Ready?

I used to hide in the bathroom at school and eat pizza.

Before you send me a message to tell me how gross that is, I implore you to reconsider because:

  1. I know.
  2. I agonized over whether or not I should share that with you.
  3. I think you may have some compassion once I explain why.

I started gaining weight when I was about 15 years old due to total disregard for physical activity, and a steady diet of fast food and soda pop, all of which was compounded by teenage hormones.

I was very self-conscious about my rapidly changing body because weight gain and women’s bodies had always been a hot topic with the adults in my family. The word “fat” was thrown around a lot — both by the women and the men (but only directed towards the women) and always in a very derogatory way. Certain foods were often spoken of as being “bad” or “fattening,” and the women in my family often took pride in avoiding them, or expressed guilt for consuming them.

With all of that being said, my mom and grandma lovingly baked cookies and cakes fairly often, and we ordered pizza in our house once every week or so. It all became very confusing. Was it true that these foods were “bad?” Was I supposed to avoid them like the adults did? Was I “bad” for eating them, even though they had been enthusiastically provided to me?

Things became much harder when I started high school. I was self-conscious about my appearance — most teenagers haven’t yet developed tact at that point in their life — and junk food was more readily available for me than it ever had been.

My high school had pizza delivered every day, and then it was provided on the hot bar for purchase. That pizza drove me wild. I wanted to eat it so badly, but I tried to fight it because several of my friends had already started talking about dieting.

I begin trying — and failing — to conform to what were deemed the acceptable foods by my friends and family. Back then, it was low-fat everything: turkey breast sandwiches on whole wheat, baked potato chips, and crackers… but at school, all I could think about was the pizza.

I eventually gave in and bought a slice. I was embarrassed for giving in, and I didn’t want to be seen eating it, so I hightailed it into the bathroom and ate it there. Hiding in the bathroom to eat a slice of pizza at lunch quickly became a habit, which is unfortunate, because I think we can all agree that hiding to eat food due to shame, guilt, and fear of judgement is not a healthy behavior.

It was around that time that I started experiencing guilt and shame about my food choices, and associating my morality with what I did or did not eat. This went on for decades, and it took a lot of hard work to finally break that cycle, and stop looking at myself or my food as “good” or “bad.” Today, I’d like to share with you some insight and tools that you may find helpful in guiding your clients to a healthier and happier relationship with food.

Understanding Guilt, Shame, and Morality

As a coach, it’s very likely that you will have conversations with your clients in which they express guilt, shame, or associate morality with their food choices. You play an important role as a guide in your client’s health journey so it’s important that you understand what these feelings are in order to navigate these conversations in a helpful, productive, and nonjudgemental way.

Shame

According to shame researcher Brené Brown, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame is universal; we all have it to some degree. Shame is never productive.

Shame is something that, unfortunately, many women experience when it comes to food. Sadly, it is not uncommon to hear women say, “I am so bad” prior to eating certain types of food. This is a prime example of shame.

Guilt

Guilt, also according to Brown, is the experience of feeling remorse due to an action (or inaction) that we regret and that doesn’t align with our values. Guilt is typically uncomfortable, but can potentially be productive in some circumstances if a person allows it to serve as a reminder of their values, and looks at it as an opportunity for growth.

An example of using guilt to talk about food in a potentially productive manner might be, “I feel bad because I ate too much last night, but now I know that I need to slow down and be more mindful during my meals.”

An example of using guilt to talk about food in an unproductive way may be, “Last night, I overate again. I feel awful because I keep messing up.”

Guilt says “I did something bad,” versus shame that says “I am bad.”

Morality

According to Merriam Webster, morals are “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior and sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment.”

An example of associating morality with food is using the term “cheating” to describe what a person eats, such as, “I was so bad; I cheated on Sunday and ate ______.”  Not only is it a real buzzkill to refer to your delicious food as a “cheat”, but it’s also inaccurate.

Cheating is a dishonest act. Infidelity in an agreed upon monogamous relationship is cheating. Lying on your taxes is cheating. Eating a cookie (or literally any other food) is not cheating.

Many people often identify being “good” or “bad” based on their food or drink choices, but food is not capable of determining the quality of a person. Food is completely neutral, just like any other inanimate object, such as the couch you choose for your home, or the color of pants a woman chooses to wear. Food choices are nothing more or less than personal preference, and a person’s self-worth is not tied to them.

My friend and GGS colleague, Fabi Marier, summed this up nicely when she said:  “Food doesn’t hold the power to make us good or bad. It has no inherent moral value.”

