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Why Not Gratitude Instead of Guilt?

Angie - Color Head shotAngie Viets, LCP is an eating disorder specialist who has dedicated her career to helping her clients recover. In her writing, Angie shares her personal journey with an eating disorder as well as her professional experience in the field. She offers the idea of replacing feelings of guilt with gratitude in this week’s blog post.

My mother would cringe before I ordered my food, apologize to the waitress, and then lower her head in embarrassment. “May I order the pasta primavera with chicken and substitute extra veggies for the pasta. Oh, and how do you prepare the chicken and vegetables? Actually, would it be possible just to steam them?” When bound tightly by my eating disorder, these were typical modifications. These days, I like to make substitutions, just not related to food.

Dinner growing up always had a side of bread and butter. This is a little strange to say, but if my emotions were being served for dinner, guilt would be the standing side. Always. I don’t know if feeling guilty is just part of being a woman, a cradle Catholic, or that I’m prone to people-pleasing (or perhaps a combination of all of those things). I’ve concluded the origin is irrelevant and that what I know for sure, is that I can go to guilt faster than any other emotion.

Historically, I just bought whatever guilt was selling. At some point, I got sick of that and tried out the whole self-compassion thing: “Don’t be so hard on yourself… You can’t make everyone happy… You’re doing the best you can…” All of this was ok, but it never seemed to kick me fully out of the guilt grip.

In the middle of a rant about how guilty I was feeling, for God only knows what, a friend said to me, “Haven’t you had enough guilt to last a lifetime?” Immediately, I felt my whole body soften and say, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” He then went on to say, “So, would you be willing to give that up?” Hell ya, I want to give it up! So then and there I decided this sweet talking lovey voice just wasn’t quite enough to kick me out of guilting myself. I needed another approach.

Then this happened:

Thoughts: “I’m feeling so guilty that I didn’t volunteer to do lunch duty at my kids’ school. I never feel like I’m doing enough.” And then the leap occurs. “I’m such a terrible mom.” Seriously, my guilt spirals are rapid and seemingly automatic – I’m guessing you can relate if you’re still reading. And all of the sudden, I heard a voice in my head say, “Instead of feeling guilty, I wonder if you could feel grateful.” What? Grateful?! Oh right, because I’ve had enough guilt to last a lifetime.

Maybe I could give gratitude a chance to be a permanent side on my plate. Hell, everyone talks about how transformative it is. Back in the 90’s Oprah had us all doing gratitude journals – Oprah! It seems gratitude is a powerful antidote for much of our self-imposed suffering. So, I decided to give it a shot.

“I’m grateful that I have kids that I care enough about, to want to show up for them (even at stupid lunch duty). I’m grateful they’re young enough not to be mortified by my mere presence at their school. And, I’m really grateful lunch duty is optional!” Done, subbed gratitude for guilt.

This technique seems to help shift you into a different mode altogether, like changing lanes on the highway. I’ve been trying this out with the clients in my psychotherapy practice and I can see their energy shift when they switch lanes.

Here are a few examples:

Side of Guilt: “I feel crummy that my parent’s are still giving me money and that I can’t support myself.”

Side of Gratitude: “I’m grateful that my parent’s love and care enough about me that they are willing to help me in this way.”

Side of Guilt: “Every time I’m around my co-worker she just dumps all of her problems on me. I end up feeling used and resentful. But she’s going through a tough time and I know I would feel guilty if I stopped listening to her.”

Side of Gratitude: “I’m grateful that my body is a good messenger of what lifts me up and what sucks the life out of me. Although it may be awkward at first, I’m grateful I can limit my time with her, or better yet, express my feelings to her about this pattern.”

Side of Guilt: “Every time I relapse I feel so guilt-ridden and like I’m letting not only myself down, but also my family and friends.”

Side of Gratitude: “Today, I’m grateful that I always have the opportunity to begin again and that my recovery is this important to me and my support system.”

Going from guilt to gratitude is a leap – I get it. And, I’m not suggesting this is easy, or that it will feel super authentic initially. But let’s think about the difference between standing in front of the mirror thinking, “I hate my thighs,” to saying a positive statement like, “I like my legs.” Your head will immediately be saying, “BS, you’ve hated your thighs since high school.” But what if you said, “I’m grateful I have legs that are functional enough to walk me through my life.” That might be a bit more palatable.

I think wallowing in guilt sucks enough that we should give this gratitude gig a shot. It’ll be a practice for sure, just like anything else. And anyway, haven’t you had enough guilt to last a lifetime?

Love + Light,



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