Penitence: the state of being penitent; regret for one’s wrongdoing or sinning; contrition; repentance.

As we pass through the official season of “penitence” (also known as Lent in the Roman Catholic Church), I’m struck by how the state of being penitent — a word that originated in the dark Middle Ages — is the exact state compulsive eaters condemn themselves to after eating whatever it is they have promised themselves they will never ever eat again.

Naturally, the minute you tell yourself you cannot eat “x” or “y” (ever again), you want it like you’ve never wanted it before. Scarcity is a powerful appetite stimulant, because if you can’t eat it tomorrow, or next week or next month, well, heck, you may as well go for it today, right? Which is why Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday, precedes Lenten piety, sandwiched between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Dedicated to “excessive eating, drinking and general bawdiness, prior to a period of fasting”, Fat Tuesday is the proverbial pig-out before 40-something days of penance.

As dieters know, the day before you start a diet can feel exactly the same way. When you see the world in terms of what you can’t have instead of what you can have, you produce a state of longing. Thus, every time dieters embark on diets that outlaw certain foods — as long as they want to be “good” that is — they create their own personal Fat Tuesday, the perfect setup for Mardi Gras, a self-induced famine for soon-to-be-forbidden foods.

Hence you binge. Then comes penitence.

Of course, you have good intentions. You struggle with the part of yourself that really wants to lose weight, get healthier, be more “in control,” and so on. You know you want to eat it (sometimes), but you tell yourself you shouldn’t. You tell yourself you’ve got to stop eating “it” and you tell yourself you will not eat it, not as long as you’re good on your diet. And you do — you desperately do — want to be good on your diet.

Because if you’re good on your diet, then you are good. And you’re bad on your diet, then you are bad. How could you, what’s wrong with you, can’t you control yourself, what’s the matter with you? The iterations of “how bad” you are become limited only by the vocabulary of your self-imposed executioner. Points for punitive pejoratives are awarded here: Can you say slug, sloth, slab, slovenly?

Dark humor softens suffering, but it’s not funny at all when you’re spinning down a shame spiral, beating yourself up, berating yourself for blowing it once again. In these moments you are definitely not your own best friend.

“Shame is a wound that divides You from your Self,” says John Bradshaw, renowned addiction and recovery expert.

Nutritionist Kelly Dorfman echoes Bradshaw’s sentiment. “Shame does not help you lose weight, whether you are beating up on yourself or someone else,” she says in “Weightism: The Real Reason We’re Failing at Weight Loss”.

Those who have overcome compulsive eating know shame doesn’t encourage, it crushes and condemns. Shame overwhelms us or, conversely, inspires rebellion. Last, but not least, shame doesn’t motivate. And it takes motivation to make lasting, permanent changes.

While attending a seminar given by Judith Beck, PhD (author of The Beck Diet Solution), I was heartened to hear Dr. Beck acknowledge that dieting itself can be quite difficult. Formidable challenges confront those learning to make emotional and behavioral changes: hunger, craving, emotional eating, feelings of unfairness, deprivation, discouragement, disappointment.

During this learning process, most people need support and guidance; in addition to cognitive and behavioral changes, we must break the scarcity-and-shame cycle that perpetuates binge eating.

The good news — the truth — is that once you’ve reached your goal, be it a lower body weight or the cessation of compulsive eating, you discover that maintaining your weight is not all that hard. Healthy habits — which come more naturally in time — become a new way of life. You can have it, sometimes; you don’t need to live your life in a state of constant craving.

Yes, like most people, you’re going to have to watch what you eat (more or less), exercise five days a week (more or less), and limit hyper-palatable (junk) foods.

In other words, use common sense.

But you don’t have to be super-human, super-diligent, or super-perfect. Success starts with being compassionate to your body and your Self, and finally, joyfully, swearing off Fat Tuesdays and penitence.

“Maybe,” as Dorfman says, “it’s time for a little kindness.”

Beyond Overeating” is a workshop created for compulsive eaters and dieters. Incorporating ideas from Dr. Judith Beck, Dr. David Kessler, Geneen Roth, and others, this eclectic workshop covers emotional eating, weight loss, junk food science, and healthy satiation strategies. Beyond Overeating meets every other Monday, beginning March 31. For information, contact Laura Hout at (805) 403-9585 or email Laura Hout, MA, MFTI, is a Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Intern.


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