Shame and eating disorders

When shame and eating disorders meet, a vicious cycle can occur. 

The dictionary defines shame as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

According to author, researcher, and TED talk presenter Brené Brown, shame is ‘the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.’

Personally, I really like Brené’s definition. It really brings it home in describing shame as an intense experience that can impact us so profoundly.

When it comes to treating eating disorders, shame is a topic that comes up regularly in the therapy room. It plays an active role in so many people’s eating disorders because it is such an ‘intensely painful feeling’, and there is a basic instinct to run away from it and avoid it at all costs. Many people with eating disorders use their behaviors, such as over-eating, purging, restricting, or exercising, in an attempt to escape it. The thing is, it’s not very effective in the long run, especially if you are working at recovery.

Okay, so shame plays a role in my eating what?

Call it by name

The first thing to do is notice when you are experiencing shame and being able to say to yourself, “I am feeling shameful right now.” I understand that’s a lot easier said than done, especially if you’ve been avoiding shame at all costs for the last few years.

Focus on the here and now. Use mindfulness tools, such as these here which are adapted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual. Using mindfulness will allow you to be aware when the icky shame feeling starts.

Let it be

Don't make it more or less than it is. Sometimes we have a tendency to over-inflate or undervalue our emotions. Don’t do this. Imagine yourself surfing on the ocean and shame is the wave. It’ll start small and then grow bigger to its full height, but eventually, like all waves, it’ll crest and break. Be the surfer on this wave, and ride out the shame exactly as it is.

Don't use your behaviors

Sure, in the short term using behaviors is helpful, because it diminishes the ick you may experience with shame. But if your long term goal is to get rid of this eating disorder, using behaviors now could lead to more shame later.

Here’s an example of the way that works:

I start out feeling shameful about my body and how disgusting I think it is. I decide I shouldn’t eat because I am not worthy of food, and if I eat, I will obviously be even more loathsome than I am. However, because I’m human, eventually my body will need food, and because I have denied it for so long, I lose control and eat way more than I'd planned. Afterward, I feel immense bouts of shame about losing control and overeating. Once again, I am disgusted with myself and therefore decide not to eat in order to feel better. And the cycle starts again…

Now, that was just me choosing restricting and overeating as my behaviors. I could have put any behavior into that cycle, and it would have worked out just as well.

Deal with it effectively

Figuring out how to deal with shame and not use behaviors is going to be an important and personal decision for you. I love to look to ideas given by Brené Brown, since her work as a researcher has been focused on shame. To deal with shame effectively, Brené suggests you talk to yourself like you would a loved one. Reach out to someone you trust, and share your story. According to her, shame cannot survive being spoken.

If you are not familiar with Brené’s work, I encourage you to click the links below and watch her TED Talks and buy her books (Daring Greatly is my favorite).

Listening to Shame

The Power of Vulnerability

My go to tool for dealing with shame is talking it out with someone. A therapist is a great person to share your shame talk with. If you are in Vancouver, WA or Portland, OR and are in need of a safe, nonjudgmental counselor, please click the button below to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation.




Tamara Werner

Tamara Werner is a counselor, author, speaker, and activist. Her private practice, Get Centered Counseling in Vancouver WA, helps women with food and body issues learn to love themselves, their body, their life, and their relationships. Her life’s work is steeped in personal experience, having fifteen years in recovery for anorexia, in addition to being a breast cancer survivor. An up and coming force in the counseling community, Tamara has been published in a textbook called Treatment Strategies for Substance and Process Addictions, and has sat on a panel at the American Counseling Association Conference, where she spoke to her peers on strategies and tools to use with clients struggling with eating disorders. Having a deep, personal understanding of what it takes to recover from this condition, she seeks to be an example to those she treats, to let them know that recovery is possible.