Is Shame or Defense Your Protective Game?

An interesting moment occurred during the process group I lead. I want to share it with you because I believe you will also find it interesting. This is where it began…

I said something provocative to the group members. It was provocative because I knew it would trigger at least one person. I promise – I am not an evil therapist. It is just that saying things to push buttons is sometimes the best way to help someone heal; it brings to the surface the underlying feelings so they are available to be acknowledged and healed.

Well, it worked. Nearly every group member had a response to what I said. For some the response was stronger than for others but each person had a reaction.

I asked them about their reactions and formed two groups based on it. They split almost down the middle. Three of the group members reacted with feelings of deep shame. They felt bad for what they had done and how it affected those in their life.

The other two group members reacted with defense. They cut themselves off. They said things like “That is just how I am.” “I know you don’t like it but I am not going to change.”

I asked them to put their body in the position of what they were feeling. The shame group curled up into a ball, taking up as small a space as possible. The defensive group stretched their legs out and crossed their arms across their chest. They took up more space and even appeared more open, yet their words said something different.

The group members went on to process and learn more about their immediate, protective stance. I reminded them that their reaction is not bad or wrong; only their favorite way to protect themselves.

What I found very interesting is how the group member’s eating disorder demonstrated their protective needs. The defensive group members were the two who tended toward the restrictive side of the eating disorder continuum. The shame group members tended toward the overeating side of the continuum.

Although I hadn’t thought about it that clearly before, this didn’t surprise me. The eating disorder you have is no accident. Restricting is a way to keep yourself feeling better than others, thus cutting you off from people and protecting you from hurt and emotional pain. If you “don’t care” or brush off other’s concerns, you feel more power and less vulnerable.

Overeating, on the other end, is all about expressing shame. It is an expression of feeling not good enough. It is also a protective mechanism. If you believe you aren’t good enough, you never disappoint yourself or others. You too are safe from hurt and emotional pain.

I am no stranger to shame. Although I restricted by dieting and beating myself up for every “bad” food I wanted, I turned toward food for comfort. At times, I still do. I felt a lot of shame for who I was. I never felt good enough or loveable enough. I was convinced that no one, even my friends and family, could really love me.

No matter which side you tend to move toward for protection, you probably also feel these same feelings. That’s okay. There is good reason for that, even if you don’t yet know what it is.

Notice how you react to getting your buttons pushed. Notice how you use your relationship with food to protect yourself. If you want to share what you learn with me, send me an email.


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