In my Food and Feelings Workbook I describe the purpose of shame as helping you to recognize that you’ve done something wrong or are not living up to your personal behavioral standards. Shame is such a powerful motivator that it often prods you to do things you would rather not do—eat though you fear gaining weight, stop yourself in the middle of a binge, refuse to purge in spite of feeling full. Without shame working as it should, none of us would recover from eating disorders!
However, shame also has a dark side—you live in its shadow when you feel ashamed of your eating behavior and do nothing to correct it. Or, more accurately, when by not acknowledging shame, you live in disappointment about yourself for not measuring up to the standards you know are healthy for you. To work effectively, shame must wash over you, give you a thorough soaking, and eventually get you to shake yourself off and move in a corrective direction. If you shut off the spigot of shame the moment you feel it, it will end up seeping through your consciousness but without sufficient potency to propel you to change your behavior.
Moreover, when you remain willfully blind to self-destructive eating behaviors and allow shame to keep filtering through your life, it diminishes any and every healthy behavior you engage in. It will overshadow everything, all the positive aspects of self, because it is insistent for your own good that you hear its message. When you live in the shadow of corrosive, pervasive shame, it takes on a life of its own, and can only be eradicated by facing it and altering your behavior in such a way that makes you proud.
If you want to come out from under the shadow of shame, you must look squarely at how you are abusing food and attempt to stop. If you need help facing your shameful eating patterns, find people who suffer similarly and share your vulnerabilities, seek out those who have overcome their food problems and ask them how they did it; find a therapist who will help detoxify your shame and make it bearable enough for you to talk about. Without taking action, no matter how adept you are at denying or minimizing your destructive behavior, shame will stay put and destroy your happiness.
Acknowledging self-harming behavior is the first step in eradicating shame. The second is giving up trying to fix your eating problem by yourself. If you’ve been struggling unsuccessfully with eating problems for more than six months, cannot sustain progress, and feel hopeless, frustrated, and depressed, it’s time to reach out, get help, and stop living in shame.
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