The Cycle of Shame and Disordered Eating

When examining our relationship with disordered eating we may need to continually ask ourselves, “what is the purpose behind this way of eating?” Beyond wanting to change our bodies or maintaining a sense of control is often a desire to be loved, to be cared for and to know that we are worthy. This desire is often unconscious and left unacknowledged. The hope is that by controlling our eating we can somehow feel less flawed and more adequate. This feeling that we are experiencing is shame and is rooted in a fear of inadequacy. The fear tells us that we are not worthy of love or belonging. Shame may arise in the form of a critical voice, or in feelings of defensiveness. It may arise through the bodily experience of 'fight or flight' that includes feeling tense, hot, nauseous, a sensation of tightness or suffocation, or the urge to hide, run away, curl into a ball, or lash out.

Our body shame is not often spoken about. We keep it hidden deep inside of us. By not externalizing our shame we don’t have to show our messy, imperfect selves. We turn to disordered eating and body improvement as a way to cope with shame and to give us proof that we are worthy and loveable. A plan is put in place to change our eating patterns and make the body a project. We may initially lose weight and see changes in our body. However, we may find that we still feel bad about ourselves. There may be the desire to change our body even more or we are plagued with anxiety about regaining the weight. Shame becomes intensified after we regain the weight, which occurs when the diet becomes unsustainable. And shame persists when we continue to cope with it through disordered means, at the expense of our mental health. Our worthiness becomes based on external conditions such as losing a certain amount of weight, being able to fit into a particular size of clothes, or having a socially prescribed body, which are, especially over the long term, impossible to control. The cycle of internalized shame and body dissatisfaction continues, leading to more dieting and more disordered eating.

The truth is that pursuing disordered eating does not take us down the path to cultivating self worth. There isn’t a set of rules around food that can teach us how to take care of ourselves or how to develop an intuitive and trusting relationship with our bodies. It is through self-compassion rather than self control that we learn how to cultivate a relationship with ourselves that is trustful and caring and which allows us to recognize and hold space for our own flawed, imperfect humanness. By cultivating self-compassion and building self worth we can let go of the rules around food and we may change the narrative that we aren’t good enough to pursue our dreams or live our life in the way we want.

In our culture we are often sold the idea that we can use shame as a motivator. It’s possible we may have had shaming body experiences from family members or friends who are “just trying to help.” Shaming people does not help them. When someone is shamed for their eating behavior, they engage in it even more, keeping them entrenched in the cycle of disordered eating. Self-compassion and self care are the antidotes to shame, self loathing, and fear. By caring for our bodies in a compassionate way we can move away from shame and towards self worth. We can move away from the cycle of disordered eating and towards living our lives in the most meaningful and fulfilling way possible.

I’m a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver, BC and I offer eating disorder counselling and intuitive eating coaching to help people reclaim their relationship with food and their body.

Lorilee Keller