Shame is the enemy

Happy New Year!

This time a year is usually a time to create a New Year’s Resolution. I think this is a great way to focus your energy and attention on areas in your life you want to change. However, in my line of work, doing so often leads to feeling more like a failure. Losing weight or going to the gym is a very popular resolution for the New Year. If you tend to have emotional issues with food and your body, you may end up doing more harm to yourself than good. Failure to keep up with a diet plan or failure to continue going to the gym can leave you feeling bad about yourself. You may actually turn toward food to cope. Thinking you failed leads to feeling shame. Shame is a major contributor to the binge/purge cycle.

Many people think that if you beat yourself up for not doing something, it will increase your motivation to do it. A great example of this is judging yourself (or others) for not having the will power to lose weight. We believe that telling ourselves that we “should” do something is supposed to motivate us to go to the gym or eat better or be a better person. Often, we learn this from our parents or from peers and then we do it to ourselves. Notice your thoughts toward yourself and see if you can count how many times you say “should” or “shouldn’t”, or other negative words. These are all shame-based methods in which we hope for change. This rarely works, especially for long term positive change.

Shame only adds to hating ourselves more and thus caring for ourselves less . Shame keeps us small, hidden, distant, cold. Take a breath and feel shame in your body. Notice where it is in your body. Notice how much space it takes up. Now, imagine it’s gone.

Most of us feel so much shame that we shrink away from the world, and away from ourselves. What would it be like to have no shame? My bet is you would feel great about who you are and what you do. You would be more motivated to go to the gym. You would want to take care of your body because you would feel good and proud to be in your body. You would take up more space in the world and you would be noticed more by others.

How do we cope with shame? I think this is the main fuel for addictions. Shame is so debilitating, that we must push it down. Eating, dieting, purging, bingeing are all ways to push down shame. But, shame doesn’t just go away. Each time you push it down, you add to it and it pushes back up. It’s like the diet cycle (see “Why Diet’s Don’t Work” in my website archives), you eat to push down shame, you feel bad about eating, so you purge. You feel more shame and the cycle starts again; the shame is fed and grows.

Working on your disordered eating will help bring up this shame so you can work on it. Shame doesn’t want to be punished or hidden. Shame has something to tell you. Perhaps, if it could talk, it would say “I’m hurt” or “pay attention to me” or “I’m scared”. Shame is an emotion, like sadness and joy. Emotions are natural and healthy. They help us feel alive. However, if we don’t express these emotions when they surface, they build up inside. They begin to feel too overwhelming and we become afraid to express them. As the shame lessens so does your desire to binge and purge.

Although there are many other emotions underneath disordered eating. I believe shame is a big one and one that drives most disordered eating behaviors.

On a piece of paper, write the heading “Eating Disorder Self” and next to it write “Healthy Self”. Under each column, give each a “voice”. If the Eating Disorder part of you could talk, what would it say? For example: “I can’t stop eating”, “I am fat”, “No one will like me if I’m fat”, etc. Now give the Healthy Self a voice. What would it say? For example, “It is okay to eat and enjoy food”, “I feel sad”, etc. For many of us with issues around food and appearance, there will be a very small Healthy Self. Therefore, this column may have less entries.

Now look at your “voices”. Notice how many of them have shame language. Notice how this feels. Add your feelings to the Healthy Self column. It is healthy to feel and your Healthy Self wants to feel things.

Now, share this exercise and what you noticed with a friend who supports you. Ask this person to just listen. One of the best ways to lessen shame is to share it. Talk about the things you feels shame about and notice it diminish.


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