Food is Not the Enemy, Shame is the Enemy

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I am big on emotions. Sadness, Joy, Anger, Fear, Hurt, Happiness, and Shame are all important to recognize and express. An important part of my job is to help people learn to feel. For those who work with me, they know I talk about feelings a lot.

Shame (aka guilt, bad) is the emotion I will address now.

Shame is the inner, critical voice that judges everything you do, say, believe, and think. It keeps you withdrawn, hiding, feeling worthless and unlovable.

Although some shame is healthy, most of us feel too much shame. I believe all of those who suffer with disordered eating experience too much shame. This shame keeps you a slave to the eating disorder and destroys you.

Therefore, I am dedicating the next two newsletter articles to this topic: Shame. It is my hope that my writing will touch you in a way that helps you to step out of this darkness of shame and begin to share yourself with others. Because, no matter what your shame may tell you… you are not unlovable or worthless!

“Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.” -Marianne Williamson

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You are important and our society needs you… to help it change. Let’s start with you.

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Shame is the Enemy:

My colleague reminds me that when I say I work with those who struggle with an eating disorder, people probably hear I work with those with anorexia or bulimia. She may be right, yet I don’t want to believe it.

I want to believe that many women know they are suffering even if they aren’t starving themselves or throwing up after they eat. Although many people I talk to do these things as well, a lot do not.

They overeat; they eat when they are stressed or lonely or sad or mad; they eat when they are tired; they over exercise or resist exercise; they feel bad about the shape and size of their body; they obsessively think about food; they diet; they feel bad about going to the grocery store; they feel shame and express this shame through many kinds of other behaviors. These are the people I help, whether or not they are able to be diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia.

What they all have in common is shame. They feel shame about these behaviors and that shame keeps them from talking to others and getting help.

I will bet that if you asked your friends if they experience the above behaviors, they will say yes. I will also bet that they would deny the extent to which they did it (unless you shared honestly first). Despite being surrounded by people with an unhealthy relationship to food and their body, you feel ashamed and alone.

But, there is no shame in having an eating disorder and you are not alone.

If it helps, don’t call it an eating disorder. Call it “challenges with my relationship with food and/or body image”. Call it “stuffing my feelings” or “thinking about food all the time gets in the way of living my life” or “I use food to cope.” Call is whatever fits for you.

Disordered eating isn’t about having an eating disorder; it is about feeling the effects of society’s view of the ideal, it is about coping with stress and emotions, it is about trying to control your environment, it is about the past. It isn’t about food or your body image (see my newsletter article “It’s Not About Food“).

As a therapist who treats those with disordered eating and body image issues, I have noticed over and over again the shame that keeps people from seeking and/or receiving help. One person told me “I don’t read eating disorder stuff where people can see me.”

I think it is a shame that there is so much shame about having these challenges.

Let’s compare disordered eating/body image to having a medical illness, such as Multiple Sclerosis. Would you feel shame about having MS and keep it to yourself despite all the services available to help you? No, you would talk to doctors and go to support groups and tell your friends and ask your boss for time off… all of whom would support you.

Disordered eating is a disease too. Think about it, with disordered eating, you have DIS-EASE. Despite the claim that those with these issues simply lack self control, this is not the case! The eating disorder part of you is extremely compelling, strong willed and has no intention of going anywhere. After all, it is there to protect you from all those bad feelings you have. As far as that part of you is concerned, you need it.

Yet, having disordered eating, although such a common dis-ease, is stigmatized. But, don’t put all the blame on society. You do it too. Just by pretending not to have these challenges, you sustain the stigma.

Someone told me that she fears people not only wouldn’t understand her eating disorder, but they would actually run away from her, fearing it. She admitted she fears anorexia in the same way and might run from a friend who told her about having anorexia.

I hear that. Our society doesn’t understand eating disorders and so fears them. So, let’s educate! Talk about it with your friends and family; ones you trust. When you talk about it (you don’t have to admit to it yet, just start a conversation), you help remove the ignorance that causes people to fear and thus to judge.

However you do it, start talking about it! The cure for shame is sharing. Shame thrives on silence and secrecy. It is even likely that the person you talk to will not only understand but might even share her own issues. Even if the person doesn’t understand, take time to educate. Share with him/her how it is for you. Direct them to a book you read on the issue. It may not be easy, but it may be the best thing you ever do.

Combat your shame and our culture at the same time. Start talking about it. Get started now.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson

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