by Christina Fisanick Greer, Ph.D.
Just hours old
Newborn nurses, picking up my round legs giggle: “Look, mama, her thighs are so big.”
Mom, clearly disgusted by my behavior: “You’re having another bowl of potato salad? You just ate two. How can you be that hungry?”
Dad, glowering at me as I walk past him into the kitchen, clutching a McDonald’s bag, “I thought you were on a diet? Is that your diet food?”
Gynecologist, who I turned to because my periods had disappeared, “You just need to put down the chips and get on the treadmill.”
Husband, watching me eat another pan of lactation cookies that I thought would increase my milk supply for my newborn: “You are eating again?”
Salesclerk, following me around the misses section: “Honey, I think the section you are looking for is upstairs and all the way in the back. We just got a bunch of plus size clothes in.”
The end result of all of these instances and the thousands more I have forgotten or not recorded is SHAME.
Psychologist Robert Caldwell speaks about shame brilliantly:
Shame is the inner experience of being “not wanted.” It is feeling worthless, rejected, cast-out. Guilt is believing that one has done something bad; shame is believing that one is bad. Shame is believing that one is not loved because one is not lovable. . . . Shame is so painful, so debilitating that persons develop a thousand coping strategies, conscious and unconscious, numbing and destructive, to avoid its tortures.
Food addicts suffer from shame on at least two levels: self-imposed shame and shame that comes from others. It is hard to say, really, which one hurts the most, but it is very clear from science that shame–no matter the source–is counterproductive to recovery. (In reality, we create our own shame, but to get to the heart of the issue, it is helpful to understand how shame develops.)
Shame Does Not Cure
Sometimes people who love food addicts say things that they think might motivate the addict to stop overeating or stop gaining weight. Friends have said to me, “I just don’t want you to suffer.” The problem? No amount of tough love in the world is going to help a food addict heal. For most of us, the shame (and bingeing that follows) becomes so deeply ingrained that we believe every negative word that has ever been said to us or about us.
Of course, family and friends should not enable food addicts by encouraging them to binge or to engage in other harmful behaviors, but shaming a food addict will lead to guilt. Guilt will lead to bingeing.
Part of the problem is that people who do not suffer from food addiction have a hard time understanding what it’s like to live each day overpowered by obsessive food thoughts and behaviors. If putting down the fork or going to the gym could bring lasting relief, food addicts would do it in a minute, but food addiction is a disease that is brain altering and life wasting.
How, then, can a food addict cope with shame from within and without? Given that shame is such a painful emotion for everyone, it is a good idea to figure out your shame history. What is your earliest memory of feeling ashamed? How did you cope with those feelings? How do you respond to shame now?
Mostly, though, humans avoid feeling shame at all costs. What do you do to avoid feeling shame? What are the consequences of those actions? What aspects of you do you hide because you want to avoid feeling shame?
What does it feel like in your body when you feel shame? Does your face burn? Do you feel sick to your stomach? Do you cry?
So, once you explore your shame a bit, try to imagine what it would be like to sit with shame. Do you think it will drive you crazy? Will you go mad and run into the street? Will you hurt yourself? Will you hurt others?
As scary as it sounds, the next time you feel shame, sit with it. Study it. Feel it. What is happening in your head? What is happening in your body? What actions do you want to take when you feel shame? What could you do that would help you cope with shame without harming yourself by bingeing?
Breaking the Shame/Binge Cycle
Identifying and understanding what makes us feel shame is essential to healing, but it is really just the beginning of the process. To more fully destroy the negative impact shame has on our lives, including our relationship with food, we must arrest it before it develops by accepting that we have no control over others and what they think of us, by exploring our real feelings that we are hiding with shame, and by learning to love ourselves.
Yes, self-love seems cliche these days, but truly loving ourselves means to divorce ourselves from shame. Feeling ashamed for hurting others is normal, but living with that shame for decades helps no one, including those we have hurt. Instead, make amends for your behavior. In fact, start with yourself. Forgive yourself for eating too much. Forgive yourself for not exercising this morning. Forgive yourself for your father walking out when you were five. Forgive yourself for not keeping a perfect home. Forgive yourself for not being someone else.
Refuse to allow shame to rule your life by caring for yourself. Take a hot bath, say no to invitations when you are too tired to go out, and go for a walk after dinner. Shame does not have to rule our lives. Let go of shame before it destroys you.
Christina Fisanick Greer, Ph.D. is an English professor and the author of more than 35 books, including The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder and The Optimistic Food Addict's Recovery Journal and Activity Book. In addition, she is the founder of OptimisticFoodAddict.com.