Mental Health Blogs

Shame and Eating Disorders

I’ve been listening to some audio teachings by Brene’ Brown, a leading researcher on the subject of shame. Shame – that feeling of not being “enough,” not being worthy – is something that we with eating disorders are all too familiar with. Brene’ says early on, “If you don’t claim shame, shame will claim you.”

How many of our eating disorders and addictions began out of a place of shame? How many of us have allowed our shame to control our lives and for how long?

For me, shame has been running the show since I was about five years old. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, I only knew that I felt small and powerless and dirty and not good enough. Never good enough. That feeling only grew as I got older, until it was so overwhelming that I was restricting food and cutting my own skin at the age of 12.

Shame, according to Brene’, is the birthplace of perfectionism, violence, addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders. The great irony is that while shame created our problem, it also keeps us stuck.

If you have a loved one with an eating disorder, please realize that shaming us isn’t going get us un-stuck. Comments like, “This is ridiculous, Jessica.  Just eat like a normal person/according to your meal plan” are not at all helpful.  Trust me, we’re already thinking it. Chances are, the voice in our head is telling us on a minute-to-minute basis how stupid, selfish, ridiculous, and horrible we are for having an eating disorder.

Healing Shame

So what’s the cure to shame?  According to Brene’ Brown, it’s empathy. To heal shame, we have to allow ourselves to be truly seen – good and bad – and allow others to accept us and stand next to us.

This, for our purposes, means two things.

Eating Disorder Sufferers: You have to talk about it. You cannot keep hiding and believing that you are too broken, too disgusting, too horrible to be loved. You have to take the risk of letting someone else see you and love you anyway.

Loved Ones: You have to accept us. Accept that we are doing the best that we can at any given moment. Realize that we already think we are horrible, terrible human beings and what we need most of all is to know that we are accepted and worthy and loved, even if we do have a mental illness.

Am I so naive as to think that everyone you allow to walk with you is going to get it immediately? No. But how will they ever understand what you are suffering if you don’t give them the chance? How will people ever begin to know the truth and reality of our illness if we stay silent?

A huge cause of the shame in my eating disorder is the stigma: I didn’t want to admit that I had an eating disorder (especially anorexia) because I didn’t want to be seen as selfish, vain, unintelligent, whatever. But here’s the thing — if we’re all staying silent, the truth never gets out there.

Is it scary to be honest about your eating disorder? Hell yes. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. But is it healing? Absolutely.

Maybe you’re not at the point where you want to go completely public by joining HealthyPlace’s Stand Up For Mental Health campaign to end stigma. (Check it out – it’s an amazing campaign.) But maybe – just maybe – you could find one or two trustworthy people to let in to your life and to love you and accept you, even as you struggle.

Um…I’m not the only one that struggles with shame, right?  How does shame play a role in your eating disorder?

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13 Responses to Shame and Eating Disorders

  1. Audrey says:

    The turning point for me regarding shame was learning to ignore the ticker tape in my head. The voices of my eating disorder run like the ticker tapes on a major news network, except I have so many that you can’t actually see the news anchor. I let that negativity go flying past me. I ignore the ticker tape. I recognize that it’s writing a story I haven’t had a chance to live yet – that it’s just constant nonsense. I respond back with “BULLSHIT.” I argue. I’m brave. I practice self-care when I need to and leave post-its everywhere about how great I am. It feels arrogant, but it’s just another way to cut the ticker tape.

    I also had to tell everyone what was wrong with me. Not that it was hard to tell – I mean, when you weigh 361#, something is obviously not right. But I had to own what was mine, and it included a lot more than an eating disorder. It included my family, my successes, and my past. I made sure it included my future, too. It hurt some people – my parents – but their emotions are their own. I’m not going to let perfection kill me and I’m not going to wait to start my life. The eating disorder required both conditions. I will not negotiate.

  2. Audrey,
    Thank you for your comment – there is so much wisdom in it. Talking back to that “ticker tape” in our head – the voice of the eating disorder, the voice of shame – is so vital in not letting it take us over. I love the idea of leaving post-its around telling you how great you are (and you are!) — it’s a great way to remind ourselves of our positive qualities and, like you said, cut the ticker tape.
    I’m glad that you recognized that the people you told were going to have their own reactions that you cannot own or allow to affect you – this is definitely something I should have stated more clearly in this post! I hope that telling your story in its entirety was healing. One of the aspects of “shame resilience” that Brene’ Brown talks about is sharing our story. I hope you feel freer since having done so. You are amazing!
    Jess

  3. Dawn says:

    Oh, Jess, once again you nailed it. Shame, the defining factor of my life since I was a small child, being small, powerless, dirty, not enough. Shame, the never being good enough to please the one person whose opinion really mattered to me. Shame, the voice that tries to keep me locked in the bondage.