Where Is This Coming From?

Certain product marketing tactics, media, and even some trainers and coaches unknowingly continue to fuel the shame, guilt, and morality association that so many women struggle with when it comes to food.

Women’s magazines and other media provide “Eat this, don’t eat that” advice, with columns of foods that are supposedly off-limits women ever hope to meet their goals. There are even some trainers and diets that provide women with comprehensive lists of foods never to eat.*

It’s precisely these types of messages that cause women to believe that certain foods are bad, and therefore, that their behavior — or, worse, themselves — are bad if they choose to eat them.

*The only exception to this being food sensitivities, intolerance or allergies, and even in these cases I believe that this can be handled without using shame or guilt to guide behavior.

How to Help

If you have a client who is experiencing guilt or shame surrounding their behaviors with food, here are some steps that can help you navigate their remarks in a helpful way. Let’s use the following example:

Your client shows up for their session. You ask them how they are, and they say, “I’m so bad. I ate three slices of pizza last night and blew it. I feel awful today. I’ll never reach my goals because I keep eating bad foods.”

It may be tempting to blow off their remarks, and tell them that it’s no big deal, but it’s quite clear that they are experiencing both guilt and shame, so it’s important to understand how to handle this in a productive and caring way.

1. Thank Your Client for Sharing This With You

If a client is experiencing guilt or shame, it can be difficult and embarrassing for them to talk about this. It’s important to acknowledge that you appreciate them trusting you enough to confide in you. You can start by saying something as simple as “Thank you for sharing this with me.”

2. Let Them Know That You Hear Them

I have heard and seen countless trainers and coaches who quickly dismiss a client’s situation, because they (the coach or trainer) can’t personally relate to the experience, or feel uncomfortable discussing it. Rather than trying to understand, they quickly dismiss it: “Oh, you’re overreacting! It’s not a big deal!” It’s important to remember that everyone wants to be heard, and it is a big deal to your client if they brought it up.

Even if you don’t personally understand where your client is coming from, you can still provide value by listening. Let them know that you hear them, and take the time to rephrase what they are saying to let them know you are listening. An example of this could be, “I hear that you are upset about what you ate last night.”

One of the traits that differentiates a trainer from an excellent trainer is that an excellent trainer listens without judgement.

3. Normalize Their Experience, and Invite Conversation

Assure your client that what they are feeling is common. Shame can feel lonely and isolating. Knowing that they aren’t alone can be very comforting, and it can encourage them to open up further about what they are experiencing.

As Brené Brown has said, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” The most helpful way to dismantle shame is to bring it out into the light and talk about it. You may try saying something like, “It is common to feel upset when things don’t go as we’d hoped. Would you like to talk about it?”

Allow your client to talk through their experience as they need to, and let them understand that you are really listening.

4. Educate With Compassion

After allowing your client to talk through things, gently remind them that their value and worth are not determined by what they did or didn’t eat. Then, see if you can help guide them in finding opportunities for growth in the situation. Remember, you’re an incredibly valuable resource for your client. Share information that may help them make decisions for themselves and their life without feeling guilty.

Final Thoughts

Food can feel very tricky for some women. For many — like myself — food was looked at as “good” or “bad” starting from a very young age, and can cause a lot of guilt and shame. However, as a coach or trainer, you have the opportunity to help your client start to dismantle this type of thinking.

In coaching your clients, be careful not to fuel this good vs. bad type of thinking by using language that perpetuates it, such as “cheating,” “clean” foods (which also implies that there are “dirty” foods), “on the wagon,” “off the wagon,” “on track,” or “off track.”

Focusing on making food feel more neutral helps remove the stigma that surrounds it, and make food more enjoyable. It also can help give your clients a greater feeling of control over what they eat once they understand that food isn’t “good” or “bad” — it’s simply food.

Free Blueprint: How to Make Peace With Food

Are you someone who consistently finds yourself on and off the diet roller coaster? If so, you're not alone. So many women struggle finding peace in their relationship with food. But we can help. This week we are giving away our free blueprint that explains:

- Why you struggle in your relationship with food
- What you can do about it

The good news? It's simpler than you think!

About The Author: Jen Comas

Jen Comas is a Girls Gone Strong Co-Founder and Strongest You Coach, as well as a NASM Personal Trainer and USAW Level One Weightlifting coach. She has competed in figure and trained as a powerlifter, teaches and practices yoga, and is obsessed with motorcycles, dirt biking, and downhill mountain biking. Learn about Jen on her website and follow her adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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