    I’ve heard those shame on you comments about having an eating disorder as well. I lost my best friend to them. Thanks for talking about how sharing your heart, your story, and your life brings healing. It truly does. It is freaky as hell, but it does bring healing on little piece at a time.

    Love you!

  4. Dawn,
    Thanks for commenting. I figured I wasn’t the only one who struggled with this. In all my time in treatment, I have seen so many beautiful women and girls trapped by shame and afraid to move forward. It seems so counterintuitive to face the shame head-on when your head is screaming that you will be rejected, despised, and deemed unworthy of love. It is one of those risks that we have to take in recovery. Recovery is full of so many risks and challenges, but I find that this one brings the most healing.
    Love you too! :)

  5. Julie says:

    Shame is such a powerful emotion, and so unnecessary. It is one of the only emotions, that I am aware of, that really doesn’t have a positive purpose. I have struggled with shame my entire life also (mostly in the form of perfectionism) and it has really kept me down. I agree that sharing your pain with others is one of the first steps in healing your soul and getting rid of the ugly shame. I have learned that I am worth loving even if my head screams that I am not. Thank you for this, more people need to be aware of the harmful effects of shame and that it is possible to heal from it.

  6. Jade says:

    Dawn is right, Jess. Once again you nailed it. I can so hear the ticker tape. I like how Audrey stands up to it. Thank you all for posting. I gain insight and sometimes strength from you all. ::Hugs::

  7. Anonymous says:

    I’m exactly there with you when you talk about how you feel so “selfish, vain, etc”. That just adds to the shame that’s already there. Shaming yourself and then adding an eating disorder into it just pins you to the floor. I felt very shameful for something that I did/happened to me when I was younger, and that in turn was one of the fueling reasons on why my eating disorder happened in the first place. Shame…it’s truly a difficult thing to clear your head of if you truly want to get better. That’s one of the key steps I need to do in order to beat this thing, and that is letting go of the shame I had when it all began.

  8. Julie,
    You are right when you say that shame is an emotion with no positive purpose for those who are feeling it. It drives us to isolation, addiction, eating disorders, depression, anxiety. I am so glad that you have learned that you ARE worthy despite the voice that lies to you and tells you that you are not.
    Jess

  9. Anon,
    It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? Shame so often creates the perfect environment for an eating disorder to begin, then we feel the shame of having an eating disorder, which drives us even further into the depths. I agree with you that letting go of shame (especially for something that you had no control over — that was done to you) is going to be the first step in truly kicking your ED to the curb. I hope you find the strength to talk about your shame and allow others to love you through it.
    Jess

  10. Gel says:

    Me too! Shame was the cornerstone of keeping my eating disorder in place. I have found a few people to trust and to share my truth with. That is not easy. I think finding safe people that you trust is important. Going public might be best for later recovery in my opinion.

    I do know that real progress started happening when I found people I could be honest with, who didn’t judge me harshly.

    Thanks for this post!

  11. jen says:

    You nailed it.

    Recovery came when I started accepting all of me. For me, I had to talk about the eating disorder, but even more important was to talk about the things that caused my shame in the first place: Sexual abuse. I formed a lot of beliefs about who I was and what I deserved because of what a couple of men did to me when I was only five.

    Thank you for this post!

  12. Gel,
    I think shame is a huge way that our EDs keep us stuck. Like you said, finding people we can trust and who don’t judge, but genuinely care and wish to understand is so crucial in the path to recovery. And your point about going public is a good one – it is definitely a personal decision and one that everyone needs to make for themselves. I had been in treatment for over a year when I went public with mine, though I was hardly in recovery at the time. However, it seemed like the time to do it since it was getting difficult to come up with “excuses” as to why I was absent for months at a time.
    I’m glad that you’re making progress and that you have trustworthy people in your life!
    Jess

  13. Jen,
    I completely agree that while yes, you need to talk about the eating disorder and the behaviours and cycles that are getting you stuck, facing shame is a huge factor in being able to achieve full recovery. I’m sorry you had that experience and I hope you’re continuing on your shame work so that you can realize how worthy and “enough” you are, even in the face of your past. Everyone is deserving of a full recovery!
    Jess

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